KERRY HUBARTT COLUMN: UCLA Coach Steve Alford may have been fired, but he’s no failure

Kerry Hubartt

Whatever you think of Steve Alford as a coach, his place in basketball history has made Indiana proud. Alford was fired last week in his sixth season as coach of one of the most storied college basketball teams in the country, UCLA.

What has struck me through Alford’s career is the parallel to a different time and a different Hoosier icon who blazed a trail of triumph from the earliest days of Indiana basketball — John Wooden. Wooden, like Alford, was an Indiana boy who became a high school and college basketball star. He then became a coaching legend, who ended his career at UCLA, winning an all-time record 10 national championships.

But Coach Alford never achieved a national championship, and his lack of expected success with the Bruins in Los Angeles led to his current unemployment.

Besides both reaching a coaching pinnacle at UCLA, more impressive parallels are their successes as players and the foundation of their shared Christian faith that became the No. 1 priority in their lives. Wooden was born in Hall, Ind., in 1910. His family moved to Martinsville when Wooden was 14, and he went on to lead his high school team to the 1927 Indiana state tournament championship. He was selected to the all-state team three times.

Wooden went on to Purdue University in 1928. In his senior season the Boilermakers were retroactively recognized as the national champion (there was not yet an NCAA Tournament). While at Purdue, Wooden, a 5-10 guard, was all-Big Ten from 1930-32 and was the first player to be named a consensus All-American three times.

Alford was born in Franklin, Ind., in 1964. He played high school basketball for his father, Sam, at New Castle from 1979-83. As a senior, Alford averaged 37.7 points per game and was named Indiana’s Mr. Basketball. His team made it to the state tournament quarterfinals, losing to Connersville.

What endeared him to us all was his four years as a player at Indiana University under Coach Bob Knight. A 6-2 guard, he led the 1987 Hoosiers to IU’s fifth national championship, beating Syracuse. He led the Knight-coached U.S. Olympic team to a gold medal in 1984. Alford became the Hoosiers’ all-time leading scorer with 2,438 points and was the first player to be named the team’s MVP four times. He was first-team all-Big Ten his last three years, including Big Ten MVP in 1987. He was also first-team consensus All-American in 1986 and 1987.

Like Wooden, Alford went on to play professionally after college. Wooden played with the Indianapolis Kautskys, Whiting Ciesar All-Americans and Hammond Ciesar All-Americans while he taught and coached high school basketball. Alford was drafted by the Dallas Mavericks and retired after four seasons.

As for coaching, Wooden followed several years as a high school coach by taking the head coach job at Indiana State Teachers College (now Indiana State) from 1946-1948. From there he went to UCLA, where he coached from 1948-1975, winning NCAA championships in 1964, 1965, 1967, 1968, 1969, 1970, 1971, 1972, 1973 and 1975.

Wooden, who died in 2010 at age 99, was named Associated Press College Coach of the Year five times. His overall college coaching record was 664-162.

Alford began his coaching career at Division III Manchester College, southwest of Fort Wayne. He stayed from 1991-1995, winning conference titles his last two seasons. His team advanced to the Division III championship game in 1995, placing second in the nation after suffering its first defeat in 32 games. Alford was named Indiana Collegiate Conference Coach of the Year in 1993, 1994 and 1995.From Manchester, Alford went on to coach at Southwest Missouri State from 1995-1999, where his team won two Heartland Conference Tournament championships. His team advanced to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament in 1999, losing to Duke.

Iowa lured Alford back to the Big Ten that year, where he coached until 2007, winning two Big Ten Tournament championships, resigning after his final season to accept the job at the University of New Mexico. At New Mexico, he coached from 2007-2013, where he had his greatest successes. He won four Mountain West Conference regular-season championships and two MWC Tournament titles and was named conference coach of the year in his second season.

After agreeing to a 10-year contract extension, however, Alford accepted an offer from UCLA in 2013, where he remained until the embarrassing 73-58 loss at home to Liberty University on Dec. 29.

UCLA had begun this season ranked No. 17 in the AP poll and won its first four games. Then the Bruins lost six of the next nine. Alford’s overall coaching record has been 587-298.

Much has already been written about Alford’s unsuccessful tenure at UCLA, and there are many critics of his coaching career, but nothing can diminish the mark he has made in the basketball history books and the hearts of Hoosier basketball fans.

Kerry Hubartt is former editor of The News-Sentinel.