An Open Letter To Seth Davis

Dear Seth,

You know, Iowa basketball fans really are trying to move on. Honestly. There's a genuine sense of enthusiasm about the program with current coach Fran McCaffery and while the level of buy-in varies from fan to fan, most of us are pretty happy with the direction things are going. We're not eager to still wallow in memories of the tenures of the previous coaches here. But then we get a week like this, where Todd Lickliter's new boss at Miami University feels the need to trash Lickliter's old digs and where you feel the need to defend Steve Alford from the slings and arrows of disgruntled fans by painting Alford's Iowa tenure in the most favorable light possible -- to Alford. And, frankly, we feel compelled to respond. Especially when the piece is so divorced from reality.

If Travis was trying to pay Alford a compliment, he did a pretty lousy job. Frankly, it doesn't take a whole lot of guts to rip someone from the safety of your cubicle in Ypsilanti, especially if you're not going to provide your last name. You want to show some guts? Voice that opinion to Alford directly.

That's right, Travis from Ypsilanti, stop being such an Internet tough guy. Send that missive to ol' Steve himself. You know, where it will probably be deleted sight unseen by his secretary. But I digress. There's another purpose to your jab at poor Travis at work here...

I'm not sure if it showed guts or foolishness, but I decided to reach out to Alford myself on Tuesday and read him Travis' e-mail, word for word.

A-ha! To boost your credentials as a real journalist, unlike those keyboard warriors that gripe on message boards. You're not afraid to do the "tough" things in this business. You know, like read a mildly critical email to a coach. I assure you, Seth, that Alford has been called far worse things than "inept," both in print and to his face. But feel free to celebrate your "guts."

"We had seven winning seasons and we won two Big Ten [tournament] titles," he said. "If you look at the history of Iowa basketball, I think they've won four or five Big Ten titles of any kind. Yet, the perception is we weren't successful there."

To be sure, seven winning seasons sounds impressive after suffering through four straight losing seasons, but compared to what had come before Alford? Not so much. Iowa had winning seasons in eight of the ten seasons prior to Alford's arrival. They also won 20 or more games in seven of those eight seasons, something Alford's teams managed to do just three times. As far as Big Ten titles go, it's not "four or five" -- it's eight. Mind you, those were also regular season championships, a far different beast than the tournament titles that Alford won. Those tournament titles were nice -- they're impressive accomplishments (winning 3 or 4 games in 3 or 4 days isn't easy) worth celebrating -- but they're a much different thing than winning a title over the grind of 14-16 games that span a few months. The Big Ten Tournament titles that Alford so proudly celebrates also stem from a creation (the Big Ten Tournament) that debuted just two years before Alford arrived at Iowa.

All you have to do is look at Alford's record before and after his Iowa tenure, not to mention Iowa's record before and after Alford coached there.

I might suggest following your own advice there, Seth. If you had taken even a cursory glance at Iowa's record prior to Alford's arrival, you might have a better idea of why there was so much dissatisfaction with his record at Iowa.

It starts with unrealistic expectations. If Alford were the coach at his alma mater, Indiana, and he took the team to the NCAA tournament three times in eight years and failed to reach the Sweet 16, that could rightly be characterized as a disappointment. At Iowa, however, that was very impressive.

Ah, and now we arrive at the condescending part of this argument. Is Iowa on the same hoops plateau as Indiana? Certainly not. They're one of the top ten programs in the history of the sport. But Iowa also isn't chopped liver. It was "very impressive" that Alford "took [Iowa] to the NCAA tournament three times in eight years" and "failed to make the Sweet 16?" Really, Seth? In the eight years before Alford, Iowa went to the NCAA tournament five times. They made the Sweet 16 once (the year immediately before Alford showed up, in fact). Also of note: they made it to the second round all five years they were in the NCAA tournament. Alford's Iowa teams won precisely one first-round NCAA tournament game. So Alford's "impressive" accomplishments were, by any standard, less impressive than the accomplishments of his predecessor.

He got fired and was replaced by Fran McCaffrey, who had just gone to three straight NCAA tournaments at Siena. In his nearly two years at Iowa, McCaffrey's teams have gone 10-22 in Big Ten play.

10-22 is one way to look at his record, a particularly useful way to look at it if you want to prop up your argument that Iowa has always been a bunch of losers except when graced with the coaching acumen of Steve Alford. Iowa went 4-14 last year in McCaffery's first season, but is 6-8 this year with four more games to play. If McCaffery wins two more B1G games this year, he'd have more conference wins in a season than Alford had in five of his eight seasons at Iowa. This despite playing in the most difficult conference in the country.

Remember, too, that Alford didn't get fired at Iowa. He voluntarily left for New Mexico. Why? In the first place, he was undercut by his then-athletic director, Bob Bowlsby, who refused to stand up to the message-board crowd in Alford's defense. In addition, New Mexico offered Alford a commitment to basketball that Iowa couldn't. When Alford got to Albuquerque, he had a new practice facility and a full-time strength coach, two things he didn't have at Iowa.

First, you're right that Iowa didn't live up to its commitment to provide Alford with a new practice facility and weight room -- they didn't get around to those things until this year. That's on Iowa.

(Ed. Note: Bob Bowlsby wasn't the athletic director at Iowa when Alford was "undercut" -- that was Gary Barta. Yet another factual error in a piece rife with them.)

But your account of Alford's demise curiously omits several factors. Like the Pierre Pierce incident, a flashpoint of negative publicity exacerbated by Alford's clumsy handling of the situation. Or the fact that season ticket sales steadily dropped under Alford. (You tout New Mexico's rabid fan support, but decline to mention that Iowa had excellent attendance through the '80s and '90s.) It wasn't just "the message-board crowd" (no doubt related to those nefarious bloggers in their mothers' basements) griping about Alford -- it was former season ticket holders (speaking with their wallets), it was women's rights groups (speaking via rallies and editorials), and it was several other members of the community who were turned off by Alford.

Keep in mind that the year before he came to Iowa, Alford had piloted Southwest Missouri State to the Sweet 16. That's right, Southwest Missouri State. He is, by any standard, one of the finest college basketball coaches in America.

Any standard except one that looks at postseason success, apparently. Alford has made it to the Sweet 16 exactly once in his illustrious career -- that magical run with little ol' Southwest Missouri State. In fact, so far all of Alford's fine coaching has led to a grand total of four NCAA tournament wins in his entire 12-year coaching career. Shaka Smart won five NCAA tournament games with VCU last year. (Incidentally, Tom Davis, the man Alford replaced at Iowa, won 13 NCAA tournament games at Iowa.)

Your account also suggests that when things go awry, the problem is the fans or the administrators or the program itself (which just isn't that good, of course). Why, Steve Alford and Todd Lickliter took mid-major teams to the Sweet 16 -- of course they're good coaches. It's not their fault they couldn't succeed at Iowa -- who could? Well, Tom Davis could. George Raveling could. Lute Olsen could. Steve Alford couldn't. Todd Lickliter couldn't. That in itself doesn't make them "bad" coaches. Your general point -- that coaches get too much blame when things go wrong -- contains some merit. But that doesn't mean you should construct hopelessly one-sided and factually inaccurate defenses to absolve them of blame.

Sincerely,
Ross

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