With perfectly feathered hair that topped off his choir-boy image, Steve Alford was admired during his playing days at Indiana for being one of the best pure shooters in college basketball.
As a coach at Iowa, it was no secret that he had fewer admirers. And it was not because his hairstyle changed.
So after a mostly successful run with the Hawkeyes -- but one that left Alford feeling unappreciated by a segment of the school's administration and fans -- he left for a warmer welcome in Albuquerque, N.M.
"When you're there eight years, some people can get tired of hearing your song and dance, and fans want a freshness just like coaches do," said Alford, who in March replaced Ritchie McKay at New Mexico.
"There has been a lot of enthusiasm over the change, and I appreciate that. The people in New Mexico love basketball. Hopefully the winning will come as we continue to build this thing."
Five new coaches joined the Mountain West Conference this season, but Alford will need no introduction when his Lobos (16-5, 3-3) meet UNLV (16-4, 5-1) at 7 p.m. today at the Thomas & Mack Center.
Alford might even get a cool reception from the crowd.
The last time he saw the Rebels was on March 28, 1987, and he was shooting them down in the NCAA Tournament semifinals.
Alford scored 33 points to lead Indiana to a 97-93 victory in the Final Four in New Orleans. Freddie Banks made 10 3-pointers and scored 38 points for top-ranked UNLV, but the Hoosiers advanced and defeated Syracuse to win the national championship.
All that matters now is the Rebels are in a first-place conference tie with Brigham Young, and Alford is trying to knock them off again.
UNLV, riding a 15-game home winning streak in the conference, has won nine of the past 10 games against New Mexico in Las Vegas.
The Lobos have had a week to prepare and ponder what went wrong in their 83-66 loss at BYU on Jan. 26.
"For the first time in 21 games, we didn't match the intensity and effort level of our opponent," Alford said.
New Mexico is led by senior guard J.R. Giddens, maybe the most talented player in the Mountain West. Giddens was being disciplined by McKay and did not make the trip for last year's game at UNLV. But he scored 28 points off the bench in the rematch at Albuquerque, which the Rebels also won.
"He's very tough because he can do so many things," UNLV coach Lon Kruger said. "He can score outside, score inside, beat you off the dribble, and he's a very good offensive rebounder and good defender."
UNLV senior Corey Bailey will draw the assignment of trying to slow Giddens.
The Lobos will be just as concerned about containing Rebels junior guard Wink Adams, who has averaged 23.7 points in the past three games. Adams had 27 points to lift UNLV to a 76-72 overtime victory over New Mexico last year at the Thomas & Mack.
The past three games between the teams were decided by a total of seven points, with the Rebels winning all three.
Under McKay, the Lobos finished 15-17 last year. Alford already has surpassed that win total, and his presence could help make the Mountain West stronger.
"Anytime you add good coaches, that's positive for the league," said Kruger, who went 2-0 against Alford when Kruger was in his last year at Illinois and Alford was in his first year at Iowa.
"There's pretty good balance in this league. I think you're going to have tough battles every time you go on the road, and there's the potential for that at home, too."
In eight seasons at Iowa, Alford went 152-106 and had seven straight winning seasons. He won the Big Ten Tournament twice.
But he also served under five school presidents and two athletic directors in eight years, and he said he was bothered by constant speculation that he wanted to leave for Indiana and follow in the footsteps of his former coach, Bob Knight, now at Texas Tech.
"That complicates things, and your recruiting gets to be difficult, too, because that gets used against you ... 'Don't go there because he's going to leave in a year,' " Alford said.
"Coach Knight called me on (New Mexico) and told me some positive things. When he left and he went south, it kind of made it OK for me to go somewhere else."
Contact reporter Matt Youmans at firstname.lastname@example.org or (702) 387-2907.