Steve Alford bringing new life to stagnant UCLA program

New UCLA coach Steve Alford isn't afraid to have some fun as he tries to reinvigorate UCLA.

I want to tell you how new UCLA basketball coach Steve Alford is injecting a bit of fun into Pauley Pavilion. I want to tell you why, when UCLA coaches threw round objects at their players this summer, it was emblematic of a looser, more fun culture that could pay dividends for a program that in recent years has disappointed.

But first I want to tell you a funny story.

It’s about Steve Alford.

And it’s about Michael Jordan.

In 1984, Alford was a 19-year-old sophomore guard for Bobby Knight’s Indiana Hoosiers. After a season during which he averaged nearly 16 points, Alford played for a U.S. Olympic team that included Michael Jordan, Patrick Ewing and Chris Mullin. In training camp Jordan bet Alford $100 that he wouldn’t last four years at Indiana under Knight, who also was coaching the Olympic team.

I recently asked Alford about that bet during an interview that aired on Fox Sports 1. Did Jordan — the notorious gambler, and probably the richest athlete in human history — make good on the bet after Alford graduated?

“Absolutely not!” Alford laughed. “Every time I see him I remind him of that. And the interest 25 years later, and the shoe line and everything else that he’s created — that interest has gotten really big.”

Any message you’d like to pass onto Jordan, Coach?

“ ‘MJ,’ ” Alford said into the camera, “ ‘if you’re not going to pay the bet, then at least come speak to my team.’ ” He turned to me. “How about that? He can come share his wisdom with my team, and I’ll say it’s an even bet.”

So, you ask: What does Michael Jordan have to do with the state of the most decorated program in college basketball history?

Nothing, really. I’ll admit it: That was a cheap tale to get you to read about UCLA moving from the Ben Howland era — a 10-year period of three Final Fours but ultimately disillusionment — and into Steve Alford’s reign. But take His Airness out of the equation and Alford is still worth reading about as he begins the enormous task of living up to John Wooden’s shadow.

You could point to Alford’s history with MJ as one of many examples of how he’s known big-time pressure his whole life: From starring for his dad’s team in the world’s largest high school gym in New Castle, Ind., to being named Mr. Basketball his senior year in a basketball-mad state, to playing under the ruthless tutelage of Knight and winning a national title his senior year, to winning an Olympic gold medal in Los Angeles.

Really, though: Who doesn’t like to hear about your coach palling around with a young Michael Jordan?

Enough about MJ. My bigger point is, Steve Alford is fun. Steve Alford is likable. Steve Alford is a breath of fresh air into what had become a stagnant UCLA program. This is a surprise to people who see him as the perfect-haired, entitled All-American kid with an angry on-court demeanor.

“I just shake my head when people think that he’s a grouchy or a prickly guy,” said UCLA assistant Ed Schilling, a longtime Alford friend. “He’s the furthest thing from it. He can come off as a bit aloof but it’s just the nature of a guy who’s always been in the spotlight.”

Remember that story I mentioned about Alford and his assistant coaches throwing things at their players’ heads? That happened. But it wasn’t at all like the coaching abuse that happened at Rutgers. Instead, it shows how UCLA basketball soon will be fun, too, with a more player-friendly atmosphere that could propel it toward a renaissance.

It was this past summer, months after Howland was fired despite winning the Pac-12 regular-season title (which only underscores the expectations and pressure Alford will be under). Alford invited the whole team — players, coaches, managers — to his house in the Valley outside Los Angeles. They had a yard-game Olympics: pass the orange, three-legged race, balloon toss.

At the end, Alford sneaked in two big buckets filled with water balloons, and the coaches pelted players with them.

“I’m not 26 years old and at (Division III) Manchester College anymore,” Alford told me. “But the things we did at Manchester — whiffle-ball games, softball games, water-balloon fights, whatever it is, I’m still doing that today. I hope that’s part of putting a balance into the student-athlete and in what they face and what they do.

“Obviously UCLA has different pressures than a Manchester College,” Alford continued. “These guys have an awful lot of pressure on them. I want them to be able to handle that pressure, but I also want them to know that they are 19 years old and 20. Let’s have some fun with it.”

If this sounds like a small thing, it isn’t. Howland’s reputation in Westwood was that of a drill sergeant — an excellent coach, yes, but one who taught more through fear than fun. Players didn’t seem to enjoy playing for him, evidenced by the 11 scholarship players who transferred or were dismissed over four years. That too-tight culture transferred to a tight style on the basketball court, where players ran set plays dictated from the bench. Much was made about Howland loosening up his coaching style after UCLA stumbled out of the gate last season, but it didn’t save his job.

“When I talk about a fresh start, that’s exactly what it was,” UCLA athletic director Dan Guerrero told me. “Ben had a wonderful run here with three Final Fours and even a conference championship last year. (But) we might have lost our way a little bit in terms of recruiting, made a few mistakes in terms of evaluating not just players and their talent level but also character. That’s not UCLA-like.”

And the impossibly high expectations on Alford’s shoulders?

“When you start with John Wooden, you end with Coach Wooden,” Guerrero said. “There’s no one like him. For those who expect a similar type of outcome, it’s probably not possible in this day and age. But how you run a program can emulate what Coach Wooden did when he was here. The values he instilled. The type of success he was able to enjoy here was about a process.”

Part of the process is discipline. Part of the process is fun.

“Steve is the first guy I’ve been around who is confident enough to get on you when he needs to get on you but has the balance to joke and kid with you,” UCLA assistant Duane Broussard told me. “Some coaches have that standoffish personality, the iron fist, while some coaches feel they have to have the velvet glove. Steve is both. He has the iron fist inside the velvet glove.”

Nobody, from Guerrero to Alford to players, from diehard UCLA fans to myself, would kid themselves that a team that’s fun and little else will give Alford sustained success. Ultimately it’s about winning. Even if his team has more fun on the court and in the locker room than ever before, if the Bruins don’t win Pac-12 championships and compete for NCAA championships, Alford won’t last long.

But I get a distinct feeling that a more fun culture and a more fun brand of basketball will mean more excitement around UCLA basketball, and more wins.

So far, so good. The Bruins are 5-0 and ranked No. 19 heading into Thursday’s game against Nevada in the Las Vegas Invitational.

I spoke with three returning UCLA players — Tony Parker, Travis Wear and Jordan Adams — about the difference between Howland’s style and Alford’s. Unprompted, and seeming to choose their words carefully so they didn’t throw their old coach under the bus, all three brought up the water-balloon fight as an example of the new team-building, chemistry-building culture.

“It’s a more uplifting spirit,” said sophomore Parker, a former McDonald’s All-American who struggled with injuries and weight last season. “He’s more of a player’s coach.”

“Things were not clicking (last season),” said sophomore Adams, who averaged 15 points a game. “Everything’s changed, with workouts, with everyone in the locker room. Everyone’s on the same page. Last year we all had our own things going on. This year we’re all focused on the same thing.”

“I’ve been able to play more relaxed,” said senior Wear. “He’s brought in an aura that basketball, yeah, it’s hard work, but it’s fun, too. It’s a game.”

For Alford, task number one might be to reinvigorate a restless, bored fan base. UCLA ranked 45th in the country in home attendance last season, averaging less than 10,000 fans per game. The initial reaction to Alford’s hire in the UCLA fan base was disappointment: That he wasn’t a hot name like Brad Stevens or Shaka Smart, and that he wouldn’t bring a fun brand of basketball, considering his most recent New Mexico team finished 174th in the nation in scoring.

The criticism of Alford’s brand of basketball was a bit of a misnomer. His New Mexico team last season just flat-out couldn’t shoot, finishing 223rd in the nation in field-goal percentage. Over his career Alford’s teams — which run a Bob Knight-style motion offense that allows more player creativity than a Howland offense that relied on set plays — have averaged about 74 points per game, which would have put him in the nation’s top 40 last season. The Bruins are currently averaging 87.2 points through five games.

Alford has had to change a school’s basketball culture before. But when he took over at New Mexico in 2007, it was a very different change that was needed. New Mexico had finished last in the Mountain West the year before, and was under NCAA sanctions because of subpar academics under the previous coach.

Alford had to bring in a more professional, more disciplined culture. He instituted midnight bed checks. The Academic Progress Rate improved; so did the basketball. After one NCAA tournament appearance the past five years, New Mexico reached postseason play all six seasons under Alford, including four conference titles.

“At New Mexico that’s what we needed to change,” Alford told me. “We had a very bad academic environment, we were last place in the conference. From an athletic standpoint and then how you recruit, what kind of kid you recruit, those are all the things that we wanted to change.”

He didn’t expect to leave. His family loved New Mexico enough that he agreed to a 10-year contract extension in March. Ten days later, he took one of the country’s most pressure-packed, high-profile coaching jobs.

“When UCLA calls, it’s a different phone call,” Alford told me. “It’s one that you’re not expecting. … It’s one of those lifetime opportunities that, if you let it go by, you’re probably not going to get it back again. And at 48, I thought it was the perfect time in my career.

“It is surreal. It’s been an unbelievable thing for me to walk Bruin Walk and walk past Coach Wooden’s statue, a guy that when I was in elementary school, it’s Coach Wooden winning his final championship, his 10th in 12 years. Then all of a sudden I become a fourth grader and Coach Knight is winning his first, and now it’s all about Indiana. I never in my wildest dreams thought I would get even one play at Indiana, let alone 25 years later, walk Bruin Walk, walk UCLA where Coach Wooden built his legacy.”

It’s a dignified, hallowed place to coach basketball, in the long shadow of the greatest college coach of all time. But Alford hopes it can be a fun place to coach basketball, too.

Follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter @reidforgrave or email him