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UCLA 'changed whole landscape'

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Ex-coach thanks New Mexico for time spent here

The dust is starting to settle from the whirlwind of change that blindsided Lobos basketball three weeks ago.

The “Noodles” era has begun with Craig Neal now fully entrenched as the program’s new head coach, but many fans haven’t yet come to reconcile feelings created by the abrupt parting of ways with his predecessor.

University of New Mexico head basketball coach Steve Alford announces that he is leaving the Lobos to take over UCLA's basketball program, Saturday, March 30, 2013, at The Pit in Albuquerque, N.M. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

University of New Mexico head basketball coach Steve Alford announces that he is leaving the Lobos to take over UCLA’s basketball program, Saturday, March 30, 2013, at The Pit in Albuquerque, N.M. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

Since taking the job at UCLA, Steve Alford has been taking a beating from many New Mexico fans about loyalty, and from California and national media about issues dating back to his coaching position at the University of Iowa.

While in Albuquerque this week for an awards banquet for his son, Alford drafted a handwritten letter (published as a companion piece to this article at bottom) thanking New Mexico fans.

And in a wide-ranging interview with the Journal on Wednesday, he addressed questions ranging from his decision to leave Loboland to his reception at UCLA.

Thanks to UNM fans

In the letter, Alford said he and his family will forever be grateful for their six years in Albuquerque.

“Thank you New Mexico for making our lives better,” he wrote. “There will be no greater Lobo fans in the Los Angeles area than the Alfords.”

While that may be true, there are some Lobo fans left behind who have not yet forgiven Alford – and maybe never will – for the timing of his resignation (announced 12 days after he signed a term sheet agreeing to a new 10-year contract) and for his repeated declarations of his love for the fans.

“We know that with everything we’ve done over a six-year period that there’s some frustration,” Alford said. “The timing was obviously difficult. I had just agreed to a 10-year extension, then all of a sudden UCLA calls and it just changed the whole landscape. So I understand that. I totally get that.”

He added that he and his family have received plenty of support and well-wishes in the past two weeks from Lobo fans and friends around the state.

The Alfords have not begun looking for a house in Los Angeles yet and will still be based – minus Dad, of course – in Albuquerque for the near future, while sons Kory (UNM) and Bryce (La Cueva High School) and daughter Kayla (also at La Cueva) wrap up the school year.

Ticket price tiff

Alford and UNM athletic director Paul Krebs announced March 20 – the day prior to the team’s NCAA Tournament loss to Harvard – the agreement for a new 10-year contract (signed March 18).

Later that evening, Krebs told the Journal the raise Alford was to receive likely would be funded at least in part through increased ticket and concession prices.

It was a public announcement that didn’t sit well with Alford.

“It was agreed upon that if ticket prices and concessions and things were going to be raised in the future, that would be brought up at a different time,” Alford said. “… It was the timing. It would be discussed at a later date about the ticket pricing and the other stuff, so there was no need for any kind of announcement the day of the contract being announced.”

Krebs said Wednesday that he wants to focus on the future of Lobo basketball rather than its past, but does have a different take on the matter than Alford.

“Steve’s gone and my focus is on Craig, and I’m not interested in reliving a lot of history, but he is not correct,” Krebs told the Journal. “It was made incredibly clear during the negotiations about the ticket price increase. We never talked about how or when it would be rolled out, but we made it very clear.”

Krebs and UNM have not finalized whether ticket and concession prices will still increase this offseason now that Alford and his roughly $1.25 million base salary and compensation package have been replaced by Neal and his $750,000 one (both before incentives).

As for the size of the buyout to be paid to UNM, both Krebs and Alford said they will leave any talk of that to lawyers. UNM contends it is owed $1 million, while Alford has said that he felt he was still under the old contract, with a buyout of $150,000.

Pierre Pierce

One of the first questions Alford faced when he took the UCLA job was regarding his handling of a sexual assault case against his former Iowa Hawkeye player Pierre Pierce in 2002. His answer was an abrupt, ” I did what I was told to do.”

Alford last week issued an apology, through a prepared release issued by UCLA, for his handling of the case in which Alford was emphatic years ago in proclaiming Pierce’s innocence. He now says his comments were insensitive and hurtful to the victim, especially when not knowing all the facts. They also made it more difficult, Alford said, for future victims to come forward with such allegations.

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. That incident led to his dismissal from the team.

“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. “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.”

Alford’s apology came after Los Angeles, Iowa and national media skewered him for him saying at his UCLA introductory news conference that he just did what he was told to do by Iowa officials.

Asked whether he regrets not apologizing earlier, he said that’s not what bothers him most.

“I just wish I could have went back 12 years ago and changed what took place,” Alford said.

While the Pierce situation was reported by both the Journal and the now shuttered Albuquerque Tribune at the time of his 2007 hiring, it was not scrutinized during his six years at UNM to the degree it was in just one week at UCLA.

Krebs said UNM was well aware of the issue when Alford was hired, however.

“It’s safe to say that we vetted Steve’s background, and we discussed the issue with Steve when he was hired,” Krebs said Wednesday.

Neal-Alford bond

Alford said he is happy Neal got the UNM job and wasn’t surprised his close friend choked up at his introductory news conference as UNM’s new coach when talking about missing the Alford kids – including Kory, who is on scholarship and still a member of the Lobos team until the end of this semester at UNM.

“We’re just very attached,” Alford said. “We’re obviously attached to the Neal family and to the whole staff, as well. They’ve all been a huge part of that.”

UCLA reception

Asked about the media and fan reception since being hired at UCLA, Alford focused more on the internal welcome he’s received at UCLA as opposed to commenting on the media coverage, which has been largely critical.

“It’s been terrific,” Alford said of the UCLA administration, boosters and players. “My bosses have been terrific. The community has been great. … The neat thing about UCLA is everybody is together right there on the campus, from coaches to the student population and everything else.”

Since he was hired, he’s assembled a coaching staff that includes 10-year UNM assistant coach Duane Broussard and has largely focused on quickly establishing relationships with current Bruins players and recruits, three of whom signed with former coach Ben Howland in the fall and have held firm with UCLA, Alford said.

“Most of our recruiting has been with the six guys there and the three guys signed in the fall, in addition to Bryce and Kory,” Alford said. “Just making sure everything was good. Now most of our (recruiting) efforts are in the 2014 class.”

One player the Bruins won’t have back is Shabazz Muhammad, who declared for the NBA draft after his freshman season this year at UCLA.

“We’ve known Shabazz is a lottery pick, and I knew probably before I was even hired at UCLA, before I was even thinking about UCLA, that Shabazz was probably leaving school,” Alford said.

UCLA vs. UNM?

As for whether the Lobos and Bruins may one day meet on the basketball court, it may happen, just not anytime in the next few seasons.

“Obviously that would be a lot of fun for us,” Alford said. “I don’t know that I look forward to standing next to Snake (Mark Tichenor, UNM “superfan”) at the other end of the bench. That doesn’t seem real appealing to me. But I want coach Neal to put his personality on this thing and move it forward the way he thinks it should move forward.”

LOBOS LINKS: Roster | Schedule/Results | Geoff Grammer’s blog

Letter From Alford

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is an open letter to UNM fans submitted by Steve Alford as a Letter to the Editor submitted to the Journal.

I would like to take this opportunity to say “thank you” to UNM, the Albuquerque community, and all the fans throughout New Mexico.

Six years ago our family arrived in Albuquerque not knowing a single person. There was a lot of uncertainty to what was in store for our future. I simply cannot say thank you enough for all the great people of New Mexico. We have been treated so kindly and have been given unbelievable support. It’s been a community, an institution in UNM, and a state our family will have very fond memories of.

I love UNM, the Albuquerque community, and the great state of New Mexico. The decision to leave for UCLA is simply an opportunity for my family I could never imagine. The Alford family will always have a deep appreciation for our six years here. There have been so many people touch our lives in such a positive way.

Thank you New Mexico for making our lives better. There will be no greater Lobo fans in the Los Angeles area than the Alfords.

We are New Mexico!

— Steve Alford & Family

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