The news that we were all waiting for hit right around 2 a.m. on the east coast on Monday morning: Steve Alford is now the former head coach of the UCLA basketball program.
Rumors had been swirling all weekend that UCLA would buyout the rest of Alford’s contract after a 15 point home loss to Liberty, the fifth consecutive defeat suffered by the Bruins, dropped the team to 7-6 on the season. Seth Davis of The Athletic was the first to report the UCLA brass had made the decision to move on.
This was Alford’s sixth season with the program. He had been to four of the previous five NCAA tournaments, finishing his tenure with a 124-63 record overall and a 55-35 mark in league play. He reached the Sweet 16 three time, most recently in 2017, when Lonzo Ball turned the Bruins into the most high-powered offense in the sport.
The timing of the decision is unfortunate, but it makes plenty of sense. The Bruins have more talent than anyone else in the Pac-12, but this team has quit on Alford. As one source close to the program phrased it, “they hate him.” Coaching is hard enough when you have a roster full of players that want to play for you. It’s impossible to win when those players have tuned you out, and that’s exactly what happened to UCLA and Alford. If UCLA athletic director Dan Guerrero can find an interim that the guys will play hard for, there is no reason this team cannot win the Pac-12. Remember, the “best” team in the conference, Arizona State, just lost at home to Princeton.
The problem there is that there is no guarantee that will happened. There is talent on the UCLA roster — they have three five-star prospects, seven players that were top 100 recruits and four or five players, if not more, that will play in the NBA at some point — but it is a roster that is fatally flawed. There is no point guard on this roster. There are no shot creators. Sophomore point guard Jaylen Hands is supposed to be the leader, but he’s a selfish, shoot-first lead guard that isn’t quite as good as he thinks he is and defends with the same intensity as a rocking chair. Kris Wilkes is a scorer on the wing, but he’s out to prove that he can play in the NBA more than he is interested in making UCLA a winner. Moses Brown is a 7-foot-1 center that has looked like Kareem in stretches and like a totem pole in others.
Can a roster full of players that have to be taught to play hard, play unselfishly and care about defense win with anyone as their coach?
As of now, it is unclear who will serve as the interim head coach for the rest of the season. If the program is looking to get someone that the players like, the answer is associate head coach Duane Broussard. If they are looking for a program legend to appease a fan base for three months while they figure out what the next step is, the answer is Tyus Edney. If they simply want someone they can cut ties with come March, it’s Murry Bartow.
(UPDATE: UCLA tabbed Bartow as the interim. Take that as you will.)
Either way, I don’t see this thing getting turned around.
Which brings us to the next question: Who does UCLA hire? Better yet, who can UCLA hire?
The question of whether or not the Bruins are still a member of college basketball’s royalty is going to be something that is discussed ad nauseum over the course of the next four months, and the truth is this: UCLA is still one of the most storied programs in sports. Period. But it’s also true the program has been unable to dig itself out of a handful of bad coaching hires. The Bruins have won just a single title since 1975. That was in 1995. That title, and Ben Howland’s three straight trips to the Final Four from 2006-2008, are the only times that UCLA has played on the final weekend of the college basketball season since 1980.
Think about that.
UCLA has been to four Final Four in the last 38 years. North Carolina has been to 13. Duke has been to 12. Kentucky and Kansas have been to nine. UConn has won four titles in that time frame. Villanova has won three.
Part of the problem is that UCLA has whiffed on a couple hires since Wooden left — Steve Lavin was not exactly John Wooden. Part of the issue is that the AAU programs in the area have gained major influence over the program in recent years — Ben Howland’s firing had a lot to do with the fact that he had a falling out with the coaches in the area, although that was more or less a self-inflicted wound.
But the biggest issue is that the Bruins has not invested in the sport like the programs they pretend to compete with. Steve Alford made $2.6 million annually, which is a lot of money. It’s also less than what Avery Johnson is making at Alabama, Cuonzo Martin is making at Missouri, Will Wade is making at LSU and Larry Krystkowiak is making at Utah. It’s a third of the salary that Mike Krzyzewski and John Calipari get paid. It’s half of what Bill Self is paid. Tom Izzo and Sean Miller are making more than $4 million. All of that is before you factor in the cost of living in Westwood vs. the random college towns where the rest of those coaches reside.
UCLA has finally invested in a Pauley Pavilion upgrade and added a practice facility, which matters, but they still don’t charter flights. To put that into perspective, Dayton charters flights. Wichita State charters flights. If you want to be considered an elite program, you cannot have your seven-footers sitting in airports for three hours after a flight delay only to spend a four hours sitting coach on a cross-country Southwest flight.
It’s laughable, quite frankly.
There are going to be plenty of big names that get linked to this opening. Here are the six that are most likely to seriously consider the job:
- Fred Hoiberg will be linked to the job because he was fired by Chicago and runs the kind of uptempo style that LA fans want out of their hoops. His agent, Debbie Spander, also works for Wasserman, who the UCLA football center is named after.
- Rick Pitino would be an obvious name for UCLA to target, as he is one of the best basketball coaches on the planet. The question is whether or not the program would be willing to hire someone with his reputation.
- Jamie Dixon is a native of Southern California that has turned TCU from the laughing stock of the Big 12 in to a program that won the NIT in 2017, reached the NCAA tournament in 2018 and has started out this season 11-1.
- Eric Musselman has turned Nevada into a superpower in the Mountain West and has NBA pedigree, but like Hoiberg, he relies heavily on the transfer market to succeed. There are also concerns about the way that he treats people within his program.
- Earl Watson is a UCLA alum and a former NBA point guard and head coach that has strong ties to Under Armour, the apparel company UCLA signed a $280 million sponsorship deal with.
- Mike Brey is a name that has popped up because of the success that he has had at Notre Dame. The fit makes a lot of sense: UCLA, like Notre Dame, is a high-academic school that is affiliated with Under Armour.
The program should be flush with cash thanks to that Under Armour deal. They just committed $25 million to Chip Kelly to coach the football program.
And if they are willing to spend the money, there’s no reason that the Bruins can’t hire the guy they want and make it back amongst the elite in college hoops.
But you can’t expect to win if you don’t want to invest in the program.