It went from Good Friday to Black Saturday for thousands of New Mexico men’s basketball fans.
The news of Steve Alford’s departure from UNM to UCLA sent shock waves throughout the Albuquerque community, and the ripples were felt across the country by folks with New Mexico ties.
“I was surprised and shocked,” said Jack Fortner, president of UNM’s Board of Regents. “I’ve known that UCLA was looking at him; I’ve known that for several weeks. I just thought that once we committed to the 10-year (contract), that he’d be around.
“Never fault a guy for doing what’s best for his family, and no question this is what’s best for his family.”
Alford agreed to a new 10-year contract at UNM just more than a week ago. The next day the Lobos, a No. 3 seed, lost to 14th-seeded Harvard 68-62 in the NCAA Tournament. UNM was ranked 10th in the country and finished 29-6 this season.
Albuquerque Isotopes general manager John Traub, a 1987 UCLA graduate who grew up in Los Angeles, said: “You’ve got to love the basketball tradition there. John Wooden was always one of my idols. I think it’s a good hire for them. It’s certainly a coveted position.”
On Wednesday, Alford held his end-of-the-season news conference and got very defensive about the program, especially after being asked about national media criticism for the loss to Harvard. Lobo booster Brent DePonte made reference to the news conference.
“I’m just happy that he spent the time he did here,” he said. “The sad thing is, in New Mexico it’s harder to be successful than be a failure. I didn’t get to see the press conference, where they just ripped into him. Instead of thinking about how great it was, cutting down the nets, it was about one game that he didn’t win. That’s just New Mexico. … If they don’t hire Noodles (Lobo assistant Craig Neal) right away, it’s going to be a failure.”
Albuquerque attorney Mike Danoff, who coached Alford’s son, Bryce, at the AAU level, said he “was somewhat surprised by the timing and statements after the contract deal. But it’s part of the nature of the game. These guys are all trying to improve themselves, by way of salary and where they’re going.
“I coached his son, and I wish him and the family the best.”
Danoff’s son, Troy Danoff, graduated from La Cueva and UCLA, and was a standout football player at both schools.
“As a lifelong Lobo fan, I’m sorry to see him leave. … As a UCLA alum, I’m excited. I think he’s a great fit.”
A pair of former UNM basketball coaches also had a similar reaction to the Alford news.
“I knew UCLA had been looking at him, but I was surprised after I heard about the (UNM) contract,” said Ryan Miller, who was an assistant under Alford at New Mexico. “UCLA got a good man for job. He had success recruiting out West, and will continue to be able to recruit there. He’s shown the ability to win at a high level, and I expect nothing but more championships.”
Ritchie McKay, who was fired in 2007 after five years as UNM’s head coach and was replaced by Alford, said: “I certainly think Steve and his staff did a terrific job at UNM, from afar, in Virginia (where he is an assistant coach).
“It seemed like the Pit was as vibrant as ever. They reappeared on the national scene. I’m sure it was a little surprise for most fans, but for the time he was there, he really did a terrific job.”
Alford’s contract agreement was the reason most fans were surprised by Saturday’s news, but KKOB radio talk-show host Bob Clark said it shows how little contracts mean in the world of high-paid coaches.
“This is a clear reminder that in college athletics, coaching contracts are a one-way street,” Clark said. “They are worthless when it comes to protecting the school and the fans. There are a lot of college basketball coaches who are very skilled at talking out of both sides of their mouth. Steve Alford has always been one of the best. He used the word loyalty many times during his news conference last Wednesday. I guess that’s a one-way street, too.”
James Yodice and Ken Sickenger contributed to this story.