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Steve Alford balances tradition, own approach as coach

New UCLA coach Steve Alford, like the many coaches before him, has had to deal with continual comparisons to John Wooden in his first few months on campus. Alford’s Indiana roots are a similarity he and Wooden share.

By Kevin Bowman

Nov. 8, 2013 1:55 a.m.

Steve Alford sat in a small booth at a local diner in Tarzana, Calif. A plate of eggs and bacon was on the table before him, a birthday cake sat opposite him and the face of John Wooden smiled down at him from the wall.

UCLA’s new men’s basketball coach spent the morning of Oct. 14 paying tribute to an old one, as Alford joined Wooden’s family at VIP’s Family Restaurant, where Wooden had been a regular, to celebrate the birthday of the UCLA legend.

“It was a great experience. (I) saw a lot of (Wooden’s) family there and spent some time with them,” Alford said. “(I saw) the booth that he sat in and all the pictures and obviously a lot of memories and stories of him having an awful lot of breakfasts to start his day there.”

After Alford relived a common daily routine of UCLA’s most famous coach, he now prepares to face the expectation of duplicating another of Wooden’s routines: winning.


Great expectations
With the hiring of any men’s basketball coach at UCLA comes the immediate side-by-side comparison to Wooden.

However, Wooden and Alford share more than just a job title. The two both grew up in Indiana, an upbringing that Alford places a high importance on. The Franklin, Ind. native said that, growing up, Indiana had around 350 high schools, but just one state championship, as opposed to the four championships given out now, with divisions based on school size. This competitiveness, he said, is what he thinks shaped him and Wooden early on.

“You learned how to compete,” Alford said. “You learned there were a lot of people in the dance but just one state championship. … I learned that at a very early age of competing to try to win, and that history in Indiana I think really helped me.

Alford’s Midwest roots have begun to rub off on his players as well. Sophomore guard/forward Kyle Anderson said he has picked his coach’s brain on the different style of basketball played in Indiana.

“It’s crazy to spend time in the gym with somebody who’s a part of that crazy Midwest basketball tradition – Coach Alford and our video coordinator Kory (Barnett, who attended Indiana University). I ask a lot of questions about what Indiana is like, how crazy basketball is,” Anderson said. “I always ask about stories and want to hear things about it because it’s just a different culture.”

Alford’s Indiana pedigree only contributes to the inevitable John Wooden comparisons that every UCLA men’s basketball coach must face. But their similar backgrounds make Alford feel pride more than pressure after getting his new gig, given his idolization of Wooden as a child.

“I would never distance myself to anyone like that. You can’t be compared to that guy,” Alford said. “Obviously we’re from the state of Indiana, we both grew up in Indiana. … I followed him. He was someone that I looked up to a great deal as an elementary kid.”

But Alford and Wooden’s similarities won’t be the focus as much as their differences.

Alford knows he’ll face constant scrutiny with Wooden’s statue next to Pauley Pavilion providing an ever-present reminder of the program’s success and the high expectations. However, he’s quick to point out that replicating Wooden’s success is a near-impossible task.

“When you’re the head basketball coach at UCLA, you can’t help but obviously get some of those comparisons, but there is no comparison,” Alford said. “Whether it’s me or whoever it is, trying to compare who’s the head basketball coach to (Wooden) is real difficult and probably an unfair comparison because of just who he is.”


Making a difference
As Alford looks to live up to Wooden’s legacy, he’s already begun to distinguish himself from his most recent predecessor.

Alford took the reins of the program just six days after former Bruin coach Ben Howland was fired. And while Howland had some success at UCLA, taking the Bruins to three Final Four appearances, Alford has already begun to make some changes from the old regime as the slow-paced offense of Howland, which often failed to showcase the talents of the Bruins’ athletes, has been replaced by an up-tempo motion offense.

“(There is) a lot of just scoring the ball, getting in transition, getting dunks (and) layups,” said freshman guard Zach LaVine, who has already been the beneficiary of Alford’s quicker style of play, with several highlight reel dunks in UCLA’s two preseason games.

Alford said his motion offense requires his players to react on the fly to certain mismatches, and that he has been “really impressed” with how quickly his team has caught on to it in practice.

“Our offense is a lot about reads. … It’s giving you the freedom to play, just make the right reads,” Alford said.

Players like sophomore forward Tony Parker have taken a liking to coach Steve Alford, citing his humor and approachability as two main reasons.
Katie Meyers

Players like sophomore forward Tony Parker have taken a liking to coach Steve Alford, citing his humor and approachability as two main reasons.
Beyond differing styles of play, Alford has proven to have a different philosophy to practices as well. Junior guard Norman Powell described Alford as a coach who uses a more hands-on approach during practice, stepping onto the court alongside players to teach – a strategy which he said differed from that of Howland.

“Well of course, it’s two different coaches. They grew up learning the game of basketball in two different areas of the country,” Anderson said. “It’s just different. You won’t go to every school in the country and see the same things. They do things differently.”

Alford’s history of playing the game, not just coaching, also resonates with his team. Sophomore guard Jordan Adams said Alford’s playing experience makes it easier for the coach to relate to his players, while Powell described Alford as a “player’s coach.”

Alford makes his successful playing career evident during practices, as he often opts to shoot around with the players, showcasing his jump shot, which helped lead Indiana to a 1987 national championship victory over Syracuse.

“Oh yeah, coach Alford can definitely shoot the ball really well. But I feel once he gets out and makes a few, I think he wants to keep it at that,” Anderson said. “He doesn’t want to get that missing shots, he doesn’t do that. Short and sweet.”

From warm-ups to drills, Anderson said that Alford takes a very distinct approach to practice. The players have also noticed their interactions with Alford vary from those with Howland, finding him to be very approachable.

“(He’s) really upbeat,” said Powell, who Alford nicknamed “Bowlegs.” “He likes to joke around. Really playful.”

All these changes will be put to the test today, as Alford and his UCLA squad take the court at Pauley Pavilion to play Drexel in their first regular season game. Even after having the job for seven months, Alford said he doesn’t expect the full impact of being UCLA’s head coach to hit him until game time.

“The UCLA part of it – that I’ve got to wait and see the feeling of that. Walking down that hall in Pauley from the locker room to the door that opens, that’s just a real area. It’s an area of awe when you pass the players that played here. I’ve got a good understanding of the coaches that have coached here.”

As Alford adds his name to the list of UCLA coaches, only time will tell if his own name will one day grace that historic hallway.

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Kevin Bowman | Alumnus
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