UCLA's Alford aiming for elite status in first season
SAN FRANCISCO — UCLA might be one of the most storied basketball programs in the country, but it's been a few years since the Bruins have even been mentioned in the same sentence as the historical elites like Kansas, Kentucky, North Carolina and Duke.
UCLA hasn't even been the best team on the West Coast since Steve Fisher built San Diego State into a mid-major power and even Long Beach State, another trendy mid-major, has beat the Bruins.
It's a tough task trying to bring a historical program back to the level that it was once at. But Steve Alford, himself from a historic program at Indiana, is up for the challenge at UCLA.
"You understand where the bar's been raised. Coach Wooden put that bar about as high as you can get it, ten national titles in 12 years and the success that they had," Alford said Thursday at Pac-12 media day. "To be at a place like UCLA, it should be about winning national championships. You should put yourself in a position that you have a chance to win a national championship every year."
It might not feel like a long time ago that former head coach Ben Howland took the Bruins to three straight Final Fours, but in Westwood, where the Final Four is a standard and not exceptional, down years are frowned upon. Missing out on the NCAA Tournament is downright unacceptable.
Coaching at a historical elite is not a job suited for every head coach. Bill Self's and Mike Krzyzewski's don't come along every day. For some, the pressure becomes insurmountable. Billy Gillispie cracked under the pressure at Kentucky and Kelvin Sampson set Indiana back several years.
But Alford has seen first-hand how a legendary head coach handles those pressures, and feels confident that he's capable of handling it all while doing it his own way.
"There obviously is pressure," Alford said. "But I would much rather be in a situation where there's pressure of success versus the pressure of not caring or trying to develop some kind of feel‑good 'this is what basketball is all about' (attitude). This is the pinnacle of college basketball. This is the best of the best. It doesn't get any better than this."
Alford has come in and made immediate, but effective changes, such as hiring a basketball-only strength coach that was a key factor in Tony Parker's decision to stay. He installed both new offenses and defenses but implemented systems that let players play free and work with individual strengths. He's not promising overnight success, his expectations have been sober and realistic.
And most importantly, he has his players' trust.
"It's not a turnkey thing," Alford said. "There are a lot of changes that have happened within the program, from strength coach to all the things that we're trying to do and implement with our nutrition and our strength program, our individual workouts. Those things are different for the players.
"And, to their credit, they have bought in."
Under Alford, the respect for the tradition is there and the Bruins could be on their way back.
"It doesn't mean we're going to win 10 out of the next 12 national titles. That's probably not going to happen ever again," Alford said. "But it doesn't mean you don't try to attain that bar that's been raised and the level of excellence that's on the campus of UCLA. You're working every day to try to attain that."