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Alford felt pressures of UCLA job right from start


SAN DIEGO - The hurricane was tantamount to Katrina and Audrey and Floyd all in one. A real doozy. The sort of storm that crushes barns and brings to light scandals thought dead and buried.

There wasn’t enough twine in California and all neighboring states to save Steve Alford during his first news conference for the college basketball coaching job no one can ever succeed at to the level it once knew.

Many at UCLA didn’t want to put a net around Alford’s neck.

More like a noose.

It seems forever ago and yet it doesn’t. Forget the seven-year contract worth $18.2 million. The basketball coach at UCLA exists in a day-to-day bubble that is set to burst at the instant expectations aren’t met.

Ben Howland led the Bruins to three consecutive Final Fours.

He was gone five years later. It’s one thin bubble.

“The thing about my dad is, he has dealt with pressure his entire life,” said freshman guard Bryce Alford, one of two sons of the coach on UCLA’s team. “Won a national championship in college, won a gold medal, played in the NBA, college coach. He knew this job wouldn’t be any different. It was the right decision to take the job. It was a family decision, and we had his back. If you’re in his profession, you go through hard times.”

Those arrived immediately for Alford in Westwood, when he was asked upon being introduced last March about his defending a player in a sexual assault case while coaching at Iowa.

The questions didn’t stop for weeks thereafter when his answer was deemed unacceptable and evasive. Eventually, Alford released a statement of apology, saying his handling of the matter at Iowa was inappropriate and insensitive and hurtful.

But the damage had been done in those eyes who felt the chair that once held John Wooden shouldn’t also support a coach whose character and commitment had been questioned immediately, given Alford had agreed to a 10-year contract extension at New Mexico shortly before accepting the UCLA job.

Winning, though, tends to push controversy to the backseat.

Alford might have had a disastrous beginning to his tenure, but the UCLA team with which he arrives to Viejas Arena today might be one of the more dangerous sides in the NCAA Tournament.

The Bruins are 26-8 and open as a No. 4 seed in the South Region against Tulsa. UCLA won the Pac-12 tournament at the MGM Grand Garden last week and can score with most anyone on a given night. The Bruins have the potential to be terrific.

Alford can coach. That part never has been questioned. He has led four teams (Southwest Missouri State, Iowa, New Mexico and now UCLA) into the NCAAs and did so this season with a group that included a core of six players he didn’t recruit.

“We’re laying a foundation,” Alford said. “I think we’re an exciting team to watch, an unselfish team, a team that works hard and shares the ball. But you’re not at UCLA if it’s not important to you to advance in the NCAA Tournament. Each game, each round, none of it gets easier.”

He returns to the madness one season after his New Mexico team as a No. 3 seed lost to a 14 in Harvard, one season after the Lobos were primed for a deep run and yet were out in a blink, one season after he again wore a net around his neck following his team’s Mountain West tournament championship.

I suppose more credit should have then and definitely now been pointed at the Crimson, given their victory against Cincinnati in an East Region game Thursday. But in all his trips to the NCAAs as a coach — seven in all at the Division I level — Alford has reached the Sweet 16 just once.

That might play at Iowa and New Mexico. It won’t over time at UCLA.

“You have to manage every team differently,” he said. “I just know we’re playing very well right now, and we’re rested and loose and ready to go. It doesn’t mean we’re going to win a game in the tournament, but I know we have gotten better as the year progressed.”

He wasn’t the sideline star many at UCLA hoped for, not the Hollywood type they sought.

He sure in heck didn’t win any news conference.

People screamed for a divorce before the wedding cake had been cut.

He is, in many ways, simply the next UCLA coach since the mid-1970s who has absolutely zero chance to reside in the neighborhood of a legacy no one could uphold.

Alford learned basketball in the same Martinsville, Ind., gym where Wooden once played, a closer comparison than most in his position have owned. It stops there.

But it doesn’t mean Alford can’t win big, perhaps enough to convince those who so vehemently opposed his hire that UCLA is in capable hands.

“He has always been under the spotlight,” Bryce Alford said. “He prepared for this. At the beginning, he felt the pressure a lot here. It’s a different level at this program. But I think he has adapted to it well enough to enjoy the season.”

Win today and those at UCLA will enjoy Steve Alford a tad more.

Until the next game arrives Sunday.

The bubble is always a loss away from popping.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at egraney@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4618. He can be heard from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday on “Gridlock,” ESPN 1100 and 98.9 FM. Follow him on Twitter: @edgraney.