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Is Any Coach Capable of Bringing UCLA Back to Its Former Glory?

The Bruins are looking for a new head coach after firing Steve Alford. They can’t afford to get this next hire wrong. The future of the program might be at stake.

Steve Alford Elias Stein/Getty Images

On December 29, a 15-point home loss to Liberty capped off a humiliating four-game losing streak for UCLA. Two days later, Bruins athletic director Dan Guerrero finally ended the Steve Alford era in Westwood. For however many die-hard Bruins fans remain at this point, Alford’s firing was a long time coming. He was far from a slam-dunk hire when UCLA brought him on in March 2013, and not just because he was UCLA’s third choice behind Brad Stevens and Shaka Smart. Alford’s handling of Pierre Pierce’s arrest for sexual assault in 2002, while he was the head coach at Iowa, was still on the forefront of many people’s minds. Alford publicly defended Pierce and allowed him to remain on Iowa’s team for three more seasons after Pierce pleaded guilty to a lesser charge. (Alford dismissed Pierce from the team in 2005 after his arrest for assaulting another woman. Pierce pleaded guilty to assault with intent to commit sexual abuse, third-degree burglary, criminal mischief, and false imprisonment, and served an 11-month prison sentence). There was also Alford’s so-so résumé, including a .651 winning percentage and just one career Sweet 16 appearance in 18 years as a head coach. And there was the fact he accepted the UCLA job just days after signing a 10-year extension at New Mexico, which wasn’t the worst thing in the world on its own, but it didn’t help Alford score any points in the character department.

With that in mind, it isn’t much of a surprise that Alford’s time in Los Angeles came to an end 13 games into his sixth season. What is a bit of a surprise, though, is the amount of success that he had during that time. After all, Alford is on a short list of coaches who have made three Sweet 16s in the past five seasons, and virtually every coach joining him on that list is either a current or future Hall of Famer. UCLA had seven first-round NBA draft picks in his first five years, and there are as many as four guys on the current Bruins roster with a chance to add to that tally. Alford won a Pac-12 tournament and had a winning record in the NCAA tournament, and his 2016-17 team, led by future Los Angeles Lakers guard Lonzo Ball, was one of the most explosive offenses in recent history.

Of course, all these accolades can be easily dismantled by anyone who has even casually followed UCLA basketball for the past half-decade. The Sweet 16 appearances look nice, but they pack less of a punch upon realizing that Alford never made an Elite Eight and his six NCAA tournament wins at UCLA came against two no. 14 seeds, two no. 6 seeds, a no. 13 seed, and a no. 12 seed. Meanwhile, bringing NBA talent to campus doesn’t mean much if it doesn’t translate into better than a .663 winning percentage and zero regular-season conference titles and zero Elite Eight berths. The sobering reality is that Alford coached only one UCLA team that cracked the top 15 of the AP poll, and it was the aforementioned 2016-17 team led by Ball, whose talent on the court, coupled with his father’s actions off the court, created a situation that felt like Alford was along for the ride.

But enough about Alford. He was never a great fit in Westwood, and no amount of “John Wooden was also from rural Indiana!” rationalizing was ever going to change that. UCLA’s head-coaching vacancy is far more interesting. Nobody has any idea what to make of UCLA’s basketball program anymore, and the fact every name under the sun has been mentioned as a possible replacement for Alford reflects that.

Some names are gaining more traction than others, sure, but even the leading candidates still have obvious obstacles that keep them from being no-brainer hires. Former Chicago Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg hates recruiting and has made it clear that he would prefer to stay in the NBA. Nevada coach Eric Musselman seems to be a non-starter given his fiery temperament and penchant for relying on transfers. TCU coach Jamie Dixon has already said he’s not interested. Former Bruins player Earl Watson is a perfect stylistic fit, but he seems like a pretty big gamble for a program of UCLA’s stature, given that he’s not even 40 years old and his only head-coaching experience came when he stood on the Phoenix Suns sideline during three seasons as his teams were routinely slaughtered. Oklahoma City Thunder coach Billy Donovan currently makes $6 million a year, coaches two MVP candidates, and just had his contract guaranteed through the 2019-20 season, which is another way of saying it’s going to take a miracle to get him to pick up the phone. Virginia’s Tony Bennett, Gonzaga’s Mark Few, and Villanova’s Jay Wright more or less have job security for life at their current gigs, which are each every bit as good as the UCLA job. And Rick Pitino, well, is Rick Pitino.

Other names have popped up that make sense both in terms of being proven winners and somewhat realistic options—Wichita State’s Gregg Marshall and Notre Dame’s Mike Brey—but they don’t seem to be garnering buzz from those better sourced on this stuff than I am. Either way, the point remains: There is no obvious candidate because there is no consensus on what the UCLA job even is anymore. Critics say that the university’s athletic department is cheap, that expectations from Bruins fans are unrealistic, and that those same fans can’t even be bothered to show up to games if the Bruins aren’t highly ranked. Meanwhile, UCLA fans are eager to point out that the tide has turned on the athletic department’s willingness to spend, that demanding at least one regular-season Pac-12 title in five years is completely reasonable, and that nobody in their right mind would want to spend their hard-earned money to watch two hours of Alford stomping his foot as Jaylen Hands throws the ball into the third row.

(While we’re on the topic of UCLA fans’ unrealistic expectations, it’s worth a reminder that Ben Howland’s departure in 2013 was much more complicated than UCLA not being satisfied with a Pac-12 title that season and three consecutive Final Four trips from 2006 to 2008.)

It’s remarkable that there is such a debate about whether it’s desirable to be the head coach at a program with as many national titles as North Carolina and Duke combined. That alone makes this the most intriguing college basketball hire in my lifetime. Think about it. No college basketball blue blood has ever been in a position quite like this before. Mike Krzyzewski has been at Duke for a million years. When Dean Smith retired from North Carolina in 1997, his longtime assistant Bill Guthridge was handed the reins. And even though the Tar Heels didn’t hire Roy Williams when Guthridge retired in 2000 as they wanted, everyone knew that Carolina was going to keep it in the family (which is what happened when Matt Doherty got that fateful call as he was shopping at Walmart). Bill Self was Kansas’s obvious choice from the jump in 2003 when Williams left for Chapel Hill, not to mention the fact the Jayhawks’ basketball program was coming off back-to-back Final Fours and was in much healthier standing than UCLA’s currently is.

There are two situations that are in the same stratosphere as the decision facing UCLA: Kentucky’s vacancy after firing Billy Gillispie in 2009, and basically every coach that Indiana has hired since Bob Knight. Kentucky, of course, hired John Calipari, who didn’t initially seem like a realistic candidate. Even if the Wildcats didn’t nail that hire, they were always going to have one of the most valuable programs and the most rabid fan base in the country, regardless of who was at the helm. A similar logic applies to Indiana. The Hoosiers are always going to have a massive fan base that eats, sleeps, and breathes basketball. They’re always going to be willing to pump a ton of money into their basketball program and they’re always going to have some of the most fertile recruiting soil in the country right in their backyard. Kentucky and Indiana could strike out on 10 consecutive coaches, and all of the resources would still exist for coach no. 11 to step in and get everything back on track.

The same can’t necessarily be said about UCLA. Yes, the Bruins have plenty of inherent advantages, like weather, location (both in terms of proximity to all of the great recruits that regularly come out of L.A. and the appeal of Westwood as a destination for recruits from all over the country), and unparalleled history. But at a certain point, the perception becomes the reality, and the perception is undeniably trending toward UCLA basketball being a has-been on the national stage with a fan base so apathetic that it might as well be nonexistent. I understand that UCLA isn’t as stingy spending money as it might seem, especially after the Under Armour deal signed in 2016. The point that everyone loves bringing up about the lack of charter flights for the team has been mostly overblown. If UCLA’s dream candidate demanded a $5 million annual salary and unlimited use of a private plane, I have no doubt in my mind that UCLA could find a way to make it happen.

There’s so much riding on this next hire. UCLA is out of excuses and can’t afford to get this wrong. To be clear, I’m not advocating for the Bruins to have a national-championship-or-bust mentality. That is an absurd standard for any program. National titles are so difficult to win; Kansas has won one in the past 30 years, Kentucky has won one in the past 20 years, and Indiana’s five banners have been accumulating dust for more than three decades. I’m also not saying that hiring another Alford will turn UCLA into Rutgers for the rest of eternity. It’s just that UCLA’s place in the college basketball hierarchy hinges almost exclusively on how these next seven to 10 years will shake out. I tend to believe that UCLA remains one of the elite programs in America and has achieved plenty of success since Wooden retired in 1975. Others disagree, arguing that UCLA basketball would be entirely irrelevant without Wooden’s Pyramid of Success and Sam Gilbert’s duffel bags teaming up to win a bunch of titles during a completely different era from a thousand years ago. Eventually, one of these sentiments is going to emerge as reality, and I’m of the opinion that that’s going to happen sometime in the next decade.

That’s why I’ve never been so fascinated by a coaching search. Not only is there an unprecedented amount of pressure on UCLA to hand the keys of the program to the right person, but there’s also no telling which direction the Bruins are ultimately going to go or how many coaches will be interested in the job. One week after Alford was let go, no obvious candidate has emerged even as all sorts of names have been tossed around, ranging from Houston’s Kelvin Sampson, Cincinnati’s Mick Cronin, Michigan’s John Beilein, Arizona State’s Bobby Hurley, Northwestern’s Chris Collins, and NC State’s Kevin Keatts. Since it’s still early January, UCLA doesn’t necessarily have to rush to reach a final decision. This search could easily drag on for a couple of months, allowing all sorts of names to enter and exit the fray. It’s not unreasonable to expect several coaches to turn down the job. There’s a world in which UCLA’s administration is forced to turn to their backup pile of résumés and seriously consider offering the job to an inexperienced and unproven flavor-of-the-month coach. It’s entirely possible that UCLA boosters would catch wind of this and intervene, making it clear that they won’t settle for anything less than a coach who has demonstrated that he has what it takes to bring a national championship to Westwood. UCLA’s administration would then have no choice but to succumb to the wishes of the boosters, which would again reiterate how important it is for the Bruins to maintain their reputation as a national college basketball power, no matter the cost. From there, UCLA would then—

Oh no.

Pitino really is going to get the job, isn’t he?