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Fresh Off the Grill: Insights into UCLA Athletics’ search for Alford’s successor

UCLA Director of Athletics Dan Guerrero announced the firing of men’s basketball coach Steve Alford midway through the 2018-2019 season Monday morning. (Daily Bruin file photo)

By Angie Forburger

December 31, 2018 2:45 pm

The search for Steve Alford’s replacement has begun.

Following the firing of the UCLA men’s basketball coach Monday morning and the appointment of assistant coach Murry Bartow as the interim head coach, the athletic department said the search for a new coach will begin immediately.

[Related: UCLA fires men’s basketball coach Steve Alford days before start of Pac-12 play]

With a range of collegiate and NBA coaches to choose from, there are six strong candidates that should be at the forefront.

The best-case scenario

The top option for the Bruins is Billy Donovan. Donovan has coached the Oklahoma City Thunder since 2015. Prior to the NBA, he racked up over 20 years of collegiate coaching experience at Marshall and Florida.

Donovan led the Gators to 14 NCAA tournaments, including two NCAA championships, four Final Four appearances and three trips to the Elite Eight. With the Thunder and UCLA alum Russell Westbrook, Donovan has made the playoffs in each of his three seasons, including the Western Conference Finals in 2016.

The only knock on Donovan is that he may not want to leave the Thunder as he continues to build a contending team in the Western Conference.

The familiar face

Everyone is talking about Earl Watson as the next UCLA coach. While Watson was a Bruin himself for four years, from 1997-2001, he has had just over two years of head coaching experience in the NBA.

As head coach of the Phoenix Suns, Watson recorded a .280 winning percentage and suffered the worst loss in franchise history. A large part of the lack of success had to do with the weakness of his roster. However, many believe Watson was fired because he lost the locker room – much like what happened to Alford.

The fact that Watson has 13 years of NBA playing experience and is a UCLA alum make him an attractive candidate. But he does not have any collegiate coaching experience – which is a very different game from the NBA. And if he cannot have success with professionals, it is hard to believe that he would with the Bruins.

The safe choice

Another choice is Fred Hoiberg. Many believe that his four NCAA tournament appearances during his tenure at Iowa State make him a good candidate for the collegiate arena. However, he lacks recruiting experience, as the Cyclones often brought in transfer students and developmental players rather than five-star athletes.

Hoiberg played at Iowa State for four years before the Indiana Pacers picked the guard in the 1995 NBA Draft. With his ten years of NBA experience, he may offer good insight to the Bruins’ roster of NBA hopefuls.

The biggest question surrounding Hoiberg, however, is how he will rebound following his 5-19 start to the 2018-2019 season and recent firing as coach of the Chicago Bulls. Hoiberg had no NBA coaching experience prior to joining the Bulls and was unable to translate his fast-paced coaching style to the NBA.

The change-up

Buzz Williams is also an option for the Bruins. Williams is not a name that has been circling as a coaching option thus far; however, he offers a different and more intense mindset that could spark UCLA.

Williams is in his 12th year of Division I coaching, currently leading Virginia Tech with an 11-1 record and a No. 10 ranking to start this season. Prior to joining the Hokies in 2014, he coached Marquette to five seasons of over 20 wins, including two Sweet 16 appearances and one trip to the Elite Eight.

However, Williams has only brought in one ESPN five-star recruit to Virginia Tech over his five seasons – failing in comparison to Alford’s seven five-stars in his 5 1/2 years. The Hokies are also a rising program that Williams may not want to abandon.

The dark horse

Next on the list is Chris Beard. Beard is currently the coach of Texas Tech, which is sitting at No. 11 – but few have mentioned him as a candidate.

Beard has only been coaching Division I basketball since 2015, when he started at Little Rock. In his one season there, he was named Sun Belt Coach of the Year and led Little Rock to a first-round upset over Purdue in the 2016 NCAA tournament.

Beard is in his third season at Texas Tech and has a Big-12 Co-Coach of the Year honor and Elite Eight experience under his belt. Much like Alford, Beard was an assistant, under Indiana coaching legend Bobby Knight while Knight coached at Texas Tech.

Similar to both previous candidates, Beard has yet to bring in a strong recruiting class to the Red Raiders, as that program also focuses on development over “big-time recruits.” UCLA historically has revolved around the reputation of its recruiting classes.

The strong contender

Rounding out potential candidates for Alford’s replacement is Eric Musselman. Musselman currently coaches No. 6 Nevada – one of only four undefeated teams left in the NCAA.

A coach with collegiate and NBA experience, Musselman has led the Wolf Pack through three seasons with over 20 wins, including a Sweet 16 appearance last year. Analysts believe Musselman has Nevada poised for a Final Four run this season.

Musselman is at a school that relies on junior college transfers as opposed to top-100 recruits, so there is uncertainty about how he would do at an elite program with recruiting experience.

Musselman played for San Diego, giving him an edge in West Coast recruiting. Similar to Hoiberg, Musselman’s NBA coaching experience of over 10 years can also help connect him to the mindset of UCLA’s athletes.

Donovan is the dream for UCLA – but that dream is unlikely. Musselman leads the list of candidates that the Bruins should really keep their eyes on.

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Angie Forburger | Editor in chief
Forburger is the 2019-2020 editor in chief. She was previously an assistant Sports editor for the women's volleyball, gymnastics, softball, swim and dive and rowing beats and was a Sports reporter before that.
Forburger is the 2019-2020 editor in chief. She was previously an assistant Sports editor for the women's volleyball, gymnastics, softball, swim and dive and rowing beats and was a Sports reporter before that.
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