Commentary

Alford is older, wiser and no longer thinking about IU

Originally Published: September 12, 2008
By Andy Katz | ESPN.com

SPOKANE, Wash. -- Maybe Steve Alford's maturity and aging are the reasons for his relaxed demeanor.

Maybe it's looking at the calming, smog-free Sandia Mountains every morning from his northeast Albuquerque home.

[+] EnlargeSteve Alford
AP Photo/Jake SchoellkopfSteve Alford won 24 games in his first season as coach of New Mexico, though the Lobos missed the NCAA tourney.
Alford can't even put his finger on the reason for his attitude. But something is different. This isn't the same rather uptight coach from Southwest Missouri State (now Missouri State) or Iowa who appeared to be on a fast track to his alma mater Indiana when Bob Knight and then Mike Davis were about to leave.

Alford sat down with ESPN.com last month on a scenic, pine-tree-lined golf course in Spokane at the Coaches vs. Cancer BasketBALL charity event.

Earlier in the day, Long Beach State coach Dan Monson, a good friend of Alford's and a former Gonzaga and Minnesota head coach, had come up to Alford and told him that he had never seen him this relaxed.

"I feel that way," Alford said. "It just feels like home."

For a typical Hoosier -- who played at Norman Rockwell-like New Castle Chrysler High and played his college basketball at Indiana, then coached solely in the Midwest -- settling in Albuquerque wasn't quite the plan.

But after Davis replaced Knight, the Kelvin Sampson fiasco left the Hoosiers waiting for their NCAA fate, and now that former Marquette coach Tom Crean is the coach at IU, Alford is at peace knowing he won't be the Hoosiers' next coach.

"Maybe six or seven years ago I couldn't have said that, but that was still a dream and now I'm in an arena [The Pit] that has to be one of the top five arenas in the country," Alford said. "There is an incredible fan base, and now we just have to put a product out there for them. You have to do that at Indiana or anywhere else. That part didn't change. I just need more help, and I've got that here."

Alford said the carnage left at IU by the violations of the Sampson era and the subsequent purging of players who either left on their own or essentially were asked to leave isn't "Indiana" to him.

"They've had their issues outside of men's basketball coaches that set back basketball," said Alford in a zinger aimed at the administration at IU. "I think it has worked out, though. I'm working for [UNM athletic director] Paul Krebs and [UNM president] Dr. [David] Schmidly, and that's who I need to work for."

New Mexico fans, though, expect the Lobos to be contenders every season in the Mountain West and be an NCAA tournament team. It is the state's team. Former coaches Dave Bliss, Fran Fraschilla and Ritchie McKay grew tired at times of the demanding media and/or fan base.

We've got back-to-back good recruiting classes, and hopefully we'll be atop the Mountain West. Right now, the only promise is winning the league or winning the [conference] tournament. We've got to find a way to win the league or the tournament.

--Steve Alford

"There's always going to be pressure, and I'm always going to be an Indiana fan, and I think Tom and his staff are doing a really good job, and [not being the head coach at IU] might have affected me six or seven years ago, but it's not affecting me at all now," Alford said. "I'm comfortable here, but I'm excited to go to work every day."

Alford's departure from Iowa after eight years was necessary. Both parties had essentially worn each other out. His tenure was marred by star guard Pierre Pierce's being charged with assaulting and terrorizing his former girlfriend. Pierce was jailed for 11 months in 2005-06. He was dismissed from the basketball team by Alford once police confirmed that he was being investigated. Pierce was the Hawkeyes' leading and the fifth-leading Big Ten scorer as a sophomore in 2003-04.

Alford said the Pierce situation and case were "truly out of my hands." Alford finished with a 152-106 record at Iowa, 61-67 in the Big Ten with three NCAA appearances, including two Big Ten tournament titles. He was 17-14, 9-7 -- finishing fourth in the Big Ten with no postseason -- in his final season with Iowa in 2006-07.

"The last couple of years at Iowa, it didn't matter how hard I worked," said Alford, 43. "We were going up against [Big Ten teams] that had more bullets in their gun."

"This was absolutely the perfect timing for me at a really good time in my career, he said. "I don't want to go anywhere."

Alford said he went to Krebs after the Lobos' season in which they came within a win or two of possibly earning an NCAA tournament berth. He said he told Krebs that he didn't want more money (his salary is close to $1 million at $975,000) but craved more years, enough to see his youngest child through high school.

On March 31, UNM announced Alford had agreed to a three-year extension that would keep him at UNM through the 2015-16 season. Alford led the Lobos to a third-place Mountain West finish at 11-5, 24-9 overall. Alford had signed a six-year contract the previous year.

"I want to be here; that's what I told [Krebs], I love it here," Alford said. "It's got everything I've ever wanted. And that's odd that I would get that at a BCS school when I've been at a BCS school. But I couldn't get it [at Iowa]. And if you don't have it, then it's not good enough to compete with Indiana, Ohio State and Michigan State year in and year out if your facilities aren't as good, if not better."

Alford said he lost two or three recruits to Michigan State after working the players for years. He said Iowa's facilities were one of the reasons.

[+] EnlargeSteve Alford
AP Photo/Charlie NeibergallAfter eight years at Iowa, it was time for Steve Alford and the Hawkeyes to go their separate ways.
"I don't think that happens in the Mountain West; maybe someone wants to play for Lon [Kruger] at UNLV or Steve [Fisher] at San Diego State, but I don't see it happening where we lose a player [because of facilities]," Alford said.

Alford said he never would have dreamed 15 years ago that he'd be the coach at New Mexico. He said even when Knight called him last season about the job -- which he said occurred because Knight's former president at Texas Tech was Schmidly -- he still didn't think he would be interested.

"I was shocked and said I had to think about it, but I started looking at it," Alford said. "I knew the pressure would be there. New Mexico has the mindset that they're Indiana. I don't mind that attitude as long as you back it up with commitment."

New Mexico is pouring millions into upgrading The Pit as well as a practice facility.

"We had 18 home games last season, and 15 of them Dr. Schmidly was in the locker room," Alford said. "He's very proactive. It's a great feeling. I had a great time at Iowa, but Iowa needed to commit to it. I couldn't convince them how important a strength coach was, how important that piece was to us."

The commitment from the administration was shown to Alford's top assistant, Craig Neal, who turned down offers to return to the NBA bench this past spring because he has a multiyear deal and is being paid $250,000, a high number for an assistant in Division I.

The Lobos have lost their best player: McKay recruit and fifth-year senior J.R. Giddens, a Kansas transfer who went to the Boston Celtics in the last pick of the first round of the June draft.

"I'm sure everyone is waiting to see how we do," Alford said. "The toughest part was academically; we were an academic mess. So Year 1 was just trying to put in what we believe in with student-athletes. I don't think there were great expectations, but we won 24 games. Everyone wanted to see how we played. Quite honestly, we have to upgrade the talent. We've got back-to-back good recruiting classes, and hopefully we'll be atop the Mountain West. Right now, the only promise is winning the league or winning the [conference] tournament. We've got to find a way to win the league or the tournament."

Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.

Andy Katz | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com