Court Session: Interview with Steve Alford
Published Oct 1, 2013 8:00 AM
The next era in UCLA’s storied men’s basketball program begins this season, when Steve Alford, the former New Mexico head coach and Indiana basketball icon, takes the helm. With both John Wooden and Bobby Knight as inspirations, Alford has had a unique basketball education.
It’s a warm day in early July, and Steve Alford still has boxes to unpack. Since being named UCLA’s 13th head men’s basketball coach on March 30, Alford has been going nonstop — meeting with his Bruin team, choosing his staff (Assistant Coaches Duane Broussard, David Grace and Ed Schilling), recruiting new players and getting to know his way around the Athletic Department and the campus.
Throw in the fact that the former head coach for the University of New Mexico has had to move his family (his wife, Tanya; their sons, Kory and Bryce; and their daughter, Kayla) from Albuquerque to their new home in Calabasas, and it’s obviously been a whirlwind three months.
Nevertheless, it’s summer, and Alford has taken time out from his hectic schedule to sit down with UCLA Magazine and discuss a variety of topics close to his heart. These include his love of basketball (of course); his mentor, Bob Knight, for whom he played at Indiana University; his connection to John Wooden; and his high hopes for his UCLA team.
Q: Were you surprised to get a call from UCLA?
Steve Alford: Well, I was getting other offers, and I’d just accepted a 10-year agreement to stay long-term with the University of New Mexico, because I was extremely happy. My agent and I had heard rumblings about a UCLA opening, but we didn’t know if it would happen or not. UCLA was definitely a school I would listen to. I don’t think there are very many that I would listen to, but when UCLA called, I was more than happy to listen to what they had to say.
Q: As an Indiana native, you’ve been a disciple of [former Indiana University head coach] Bob Knight for much of your life. But you’ve also said that you admired John Wooden. What was your relationship with Coach Wooden like?
SA: Well, I knew Coach Wooden because he played his high school basketball at Martinsville High School in Indiana. So I was able to follow him — not so much as a player, because when I was born, he was into coaching. But as I started to get into coaching, that’s when I started running into him. I was able to spend some time with him at clinics, and then I played in his John Wooden Classic in Indy a couple of times. And then I’d see him at the Final Four. He’s somebody that I had a lot of respect for. I read his books; I knew an awful lot about him and what he was about.
Q: Coach Knight and Coach Wooden were both superlative coaches, but they were very different people. How do you compare their philosophies?
SA: A lot of things about them were similar, but Coach Wooden and Coach Knight had different personalities. And that’s what makes them great, because they weren’t about being somebody they weren’t. They knew who they were; they were comfortable with who they were and how they went about doing things.
I tried to learn those things, but at the same time be my own person. You can take concepts from different coaches, but you’ve got to teach the way you teach. Coach Wooden and Coach Knight did that very well, and a lot of their principles and concepts were very similar. They both believed in academics and they both believed in the integrity of the game.
Q: You’ve heard that UCLA basketball fans have high expectations. Did you have any reservations about coming here?
SA: No. I’ve been under that kind of scope since I was 16. I played in front of 10,000 people a night in high school; I was doing it on a nightly basis at New Castle [Chrysler High School] my senior year. Then I played for Coach Knight, played in the  Olympic Games here in Los Angeles, played in the NBA, started my career at a small Division III school in Manchester [Indiana], and just continued to work and grow in this profession. I think you’ve got to be confident in your abilities when you take over a position like UCLA, and I think our staff is very confident that we can get the job done.
But you’re right, the expectations may be greater at UCLA than they are at some other places, but it’s still about taking young men and teaching them values on and off the court. It’s an educational process, and in that process, alumni, lettermen, fans — they want to win. And they want to win at a high level. It’s one of the reasons why I’m here, because I believe that the value of academics, doing things the right way with character and integrity, and being at a place that can recruit that type of elite player can win you national championships. And that’s something that as a coach I’m aspiring to do, and I think this is a place where you can do that.
Q: Your starters on the team are coming back, except for Larry Drew II and Shabazz Muhammad, who entered the draft. Did you have to talk to the other players and convince them to stay?
SA: Not so much convincing them; I think it was just letting them know who we were and them getting to trust us and us getting to trust them. That’s what’s difficult when you make a transition. I’m very proud of the staff; they’ve had to work very hard at recruiting the current guys on the team. They had to recruit the signees of last year. And they had to start recruiting the 2014-2015 class. So a lot of what we’ve done the last three months has really involved recruiting in some shape or form, and they’ve done a very good job of that.
Q: You’ve got five new players: Wanaah Bail, Zach LaVine, Noah Allen and your sons, Kory and Bryce. How do you think they’re going to fit into your scheme?
SA: Well, it’s early. We haven’t had a full practice yet, or even 10 guys on the court. Jordan [Adams] has been hurt, and the freshmen have only been here a week. So we’ll figure those things out as we move through the summer. But I’ve been very, very impressed with the character of these guys. They’re hard workers, and the freshmen have been doing a great job of just making sure they’re getting to class, learning where everything is on campus. And then just working as hard as they can in the weight room and on the court.
Q: You’re still going to have the Wear brothers, Jordan Adams, Kyle Anderson ...
SA: And Tony [Parker] and Norman [Powell].
Q: What are you planning in terms of offense? Is it going to be more up-tempo?
SA: Well, we’ve got to see what our team’s like. All of my teams have been up-tempo teams. But the guys have got to get into very good shape. They’ve got to get stronger, quicker and faster to be able to play that way. So we’re hoping we can play up-tempo at both ends of the floor.
Q: When you were announced as UCLA’s new coach, there were people who were skeptical. What would you say to those folks?
SA: Well, that’s the business, you know. When I was at Manchester College [in Indiana], I’m sure that the people of Springfield, Mo., had no idea why Missouri State was hiring a Division III coach. I’m sure there were doubters there. Then at Iowa, I’m 31, 32 years of age. Then I go to New Mexico, and probably very few people had even heard of me in New Mexico. So I think it’s just the nature of our business.
There are going to be people in favor of certain hires; there are going to be people who question or doubt those hires. All we can do is hope that, as we do our day-to-day work, those who were doubters see what kind of student-athletes we’re producing and the product we have on the floor, and what our guys do in the community and how they represent UCLA. We’ve got to hope that they’ll find favor in how we go about running our program.
Q: What’s it been like here at UCLA, so far?
SA: It’s been extremely surreal for me. In 1975, Coach Wooden got his last national championship, and in 1976, Coach Knight got his first one. So during my elementary years, one legend was finishing his career and another legend was starting his. Coach Wooden obviously was at UCLA, but he was an Indiana native, and to have two icons in my adolescent years, while I was forming a mindset of what basketball was and how to play the game, I was doing that arguably with the two best coaches of all time.
It was almost too good to be true that about 10 years later, Coach Knight called and offered me a scholarship to play for him. I had no idea while playing for Coach Knight that I would get to play in the Olympics. I never dreamed of it. It wasn’t something that was on my radar screen; I just wanted to play in Indiana for Coach Knight. And by doing that, it opened up the door to the Olympics, which was a great, great thrill for me.
And now, this is kind of the same thing. I never dreamed that I would have the opportunity to coach at UCLA or be on the same campus where Coach Wooden walked. I never would have dreamed that. I was happy. I thought that I probably could finish my career at New Mexico because I really, really liked it. So this opportunity was kind of like how the Olympics were for me as a player. It wasn’t something I had ever thought possible, but because of my coaching career, it was a door that was open. Playing in the Olympics and coaching at UCLA are two things that came out of opportunities, and I feel very, very blessed that that door was open.