ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Steve Alford returned the swagger to University of New Mexico hoops; now, the question is if his legacy will be stained by the way he left
For six seasons, it played out on the cherry and silver screen like a basketball movie classic.
The Indiana born and bred basketball hero and Olympic Gold medalist once considered among the country’s fastest rising young coaches came to Albuquerque to resurrect a once proud program from dwindling attendance, NCAA imposed academic sanctions and that was coming off a last-place league finish.
On Steve Alford’s watch, Lobo fans returned in droves, forgiving and even reveling in the brazen and sometimes arrogant manner in which he constantly demanded of opponents, media and anyone else not showing his team the respect he felt it deserved.
Facilities improved, recruits took notice and Mountain West championship nets were being cut down with unprecedented frequency.
The story seemed to be headed toward an inevitable, and long awaited trip to the Sweet 16 for a program almost inexplicably lacking one.
But a triumphant Hollywood ending wasn’t in the script.
Oh, Hollywood certainly played a part in the ending of the Alford era at the University of New Mexico. Just not the one for which many had hoped.
Ten days after announcing an agreement on a new 10-year contract and nine days after one of the most shocking and deflating losses in program history, he was gone.
UCLA was the surprising landing spot for UNM’s leading man, leaving a shell-shocked fan base he continually praised as the best in college basketball to not only deal with the hangover of another early NCAA Tournament exit, but the prospect of starting over.
While his fingerprints remain all over the program as his childhood friend and longtime assistant Craig Neal was hired as his replacement, the reality of the Alford era is that it is now over, with only his legacy left unresolved.
In 2007, Steve Alford wasn’t looking to leave Iowa. He had a .589 winning percentage there and had been in three NCAA Tournaments.
But many Hawkeye faithful didn’t exactly put up a fight to keep him, either.
The legacy being written at Iowa was one of less-than-stellar postseason success, including a 2006 first-round loss as a No. 3 seed to No. 14 Northwestern State, and scrutiny of his very adamant defense of player Pierre Pierce, who had been accused of sexually assaulting a young woman.
Always one to stick up for his guys, Alford in 2002 did not stop at merely supporting his player while the facts were still coming to light. He clearly proclaimed Pierce’s innocence, in turn calling in to question the credibility of the accuser.
Pierce pleaded guilty to a lesser charge in the case and was not kicked off the team. Three years later, he pleaded guilty to assaulting another female with a knife and served 11 months in prison.
Upon Alford’s arrival at UNM, Albuquerque media barely touched on the Pierce case. Upon Alford’s arrival in Los Angeles this past April, however, L.A. and national media slammed him for it. Eventually, Alford issued an apology.
“I made a mistake. I think it was 12 years ago, in a press conference – at the Big Ten media day,” Alford told the Journal in April. “I did. I regret those remarks very, very much because that was never my intent to be disrespectful in any way, and I apologize for that comment.”
UNM athletic director Paul Krebs said he and former UNM president Dr. David Schmidly, a close friend of Alford who once hired Alford’s mentor Bobby Knight at Texas Tech, did their due diligence on the Pierce matter.
“The way I would characterize it is what we acquired from Iowa in coach Alford was a veteran coach who was seasoned, who had some trial and error along the way,” Krebs said.
In the spring of 2007, Alford cut short a golf trip to Sarasota, Fla., to meet with Krebs and Schmidly in Tulsa, Okla. With the encouragement of Knight and former Indiana teammate Dan Dakich, the head coach at Bowling Green when Krebs worked there, Alford decided to take the job at UNM.
“Coach Knight and Doc Schmidly were awfully influential in the entire thing,” Alford said. “I wasn’t really looking. It’s very similar to this position. I wasn’t looking. I still had five years left on my contract at Iowa.”
But the Lobos desperately needed to escape the mediocrity of the Ritchie McKay era, and Alford needed UNM to escape the brewing storm in Iowa City.
“I personally liked Ritchie,” Krebs said. “I thought he was a nice man, but we came to the conclusion that it would be necessary to part ways. The savvy of this media market, the intensity of the glare of being a head coach, I thought we were going to need somebody who could stand up to the press – I don’t mean stand up in the sense of not backing down, I mean in the sense of standing up to the scrutiny and the attention and really like the attention, like the focus. (Alford) wanted people to care about the program and didn’t shy away from high expectations.”
The departing McKay’s salary of about $550,000 was increased by more than $400,000 to sign Alford to an initial contract of $975,000.
“People might argue that a near-million dollar contract is way beyond the average for this state and for the Mountain West Conference,” Krebs wrote in a letter to the Journal on April 13, 2007. “Our response is we have no intention of being average. We want to compete with the best in the country. This investment in Lobo men’s basketball says we’ve readied ourselves to play at the highest level.”
‘Tightened things up’
The team Alford took over for the 2007-08 season was coming off a last-place finish in league play, and he would be starting one scholarship down due to NCAA-imposed sanctions for poor Academic Progress Rate performances under McKay.
A change in culture on and off the court was in order.
“We had night checks at midnight a lot,” former Lobo Daniel Faris remembered. “Coach (Craig) Neal would pop into the dorms sometimes to make sure everyone was there. And with the classes, especially the guys they knew were more prone to miss a class or two, those guys had a coach there checking on them at the beginning of class, the middle of class and the end of class to make sure they stayed the whole time. The expectations off the court changed. They tightened things up from Day One.”
Roman Martinez, who like Faris also played for McKay, said the change was evident from the first practices preparing for a May 2007 exhibition tour in the Bahamas.
“That was probably one of the toughest transitions – working out before and then him and coach Neal coming in and just kicking our butts in those workouts,” Martinez said. “It was different, for sure.”
Team star J.R. Giddens was not allowed on that Bahamas trip because of missed classes.
“You better take care of things in class,” Giddens told the Journal later in 2007.
The rolling four-year APR rate Alford inherited in 2007 was 894, well below the 925 minimum required by the NCAA to avoid sanctions. That average improved all six seasons under Alford, and this past spring the men’s basketball APR of 1,000 (for the season) and 985 (for four years) was higher than even Harvard.
“As much as I’m excited about all the wins and the championships that happened in those six years,” Alford said, “I think probably the most impressive thing in that time is we really changed the culture of New Mexico basketball academically.”
Everyone wanted a piece of “Stevie Wonder” early in his life in New Castle, Ind., where he played in front of 10,000 basketball-crazed fans a night with his dad as his high school coach,
While the pride he developed in Indiana playing for appreciative fans stuck with him, so too did the guard he put up around himself, with everyone wanting something from the basketball hero from an early age. He identified those loyal to him and would go to battle with anyone who challenged him or his team.
In a 2008 UNM win over Southern Miss, when a Golden Eagles player refused to shake hands afterward, Alford took it as a sign of disrespect. Television cameras caught him cursing out the opposing team as its players walked up the Pit ramp.
“Get the (expletive) out of here,” Alford barked. “I’ll light your (expletive) up.”
On Feb. 27, 2010, in the midst of UNM’s record 30-win season, Alford erupted again.
No. 10 UNM beat No. 11 BYU in Provo, Utah. Cougar guard Jonathan Tavernari refused postgame handshakes, leading to Alford, again caught on video, taunting the Cougar senior saying, “What are you going to do about it?” and shouting “You’re an (expletive).”
Alford was reprimanded by the league.
“We wanted to be the team to beat,” Martinez said. “With McKay and even the first two years with Alford, we couldn’t touch (BYU). … We finally were able to compete with them, and it was them not taking that too well. Coach was sticking up for us. That’s the way him and coach Neal have always been for us.”
Alford, who also had heated exchanges with media when he felt they were questioning him or his team, was caught on tape by ESPN in 2011 nearly coming to blows with the UTEP coaching staff prior to an NIT game in the Pit, an argument stemming over practice time on the court.
“If you proved your loyalty to them, they showed it back every day,” Faris said. “If coach Alford and coach Neal asked me to run through a wall for them right now, I’d try my best to break down that wall.”
The 2009-10 Lobos surprised the college basketball world with 30 wins, a league regular-season title, a Mountain West Conference player of the year in Darington Hobson, a top 10 national ranking and a No. 3 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
UNM used the same starting five of Dairese Gary, Phillip McDonald, Hobson, Martinez and A.J. Hardeman for all 35 games that season, but was clearly tired in March.
The Lobos lost in the MWC semifinals and, after struggling with 14 seed Montana in the opening game of the NCAA Tournament, were blasted in the next round by 11 seed Washington, 82-64.
“That was a very special team,” Alford said. “We had a couple of teams in that six years that I thought were capable of that Sweet 16, Elite Eight type. But you’ve got to get lucky. We were a basket away against Louisville (in 2012). (In 2010) we were a worn-down team against Washington. We were down to seven players that were healthy.”
In six seasons, Alford’s teams won at least a share of four regular season MWC titles, two league tournament titles, went to three NCAA Tournaments and three NITs.
He also had three Mountain West Players of the Year in Giddens, Hobson and Kendall Williams; and eventual NBA first-round draft picks Giddens and Tony Snell and second-round pick Hobson.
“We always thought that our strength was skill development and player development,” Alford said.
In all, about a dozen former Lobos have gone on to play professionally at some level after playing for Alford and Neal.
“I definitely would not be playing basketball today if it wasn’t for them,” said Faris, who recently signed a 3-year contract to continue playing in Lebanon.
The next level?
The Lobos were back to building up Sweet 16 expectations the past two seasons.
A Drew Gordon-led team fell a basket short against Final Four participant Louisville in the round of 32 of the 2012 NCAA Tournament.
In 2012-13, a junior- and sophomore-laden team thought to be a year away from reaching its peak started showing a never-say-die mentality early, with come-from-behind wins against Davidson and George Mason in their first three games.
A Paradise Jam tournament win in the U.S. Virgin Islands landed the team in the AP Top 25 in November. A Dec. 27 win over a Top-10 Cincinnati team on the road seemed to be the real wake-up call for the rest of the country.
By Feb. 4, with his team well on its way to winning another league title, Alford tried to preemptively shoot down the sure-to-come job rumors his team’s success would bring.
“One of the things you don’t usually mess with is ‘happy’,” Alford said. “… Once I knew I wanted to get into coaching, being in a basketball place that understands it and appreciates it and supports it would mean a great deal. I found that here.”
When reporters questioned UNM’s No. 2 RPI ranking, Alford took it as a slap in the face, upping the ante by saying his team deserved a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament – something the Lobos tried to validate by winning the regular season with two games to go in the season and ripping through the MWC Tournament in front of packed houses including thousands of Lobo fans in Las Vegas, Nev.
The Lobos settled for a No. 3 seed and a pairing against lightly regarded 14 seed Harvard. Lobo fans were already anticipating a round of 32 meeting with old Western Athletic Conference rival Arizona for that long-awaited Sweet 16 berth.
On the eve of the Harvard game, Krebs and Alford announced they had come to an agreement on a new 10-year contract that was to keep Alford in Albuquerque – a contract that while not yet signed would go into effect April 1.
“We want him to be here at the University of New Mexico a long time,” Krebs then said.
Then, a funny thing happened to the Lobos on the way to the Sweet 16.
Harvard’s Laurent Rivart hit five 3-pointers, and guard Wesley Saunders scored 18 points as the Crimson, a team that had never won an NCAA Tournament game, shocked the Lobos 68-62.
“There were so many firsts for that team,” Alford said. “I really do wish it could have been the first to get to the Sweet 16.”
Ten days after he announced his 10-year contract agreement and nine days after one of the worst losses in the program’s history, Alford was gone.
“It’s UCLA,” Alford explained as to why he was leaving UNM.
The Bruins offered Alford a seven year deal worth $2.6 million per season. He has a mirrored buyout clause that will pay him $10.4 million if he is fired before April 30, 2016, or owe the school that amount if he leaves before then.
His contract at UNM had a $200,000 buyout. The buyout in his new 10-year contract he agreed to but had not yet signed was $1 million starting April 1.
UNM’s general counsel sent a demand letter for the new contract’s buyout. Alford said he’d pay his old buyout. They eventually agreed on Alford paying $300,000 – significantly lower than the $1 million UNM had sought.
The breakup got ugly with lawyers involved.
Alford, in a letter to fans published in the Journal , thanked fans.
“The decision to leave for UCLA is simply an opportunity for my family I could never imagine,” he wrote. “… Thank you New Mexico for making our lives better. There will be no greater Lobo fans in the Los Angeles area than the Alfords.”
Krebs said the end of the Alford era doesn’t sour his opinion of the past six seasons.
“I think we paid a heavy price financially,” Krebs said. “But when you look at it, we were a basketball program that was in decline. Our attendance was in decline. Our status in the conference was declining. We had lost our status. What he brought us was national recognition. … It became the hot ticket again and the focus of the community, the state. Yes. I think we more than got our money’s worth.”
Alford, said he will always take pride in the accomplishments of his era, but acknowledges it certainly didn’t end the way he had hoped.
“Timing and all that sort of stuff, do I wish it could have been different? Yes,” Alford said. “But I can’t control that.”