Steve Alford insists he wasn’t looking to leave New Mexico.
But when UCLA – the school where one of Alford’s boyhood basketball idols and fellow Indiana native John Wooden won 10 national titles – comes calling, you pick up the phone.
The 48-year-old Alford, after a teary and emotional meeting with players Saturday morning, announced during a noon news conference he is leaving the Lobos basketball program after six seasons to accept the head coaching job at UCLA.
The news stunned fans, players, assistant coaches and UNM administration. Just 10 days ago, the school had announced a 10 year agreement with Alford that would up his base salary by a quarter-million dollars.
“It was shocking,” UNM fan Ron Brown of Albuquerque said, seemingly summing up the feelings of many fans. “I didn’t think he would leave. I thought he would stay, because his kid was coming to play. I think it’s a poor move on his part. I think New Mexico is a better place for him than UCLA.”
Scott Creagan, former president of the Lobo Club and the New Mexico Alumni Lettermen, added, “Everybody is upset because he did a wonderful job here. It’s disappointing for the team, but the program is on the rise. Fans are back. Merchandise sales are up. Everything is going great.”
Alford called it a “leap of faith” and also “the toughest decision that I’ve had to make, maybe ever.”
“That’s because of how much I love this place,” he said. “UNM, Albuquerque, New Mexico, the fans, the entire set up has been amazing. It really came down to making a decision to have an opportunity to go to UCLA. It’s the pinnacle of college basketball. It’s one of those lifetime opportunities tha t is really, really difficult to pass up.”
UCLA athletic director Dan Guerrero said on Saturday that the Alford deal is seven years, an average of $2.6 million per year, along with a $200,000 signing bonus.
It’s significantly higher than UNM’s new contract that had a base salary in the $1.3 million range that included $700,000 in possible performance incentives.
UNM has named associated head coach Craig Neal as interim head coach, and he has Alford’s endorsement to get the Lobos job on a permanent basis. Alex Kirk, the 7-foot center who just completed his sophomore season at UNM, told the Journal that he would likely transfer if Neal doesn’t get the job, and maybe even to UCLA to follow Alford.
UNM athletic director Paul Krebs said he has not put a specific timetable on when a permanent coach will be hired, but he said there is a “self-imposed urgency” to get it done quickly without rushing the decision. He added he has “challenged” Neal to provide stability with the program in the meantime, including with current and recruited players.
On the eve of UNM’s 68-62 loss to 14 seed Harvard in the Lobos first game of the NCAA Tournament in Salt Lake City, Alford and Krebs announced the agreement on the new 10-year contract that was to take effect April 1.
That agreement included a $1 million buyout clause if Alford terminated it early. On Saturday, neither Krebs nor Alford seemed to know for sure what lawyers would make of the signed agreement – a term sheet, not the actual contract – between the two sides and how that would affect the buyout, which Alford said Wednesday was $150,000 this past season.
“There was a letter of agreement signed,” Krebs said. “Is that a contract? … One way or another, there is a buyout. How much that is … I can’t tell what that number is.”
Alford added when addressing Los Angeles and national media on a UCLA-run conference call, “I know it’s not April 1st yet. I’m not a lawyer. I’m just an Indiana grad that likes basketball. The lawyers will have to get together and figure that out.”
UNM President Robert Frank told the Journal that he was informed early Saturday morning by Krebs of Alford’s decision.
“I was surprised, because we just went through a complicated series of conversations with him to keep him here,” Frank said. “… I guess it’s fair to say we’re disappointed he’s leaving the university. We thought he was going to stay.”
Frank said he had no preliminary thoughts on where UNM should look for a successor.
Regent Jamie Koch, who is vice president of the board, said he was “100 percent surprised.”
“That’s the problem that universities have today in athletics when they have a very, very successful coach. … You have to continue to reward those coaches because other universities that are looking, if they want your coach, they’re gonna take him,” Koch said.
Alford has a career record of 463-234. He has a six-season record at UNM of 155-52 including four Mountain West Conference regular season titles, two Mountain West Tournament championships and three NCAA Tournament appearances. In two of those NCAA Tournaments, the Lobos came in as a Top 10 team with a No. 3 seed.
The Lobos program has received unprecedented national media attention under Alford and underwent facility upgrades that has put the program on par with to top programs in the West.
“The one thing we weren’t able to do in six years was become the first Lobo team to make it to the Sweet 16,” Alford acknowledged. “Hopefully the next guy that comes in here will be able to do that.”
UCLA’s job opened one week ago when it fired Ben Howland, who led the Bruins to the Pac-12 regular season championship this season and a second-round exit from the NCAA Tournament.
Alford emphasized he wasn’t looking for a new job, but UCLA approached him in the past 48 hours and that led to an agonizing decision.
“I gave a lot to stay here,” Alford said on Wednesday. “I took away incentives that I’ve made for five consecutive years. Six consecutive years. I took those out of my contract. I think it was a pretty big commitment, not only on the school’s part, but it was a pretty big commitment on my part especially what’s out there and the opportunities that are out there to show my loyalty to UNM, and how much I appreciate UNM and how much I want to continue to build this thing.”
Joining Alford in the move to Westwood will be his family – wife Tanya, daughter Kayla (a student at La Cueva High School) and sons Kory (a redshirt freshman on the Lobos this season) and Bryce (a senior at La Cueva who has signed a national letter of intent to play at UNM).
It is unclear what status Kory and Bryce Alford will have at UCLA – whether as scholarship players or walk-ons. Krebs said he isn’t sure what the process is for allowing Bryce Alford to get out of his letter of intent with UNM, “but we won’t stand in the way of allowing whatever needs to happen there, happen.”
Journal staff writers Rick Wright, Astrid Galvan and The Associated Press contributed to this report.
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal