Joe Santoro: The best is yet to come for Alford and Nevada Wolf Pack

Nevada head coach Steve Alford instructs his team against Boise State in the quarterfinals of the Mountain West Conference men's tournament March 11 in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/Isaac Brekken)

Nevada head coach Steve Alford instructs his team against Boise State in the quarterfinals of the Mountain West Conference men's tournament March 11 in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/Isaac Brekken)

Go ahead, try to predict what Steve Alford will do next. The last thing Alford did that was predictable was go to Indiana and play for Bobby Knight. That was 40 years ago.
The past four decades Alford’s professional life has been filled with one strange career choice after another. He became a head coach at a little-known Indiana Division III school (Manchester) at the age of 24. He went from Iowa to New Mexico. He got fired at UCLA and four months later took the Nevada job. This is the same guy, after all, that signed a 10-year contract extension at New Mexico and two weeks later left for UCLA.
Steve Alford is a strange dude. One minute he is as likeable, friendly and polite as the kid next door. And the next minute, well, ask the fans at Iowa and UCLA. This past week we were treated to another weird Alford moment. This one, though, was all too predictable. Alford told Jon Rothstein of CBS Sports that he wasn’t going to pursue the vacant Indiana Hoosiers head coaching job. That prompted Jeff Goodman of Stadium to report (also, of course, on Twitter) that Indiana had no plans of pursuing Alford. Alford doesn’t want Indiana and Indiana doesn’t want Alford.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before over and over for the past 20 years. One of these years we would like to know why we’ve never been given an honest answer as to why Alford doesn’t want Indiana and Indiana doesn’t want Alford.
Why wouldn’t Alford be interested in coaching the Hoosiers? He grew up there. He popped out of the Indiana cornfields with the map of Indiana on his face and the Hoosier twang in his voice. He became an Indiana legend. He won a national title there. He is as popular in Indiana as Larry Bird, Bobby Knight and Peyton Manning.
Why wouldn’t Indiana want Alford? Isn’t Alford the real life Jimmy Chitwood from the movie Hoosiers? Didn’t he, we repeat, bring a national title to the Hoosiers in 1987? Alford’s likeness should be on Indiana license plates, for goodness sake.
His still-fit 6-foot-2 form should be on the Hoosiers bench, now more than ever. Haven’t the past 20 years taught the Hoosiers anything? It’s been two decades since Knight was banished from campus and the Hoosiers have made one head coaching blunder after another with Mike Davis, Kelvin Sampson, Tom Crean and the latest mistake, Archie Miller.
Unless the eventual choice now is current Boston Celtics coach Brad Stevens, an Indiana legend like Alford without the jumpshot or national title, we’re likely going to see another Hoosiers’ mistake.
Rothstein concluded his tweet about Alford’s lack of interest in Indiana with, “The Wolf Pack should have a chance to win the Mountain West next season.” Alford couldn’t have written it any better. All that was missing at the end of the tweet was, “Go Pack!”
A chance at winning the Mountain West? Really? That is a legitimate reason for not pursuing the Indiana job? That laugh you just heard came from Eric Musselman, Trent Johnson and Mark Fox. At Indiana Alford can win a Big Ten title. He can win a national title. He could rename the state Alfordville.
It was always strange that Alford took the Nevada job in the first place. Why Nevada? Why not wait until a more high profile job with a higher ceiling came along, even if it took a year or two? It’s not like Alford, who lived near the Kardashians and Justin Bieber when he was UCLA’s head coach, needed the money.
But maybe it is because Alford didn’t need the pressures of big-time college basketball anymore. Maybe he was tired of having to live up to expectations. Maybe he grew tired of satisfying boosters. Maybe he grew weary of dealing with a media that didn’t kiss his 1987 national title ring each time he stepped behind a podium. Maybe he just wanted to spend the last decade of his career golfing and taking nature hikes in the mountains.
Alford, after all, has zero pressure at Nevada. The media, fan base and administration adores him and never questions anything he does or says. All Alford has to do at Nevada is win the majority of his games and give the appearance of competing for Mountain West titles and possible NCAA tournament bids. That’s not a difficult trick in the Mountain West.
At UCLA Alford was fired a couple months into his sixth season after going to four NCAA tournaments and three Sweet 16s in his first five years. At Nevada that would get a street named in his honor downtown and a statue in his likeness outside Lawlor Events Center.
The Wolf Pack, make no mistake, is fortunate to have Alford as its head coach. He’s not a great coach (he never won a Big Ten or Pac-12 regular season title and has never gotten past the Sweet 16) but he knows how to win basketball games. That is why athletic director Doug Knuth spent all of about 30 seconds giving him a 10-year deal two years ago. Alford, Knuth knew, would keep the Wolf Pack competitive in the mediocre Mountain West and keep the stands full of fans.
Alford, Knuth also knew, was damaged goods, in the final stage of his career and likely wouldn’t leave Nevada as quickly as Eric Musselman left. Alford’s two Power Five jobs (Iowa, UCLA), after all, ended badly, mainly because of off-the-court issues. Those issues never came out at Southwest Missouri State, New Mexico and likely won’t at Nevada because those administrations, fan bases and media treat him like a basketball God. At Iowa and UCLA they treated him like just another coach, rightfully questioning everything he did and said.
Alford is at Nevada, it seems, because he grew tired of explaining everything he did and said and being treated like just another coach that has to live up to expectations on and off the court. He’s treated at Nevada like he was treated on the Indiana campus in the 1980s. And he doesn’t even have to satisfy Bobby Knight.
Alford has gone 35-22 over his first two years at Nevada. He has yet to win the Mountain West regular season title and he’s lost two of his three Mountain West tournament games. The vast majority of his 35 victories at Nevada (22) have come at Lawlor Events Center. He doesn’t have any significant victories under his belt yet and has yet to coach in a postseason tournament.
But, to be fair, his first two years have been marred by COVID-19, wiping out any tournament possibilities in 2019-20 and turning 2020-21 into a grueling test of stamina. His best player (Jalen Harris) left after 2019-20 for professional basketball. And his 2020-21 team had its season shut down for two weeks by a COVID-19 outbreak just when it was playing its best basketball. All things considered, those 35 wins over the last two years is a solid accomplishment. The best is yet to come for Alford at Nevada.


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