It has been over eight years since Steve Alford and Pierre Pierce had their final meeting in a professional setting. Yet, the former Iowa athlete continues to haunt the recently hired UCLA men's basketball coach perhaps as much as ever.
Since Alford was hired to lead the Bruin program earlier this month. He has been besieged with questions regarding his handling of Pierce, when Alford was the Hawkeyes' coach. On Thursday, Alford admitted that he didn't properly handle Pierce when the Chicago native initially got into legal trouble at Iowa.
“Over the past week, questions have arisen about my handling of an incident involving a charge of sexual assault made against a student-athlete in 2002, while I was coach of the University of Iowa men's basketball team,” Alford said in a release. “At that time, I instinctively and mistakenly came to his defense before knowing all the facts. I wanted to believe he was innocent, and in response to a media question, I publicly proclaimed his innocence before the legal system had run its course. This was inappropriate, insensitive and hurtful, especially to the young female victim involved, and I apologize for that.”
Pierce was first arrested during the summer of 2001 prior to his playing for the Hawkeye program.
According to Illinois court records, in June 2001, Pierce was arrested and had to post bail on charges of criminal defacement and mob action for allegedly spray-painting his high school. Pierce later has disputed his involvement in the matter.
Following a solid freshman season with the Hawkeyes, Pierce was arrested in October of 2002 during his sophomore year and charged with one count of third-degree sexual assault following an incident in the prior month where according to a report; a woman accused Pierce, an acquaintance, of performing unwanted sex acts on her at a party in Iowa City.
Alford suspended Pierce, but did allow him to remain in school and on scholarship, while he sat out the 2002-03 season. That decision caused Alford and the Hawkeye program problems then, and is still resonating with the coach today.
“It's important for me personally and professionally to make sure Chancellor Block, Athletic Director Dan Guerrero, all of my student-athletes and the entire UCLA community, including our fans, understand that today I would handle the situation much differently, with the appropriate regard and respect for the investigative process and those impacted by it,” Alford said.
Pierce eventually pleaded guilty to a lesser misdemeanor charge of assault causing injury in a sexual assault. He received no jail time, but received a deferred judgment, so the charge was erased from his record after he successfully completed a year of probation, counseling and 200 hours of community service, the requirements of the plea agreement.
The decision to allow Pierce to remain with the Iowa program resulted in petitions with over 3,000 signatures being filed in protest, as well as resolutions being passed urging students to boycott the men's basketball games and trying to convince season ticket holders to ask the athletic department for a refund or to transfer their tickets to another athletic team.
“I have learned and grown from that experience,” Alford explained, “and now understand that such proclamations can contribute to an atmosphere in which similar crimes go unreported and victims are not taken seriously.”
The matter quieted over time, but in January 2005, during Pierce's senior season, he got into trouble again.
There was a reported disturbance at an Iowa home of a woman that Pierce had been dating. The Iowa player allegedly choked the woman, threatened her with a knife and stripped her after an argument over her new boyfriend.
He was dismissed from the Hawkeye program by Alford shortly thereafter and ultimately served 332 days of a two-year sentence at an Iowa correctional facility.
Alford was being supported in the wake of his apology on Thursday by Bruin leadership.
“Everyone has regrets in their past, but acknowledging them and learning from them shows true character,” UCLA athletic director Dan Guerrero said. “I was aware of this situation when we hired Steve and concluded that although he made an error in judgment 11 years ago, he had learned and grown from that experience. Our evaluation was based on his entire career, both on and off the court, and that is what led us to make our decision that he was the right coach for UCLA.”