Steve Alford lived in his own world -- one that apparently didn't include UCLA

ByMyron Medcalf ESPN logo
Monday, December 31, 2018

Steve Alford is gone.

For real this time.

The polarizing five-and-a-half year UCLAcoach survived "Fire Alford!" banners and petitions after subpar seasons several times. His three Sweet 16 runs helped him hold his job amid perennial and public criticism from the program's key supporters. His stacked recruiting classes (three top-five squads from 2016 to 2018, per ESPN's class rankings) helped keep him afloat, too.

But athletic director Dan Guerrero at last ended Alford's disappointing tenure Monday, less than 48 hours after Saturday's 15-point home loss to Liberty. He'll leave campus with more than $4.4 million, a sum that includes the remaining percentage of his $2.6 million salary ($858,000) and the $3.6 million buyout UCLA is contractually obligated to pay him.

His time at UCLA will be remembered as a failure -- especially in the immediate, as Alford lost six of UCLA's last nine games in perhaps the program's most frustrating stretch in the post-John Wooden era.

Alford, who was hired from New Mexico in 2013, had five-star recruits. He had seven players who were picked in the first round of their respective NBA drafts. Coaches trapped in the FBI's bribery investigation risked their careers to sign the brand of talent Alford welcomed to Westwood each year.

But he never advanced past the Sweet 16, or finished higher than second place in the Pac-12. And last year on a trip to China, three players -- including LiAngelo Ball, Lonzo's brother -- caused an international incident that warranted President Donald Trump's apparent intervention after they were accused of shoplifting.

Lest we forget, Guerrero fired Ben Howland, who won four conference titles and reached the Final Four three times. Alford never came close to matching Howland's achievements at UCLA.

But Alford, with the help of an elite recruiting class, started this season with a final chance to rejuvenate the program and save his job. The Bruins struggled early instead.

I was in Chicago for Alford's last significant loss on a national stage. Earlier this month at the United Center, the Bruins looked lost against Ohio State in the CBS Sports Classic. The Buckeyes, who won 80-66, couldn't find the rim in the first half, but they were facing a team that couldn't handle the basic elements of basketball.

The Bruins seemed confused in a zone. They didn't run plays on offense, just isolation situations. They had no fire. So after the game, I asked Alford how he was handling criticism from the program's supporters.

"There's no issue with that with me," Alford said. "I just do my job as well as I possibly can, and that's what I do every day. I'm a man of God, so I've got an audience of one. ... And at the end of the day, if I know that I've prepared and worked hard, then that's what matters to me."

It was an odd response that reminded me of my trip to see Alford in Los Angeles two years ago.

In 2016, he appeared calm in his spacious office months after a booster had flown a "Fire Alford!" banner over the sun-kissed campus. More than 1,000 fans had signed a petition expressing the same sentiment. Alford's appeasement to it all was to return on a one-year extension he'd previously signed and write an apologetic letter to fans.

At the time, the arrival of Lonzo Ball had simmered some of the noise around Alford. He told me about the great life he'd manufactured in Los Angeles. His son Bryce Alford was the team's leading scorer. Another son, Kory Alford, had a job as a video coordinator with the program.

The elder Alford had picked up golf as a hobby during his brief NBA career. He gushed about the golf courses that surrounded his home in Calabasas, a neighborhood that houses wealthy celebrities like the Kardashians and Justin Bieber. It was an escape from the drama, he told me.

"I don't stay up until 3, 4, 5 in the morning worrying about this or worrying about that," Alford told me then.

Key supporters of the program had a different perspective. To them, Alford was aloof and distant. They questioned his commitment to the storied program and its legacy. They didn't think he cared about anyone more than he cared about himself.

Those same folks told ESPN on Sunday they'd heard the rumblings of Alford's ouster but couldn't guarantee anything -- after all, they'd previously walked this road with Guerrero, who'd balked in the past.

The athletic director's time at UCLA is tied to Alford's. Alford's initial contract, proffered by Guerrero, included a $10.4 million buyout that made firing him more difficult in those tumultuous early seasons.

But had someone who'd left New Mexico days after signing a 10-year extension earned that security? Had a coach who wasn't UCLA's first choice even earned the job off a strong run at New Mexico?

After firing Howland, UCLA reportedly had interest in Brad Stevens (who was then at Butler), Shaka Smart and Gregg Marshall. The Bruins ended up with Alford.

At Iowa, Alford never reached the second weekend of the NCAA tournament and just once finished higher than fourth in the Big Ten. He also coached Pierre Pierce, who was charged with the rape of a student-athlete during his time with the Hawkeyes. Alford adamantly supported Pierce and the arrangement of a "prayer meeting" for the Iowa athlete and his victim.

Pierce pleaded guilty to lesser charges and regained his spot on the team, despite public pleas from concerned students who wanted him banned from campus.

In 2005, Alford finally booted Pierce, who faced a slate of charges stemming from a violent incident with an ex-girlfriend. One of those charges included "assault with an intent to commit sexual abuse."

In his first news conference at UCLA in 2013, Alford told reporters he'd done "everything I was supposed" to do. He later apologized for those comments.

But Alford too often chose defensive, deflective responses to those who questioned him.

He lacked self-awareness. The coach he saw in the mirror had never been the coach many around the program had observed.

After the loss to Ohio State this season, Alford was sitting in a vat of boiling water -- his seat had never been hotter than it was in that moment. But he pretended that he didn't feel the heat. Instead, he praised his team's growth.

Growth? The team was in the middle of a 3-6 stretch.

He added that he was disappointed in the product.

OK -- then what's the plan to fix it?

And at the end of the news conference, just as he'd done when he faced questions about his handling of Pierce, he put up his shield and threw down his faith card.

"I have," he said, "an audience of one."

That's fine. But in Alford's mind, it seems, he's the only one who answers to God. He's the only one who understood the challenges associated with his program, and anyone who doubted him could go to hell. That's how some of the folks around the program who tried to get close to him felt.

"Three years later than he should have been shown the door," one source close to the program told ESPN after Alford's firing.

Against Liberty on Saturday at Pauley Pavilion, the announced attendance was 7,456, just over 50 percent capacity for the venue.

Alford is not the first coach to lose a good job after falling short of expectations.

And he's also not the first leader who decided to coach within his own world, one that seemed only to include his faith, his family and his boss -- and left little room for anyone else, including, apparently, UCLA.