Days after defiantly wagging his finger at a roomful of reporters and talking about the contractual concessions he made to stay at the University of New Mexico, Steve Alford was gone.
Most people are remembered for first and last impressions. Alford’s introductory news conference was as eventful and glowing as his final days were disingenuous and dumbfounding. The head men’s basketball coach’s swan song at New Mexico will be remembered for a reluctance to eat crow in the aftermath of the Lobos’ embarrassing loss to Harvard in their opening game of the NCAA tournament.
On Wednesday, Alford defensively, even arrogantly, apologized for his team, took swipes at the Pac-12 — his new home — and Jim Rome and guilt-tripped Lobo Nation about details of his contract, which bumped up Alford’s base salary to more than $1.2 million a year and was set to go into effect April 1. By Saturday, he was headed for the West Coast.
“I gave a lot to stay here,” Alford said, days before. “I took away incentives that I’ve made for five consecutive years. Six consecutive years. I took those out of my contract. I think it was a pretty big commitment, not only on the school’s part, but it was a pretty big commitment on my part … to show my loyalty to UNM, and how much I appreciate UNM and how much I want to continue to build this thing.”
Alford drained the reservoir of goodwill he built up over a six-year stay by reneging on his contract in the most snide way possible, agreeing to terms with the Bruins a couple days before his new contract, with a $1 million buyout clause, was set to kick in. More than likely, New Mexico will recoup only $150,000 under the terms of Alford’s old deal.
Alford, alluding to the down-and-dirty deal during a conference call with reporters, knew he exploited a loophole.
“I know it’s not April 1st yet,” he said. “I’m not a lawyer. I’m just an Indiana grad that likes basketball. The lawyers will have to get together and figure that out.”
Alford’s former boss, athletic director Paul Krebs, probably knew he’d been swindled, but was calm and poised at a news conference Saturday announcing Alford’s impending departure.
The 48-year-old Alford met with players that morning to inform them he was leaving. Even worse for New Mexico, Alford’s ship-jumping could lead to a mass exodus. At least one player, Alex Kirk, will entertain following his slick-haired, slick-talking coach to Los Angeles.
Alford’s unexpected decision managed to make Krebs a sympathetic figure. The athletic director, it should be said, did everything humanly possible to keep Alford’s eyes from wandering. The administration’s fixation with the success of its basketball program was no more evident than when it poured $60 million into revamping The Pit. Krebs followed up by inking — or so we thought — Alford to a lucrative new deal.
For Alford, the decision is pretty cut and dried. UCLA, once one of the nation’s most storied basketball programs, offered him an express elevator back to big-time coaching stardom. All he has to do is restore John Wooden university’s good name, after some string-bean meager years got Ben Howland axed.
The irony in this, of course, is that what got Alford a new deal at New Mexico is what effectively got Howland, who led the Bruins to three Final Fours, canned.
UCLA won the Pac-12 championship this year, but failed for the fifth straight season to get out of the first week of the NCAA tournament after a 83-63 setback to 11th-seeded Minnesota.
The Lobos regaled fans with unprecedented regular-season success throughout Alford’s stay, but never erased that big looming asterisk of never getting to a Sweet 16. Alford has only won five tournament games in 18 seasons as a head coach, but endeared himself to the community with lip service.
He talked about New Mexico as a destination, not a pit stop, and backed that up by staying put even after his name surfaced as a potential suitor at Missouri and Kansas State. Then, when Lobo fans least expected it, he quietly slipped in the knife.
This, he said, is “the toughest decision that I’ve had to make, maybe ever. That’s because of how much I love this place — UNM, Albuquerque, New Mexico, the fans, the entire set up has been amazing. It really came down to making a decision to have an opportunity to go to UCLA. It’s the pinnacle of college basketball.
“It goes back to the four letters: it’s UCLA.”
You can make the argument that New Mexico has more upside than UCLA, a program whose image has been battered by defections and a paucity of postseason success.
It has missed the NCAA tournament twice the last four years and seen players flee for and sign with other programs, including New Mexico, which landed Drew Gordon, and more recently, Mountain West Player of the Year, Kendall Williams. The Bruins fan base isn’t as rabid, either, and Pauley Pavilion was routinely not at capacity in 2012-13.
New Mexico, by comparison, has four Mountain West Conference titles the last six years and has a turnkey facility and the some of the nation’s most manic fans.
Alford called the decision a “leap of faith.”
Perhaps more appropriately, lack of faith from some fans might have compelled Alford to reconsider. Maybe he felt he had reached his glass ceiling at New Mexico, and rather than risk overstaying a season too long, like he did at Iowa, he bolted. Say what you will about Alford, he has impeccable timing.
And, apparently, enough swagger to convince UCLA athletic director Dan Guerrero that the Bruins aren’t in for what became the acceptable norm at New Mexico.
“I’m about building programs — not teams, not seasons, but programs,” Alford said. “Nobody understands pressure any more than I do.”
“He’s not the kind of guy that will shy away from what UCLA. basketball is all about,” Guerrero said. “He’ll handle the expectations with dignity, with understanding and with class.”
Exactly the way he handled his exit at New Mexico.
Avilucea is a former staff writer for the Santa Fe New Mexican and a freelance journalist based in Albuquerque, N.M.