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Burning Ring of Fire: Former Iowa Basketball Coach Steve Alford’s Story Comes Full Circle

All signs point to Indiana making a push to hire Steve Alford as their next head basketball coach. We take a trip down memory lane to remember why that’s a terrible idea.

Disclaimer: this story includes profanity. A name has no power if you don’t give it any. Talking about a painful memory means acknowledging a name.

In the midst of all the madness of March, a story line is forming that is sure to truly drive the fanbases of basketball programs in a couple different conferences to madness. It has little to do with the NCAA Tournament, outside the fact that the man at the center of it all will be leading the UCLA Bruins against the Kentucky Wildcats tonight in the Sweet Sixteen.

You may have heard (if not, I honestly don’t know how you managed to get to this site), Steve Alford is a prime candidate for the new coaching vacancy at Indiana University created by the Creaning of Tom Crean. That decision would be it’s own story line most any other year. Crean was coming off a year that saw the Hoosiers win the Big Ten regular season and make a Sweet Sixteen run for the second time in four years, only to finish in 10th this year and exit the NIT in the first round of a season riddled with injuries.

Crean’s run at IU wasn’t exactly the type of stint you write books about, but it wasn’t exactly terrible either. In 9 seasons with the Hoosiers, Crean went 166-135 (.551) with a pair of Big Ten Championships and three trips to the Sweet Sixteen. If Fran McCaffery did that at Iowa, we’d be talking about raises, extensions and taking the next step as a program (FWIW, Fran actually has a better winning percentage thus far in his Iowa tenure at .576). But the UI isn’t IU and Crean is currently unemployed.

So Indiana is looking for a new coach to “right the ship” for the fourth time since Bob Knight departed in 2000. Since roughly the moment the door hit Crean in the proverbial butt, rumors have been swirling that Alford was THEE guy. That’s been largely fueled by the comments from Indiana’s AD, Fred Glass. In discussing what he would be looking for in a new coach, Glass had the following to say:

“I don’t really have a litmus test at all. To me, IU ties is a double check plus. Being a former IU person is a double check plus. Being from the state of Indiana is double check plus. Collegiate coaching experience is certainty a plus, but there’s other ways, evidence to show your ability to take on a job like this.

I’m not going to foreclose anybody because they don’t have Indiana ties, and I’m not going to foreclose somebody because they haven’t been a coach in college, but I’m going to acknowledge that I think that’s a plus

My guess is that the interest in this job will be such that I won’t interview everybody, but I’ll interview everybody that is connected to Indiana University. Any Alumnus of Indiana University that wants to apply to this job, I will personally talk to them.”

Yeah, that sounds like he has basically one guy in mind. So, how did we get here? Time for a trip down memory lane.

The year was 1987, and while some of us were just being born, Alford was a senior on an IU squad coached by Bob Knight on its way to a 24-4 season and a Big Ten Championship. Alford was a clean-cut, hometown kid that could shoot the lights out. Picture Jordan Bohannon with short shorts and the Hawkeyes winning a ton. People liked him. Then picture this: not only does the team win the Big Ten, they make a run in the NCAA Tournament that ends in a National Championship. In the Championship Game, Alford went 7-10 from three and finished with 23 points. It was the perfect ending to a season that saw him named the Big Ten Player of the Year. Alford was a hero in the Hoosier State.

He went on to be drafted and played four seasons in the NBA before hanging up the sneakers in exchange for dress shoes, more hair gel and a head coaching job at Division III Manchester University back in his home state of Indiana. He won back-to-back-to-back conference championships from ‘93-’95 before moving up the coaching ladder for the head job at what was then Southwest Missouri State in 1995.

The Bears and Alford were a nice pair. In four seasons, they went 78-48, culminating in a Sweet Sixteen run in 1999. Not only was he successful on the court, he seemed to be fitting in pretty well in Springfield.

Art Hains, voice of the Missouri State (formerly Southwest Missouri State) Bears for more than 30 years had the following to say regarding his memories of the Alford years:

Well this is kind of romanticized, but it was kind of Camelot. The Alford’s were basketball royalty. This was his first D1 job. Played Knight in Indianapolis at the Hoosier Classic and the pre-game handshake was covered like that of two heads of state. Played Huggins on ESPN in the finals of the Puerto Rico Classic on New Year’s Day... that didn’t go well... but then of course the run to the Sweet 16 in 1999, what turned out to be his last year. Took the program where it had never been before or since, and those players have remained loyal to the program, even though only one still lives in the area.

The knocks are the familiar ones for Steve. He is a confident guy, and that turns some people off, but I found him to be caring and friendly. I’ll not forget getting a call from him while driving to the Mayo Clinic for cancer treatment in 1996, and his oldest son, Corey, following our son, who was about 7-8 years older, around at individual camp in the summer. The Alford Years are good memories for the Hains family.

*A huge shout out to Harry Schroeder of and Russell Steinberg of Mid-Major Madness for getting us in touch with Art.*

So that’s what Bob Bowlsby and the Iowa Hawkeyes thought they were getting when they hired Alford following the 1999 season. He was a hero in his home state; a former collegiate star who not only played in the conference, but won a National Championship, a gold medal and played in the NBA. He had won in each of his first two coaching stops, capped off by a run to the Sweet Sixteen at a mid-major in a neighboring state. He had personality, charisma and what looked like everything needed to take Iowa to the promised land after years of fan in-fighting over a Tom Davis-led team that had appeared to plateau.

Things seemed to start in the right direction when the Hawkeyes took down defending National Champion UCONN in Madison Square Garden in Alford’s debut at the helm. The first season didn’t end so well (14-16), but all was forgiven when the following year Iowa went 23-12 and won the Big Ten Tournament en route to a #7 seed and a trip to the Round of 32.

That 2000-2001 team was symbolic of the Hawkeyes under Alford. Over his eight years in Iowa City, the Hawkeyes went 152-106 (.589) with a conference record of 61-67 (.477). Iowa won a pair of Big Ten Tournament Championships under Alford, but no regular season championships. In 8 years, there were only 3 trips to the NCAA Tournament and only a single win.

His tenure at Iowa is most memorable, aside from a completely unremarkable record as a coach, for two things: the collapse of the ‘05-’06 team in the first round of the NCAA Tournament as a #3 seed to the #14 seeded Northwestern State (as in the northwestern part of the state of Louisiana) Demons and one of the most despicable controversies in the history of the University of Iowa.

This is where the story of Alford goes off the rails. Or at least it should.

Listen, this is an Iowa Hawkeye blog. If you’re here, you know the important details of the Pierre Pierce scandal. If you don’t, I encourage you to do a quick Google search. I’ll wait here.

Feel dirty? I know I do. In the fall of 2002, Pierre Pierce, then a sophomore guard for the Hawkeyes coming off an excellent freshman season, was arrested and charged with third-degree sexual assault. The details are horrific. Alford’s handling of the situation was despicable. The UI’s official report can be found here. But here’s a synopsis.

Alford repeatedly defended his player publicly, even declaring “I totally believe he’s innocent. I believed it from day one, and I still believe it,” at Big Ten Media Day. Per Dan Bernstein of of CBS Chicago, Alford then

enlisted the help of close friend Jim Goodrich, the campus representative for Christian group Athletes in Action who often traveled with the team and conducted bible-study sessions. Per specific instruction from Alford, the victim was invited to what she was told was a “prayer meeting,” at which she was urged to back off and not cause problems for a basketball program that could overpower her.

Even after the failed attempt to strong-arm the victim, Alford continued to publicly defend Pierce. The situation turned many a Hawkeye fan against their coach. They could look past the arrogance. They could get past his poorly hidden desire to be at Indiana. But this incident was too much. They protested outside Carver-Hawkeye Arena and they turned against the leader of their team.

University of Iowa v Indiana University
Pierre Pierce is a name many Hawkeye fans have tried to forget. Unfortunately, too many athletic directors seem to be forgetting it as well.

So what did Alford do? In another staggering display of arrogance and bravado, he brought Pierce back to the team. After pleading guilty to a lesser charge and redshirting in 2002-2003, Pierce returned to the Hawkeyes for his sophomore season in 2003-2004. He was incredibly talented and Alford couldn’t pass up an opportunity to win. During the 2004-2005 season, he was leading the team in scoring at 17.8 ppg with 5.2 rpg and 4.2 apg when he was finally removed from the team in February of 2005. The dismissal came only after Pierce was involved in yet another sexual assault. In August of 2005, he pled guilty to third-degree burglary, assault with an intent to commit sexual abuse, false imprisonment, and fourth-degree criminal mischief and was sentenced to two years in prison.

So, despite my fond childhood memories at Hawkeye Basketball camps hosted by Alford or watching him roam the court with his ever-gelled hair and the joy I got watching that 2005-2006 team attain a #3 seed in the NCAA Tournament, that’s the Steve Alford I remember. And that’s the Steve Alford nearly every Iowa Basketball fan remembers. And yet, the man continues to find employment.

Following a lackluster 2006-2007 season that saw the Hawkeyes miss both the NCAA Tournament and the NIT, Alford ran out the back door of Iowa City without paying his bill and grabbed a job at the University of New Mexico. UNM had to have questions about the past, but apparently they were able to get over it. Maybe those are the types of things you have to do when you’re a mid-major. Maybe they genuinely didn’t get the details. Or maybe they truly believed Alford was contrite and had learned from the whole ordeal. Who knows.

At the end of the day, Alford spent 6 years as the head man for the Lobos, where he arguably had more success than anywhere else. He amassed a record of 155-52 (.749) en route to four conference championships, three NCAA Tournament appearances and two NCAA Tournament wins. It’s easy to see why opinions on him are different in Albuquerque than in Iowa City.

We reached out to Eli Boettger of Mountain West Connection for the Lobo point of view:

Though New Mexico won just one tournament game in six seasons under Steve Alford, Lobo fans would do anything to have the Indiana native back on the UNM sidelines.

Frustration has boiled over in Albuquerque, where Craig Neal has failed to guide New Mexico to more than 18 wins in a season in the past three years. To make matters worse, its former head coach, Steve Alford, has proceeded to notch three Sweet 16's with a chance for more this season in just four years.

New Mexico fans would gladly welcome Alford home in a heartbeat (though it won't happen), but the end of Alford's stay with UNM won't soon be forgotten. The Lobos entered the 2013 NCAA Tournament with a 29-5 record, notching a #3 seed for the Big Dance, but flamed out in the first round to Harvard.

But it can never be all sunshine and rainbows with Alford.

Nine days later, UNM also lost its head coach. Alford signed a lengthy 10-year extension the week prior, noting that he had originally envisioned that he would coach New Mexico until his retirement. However, money (though Alford did not cite it as a reason for leaving) and the chance of coaching one of the most storied college basketball teams in the nation was too much to pass up. Alford’s decision to bolt to Los Angeles was a shock to Lobo players and is still a dark cloud over the middling New Mexico program.

There is still a great amount of resentment towards Alford with how he abandoned New Mexico, but it would be foolish to think Lobo fans would wish for any other situation than what it is in right now. Each time Steve Alford and his son Bryce (who had signed a letter of intent to play for the Lobos) flash upon a TV screen throughout this year's NCAA Tournament, it is a painful reminder of what could have been for New Mexico.

I don’t fault the guy for wanting to advance his career. Coaching at UCLA is a dream for just about any hoops coach. And living in the glamour of LA is a pretty decent alternative to Albuquerque and Iowa City. But to sign a 10-year extension and then bolt?

And while New Mexico seemed to have little issue getting over his past, the folks in Westwood weren’t so easy to appease. At least not the ones who had the final say. Our friends over at Bruins Nation were incredibly outspoken at the time, not just about the hire, but the process to do so.

According to Joe Piechowski of Bruins Nation:

When we became aware of what had happened with Steve Alford and the Pierre Pierce incident at Iowa, we couldn’t believe that this guy had been hired to run Coach Wooden’s program at UCLA.

Us either. For The Pants’ part, the old crew did what they could to warn the world. But alas, the athletic directors of major institutions don’t seem to listen to those of us with keyboards and access to SB Nation.

So, Alford is still (currently) at UCLA. Things have gone OK, though not exactly as UCLA fans expect things to go at their basketball palace. Alford is 96-44 (.686) through four seasons with the Bruins. Tonight he will lead them to their third Sweet Sixteen appearance during his tenure. But that comes on the heels of a 15-17 season that ended with Alford giving back his contract extension in what appeared to be a rare act of humility.

NCAA Basketball Tournament - Second Round - Sacramento
Having guys like Lonzo Ball sure helps.
Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

His time at UCLA has been what Hawkeye fans had hoped for, but what UCLA fans dread. Very good regular season records with pretty regular tournament appearances and good recruiting classes. But those are things just about anyone should be able to accomplish in Westwood. This year could mark his first sincerely deep run in the NCAA Tournament. And it appears to be fueled much more by some excellent players than coaching. Granted, one of the biggest pieces (as Hawkeye fans should be all too familiar with given our experience with John Lickliter) to winning in college hoops is getting great players, but I’m still not convinced we’ve seen any true display of coaching prowess.

Nico Gervasoni of Pacific Takes seems to agree:

From a UCLA perspective, there’s a simple reason Alford is a bad fit for Indiana: He’s a middling coach.

This season aside, his UCLA years have been marked by never defending corner threes, losing to Frank Haith, beating just one single-digit seed in the tournament on a “goaltend,” playing Bryce Alford at point guard over Zach LaVine and Aaron Holiday and losing 17 games at a place where it is really, really, really difficult to do so. A generational talent at point guard and a future NBA stretch 4 are papering over the cracks of a program that’s been stuck in neutral over the last three years.

Would I miss Alford if he left? Not really. His hire, rushed by an administration that tried to avoid the Pierre Pierce situation altogether, was met with skepticism that’s led him to being never truly embraced. So for him, the iron to strike may never be hotter. Could he recruit Indiana? His recent track record here says yes. But could he win more than Tom Crean? I’m skeptical. Ultimately, what does Indiana want? The best fit with its tradition and history? Then Steve Alford’s the guy. But if it wants the best coach? Then Alford shouldn’t even get a phone call.

So here we are. In the midst of March Madness and perhaps the maddest thing going on is another athletic director who seems determined to give Alford another opportunity. Nearly fifteen years after his player was charged with rape, Alford appears set to continue climbing the coaching ladder. Nearly fifteen years after trying to intimidate a rape victim into not pressing charges against his star player, Alford appears to be the prime candidate to return to his home state of Indiana and take over yet another storied program. More than a decade after his star player raped a second victim, Steve Alford is poised to be back in the Big Ten and roaming the sidelines of Carver Hawkeye Arena again.

And so this long, terrible story has nearly come full circle. Our friends at Crimson Quarry seem to be in a similar position as the folks at Bruins Nation were a few years ago: they don’t want Alford but their voices may not matter.

I hope they do. For the sake of all involved, I hope Alford has honestly learned from the situation and sincerely feels bad for his role in it. I hope the Steve Alford that Art Hains knows is the Steve Alford many, many more people know. But I doubt it. There are far too many people in Iowa City who remember a very different Steve Alford and I would hate to see him have the opportunity, after all that’s happened, to return to his home state of Indiana and play the role of hero. If his coaching history tells us anything, he would fall far short of expectations anyway. But on that outside chance he delivers, I’m still a bitter Hawkeye fan who doesn’t think he deserves that gratification.