Former UNM coach has tough act to follow at UCLA
From 1964 to 1975, UCLA became the greatest dynasty in the history of college basketball. It won 10 NCAA championships in 12 years.
Only a triumph by Texas Western (now UTEP) in 1966 stopped the UCLA machine from winning 10 national titles in succession.
But the modern UCLA has a basketball program that is in disarray.
Alford has been a wonderful story since John Feinstein immortalized him in "A Season on the Brink," a book that chronicled the 1985-86 season with Bob Knight and his Indiana University team. No player handled Knight's tirades and mood swings better than Alford. No player was tougher than Alford.
On paper, Alford has always looked like he would be a terrific coach. He played for Knight in college and on the 1984 Olympic team. Alford reached the NBA without having the typical physical talent necessary to make it.
Then he started small as a coach. His first job was at Manchester College, a Division III school in his native Indiana. He moved up to Southwest Missouri State and then back to the Big Ten, at Iowa.
In a first-class conference, Alford was a third-rate coach. The recruiting wars and the high level of play week after week against Indiana, Michigan State, Purdue and Illinois exposed his weaknesses in the Big Ten.
Alford got new life at New Mexico. His record was much better than at Iowa, but the expectations were not so high and the competition not nearly as tough. Winning 25 games at UNM is like winning 17 at Iowa.
Alford landed at UNM because of his failings at Iowa.
Howland, right, coached at Northern Arizona and Pitt before UCLA hired him 10 years ago. He built winners everywhere, turning Pitt from a football school to a basketball power in the Big East.
Howland can coach rings around Alford, and has been doing so for almost 20 years. He took the Bruins to the Final Four three times in succession, from 2006-08.
But this year, Howland's club was clobbered by an average Minnesota team in the tournament's first round. That was church for a coach who deserved better.
As for Alford, he capped a conference championship this year with a first-round loss to Harvard in the NCAA tournament.
Harvard was perhaps the brightest club but nowhere close to the best. An Ivy League team that lost its two best players to a cheating scandal still handled an Alford-coached club with relative ease.
We look for New Mexico to replace Alford with an up-and-comer who will do just as well.
USC, also looking for a coach, would be smart to hire Howland. He would school Alford twice a year in conference games, and those two annual victories would be more delicious than anything else the regular season could offer.
Personality clashes often have more to do with a coach's demise than performance. That was Howland's story at UCLA.
He achieved far more at a high level than Alford ever did against lesser competition at New Mexico. Yet the UCLA athletic director rates Alford higher than Howland. It is illogical, but it is also the way jaded administrators conduct themselves.
UCLA is so desperate to return to the Final Four that it traded down, making a change that will look unwise unless Alford can win at least four games in the same NCAA tournament -- something he has never come close to doing.
New Mexico legislators fawned over Alford when he stopped by the Capitol last winter. He was not what they hoped he would be, a coach who would keep UNM's profile high, season after season.
Nobody can blame Alford for jumping to the bigger pond that is UCLA. But he will find sharks there, not the minnows that helped make him big stuff in New Mexico.
The pressure on Alford will be immense at UCLA. In two or three years, the Bruins could again be looking for a basketball coach.
Here's hoping that Howland will be working across town at USC, where he can help show Alford the ways of the Pacific 12 Conference.