Joe Santoro: Knuth may have worked his magic again | NevadaAppeal.com

Joe Santoro: Knuth may have worked his magic again

Joe Santoro
This Dec. 22, 2018, file photo shows UCLA head coach Steve Alford and his players watching during the second half against Ohio State.
AP | AP

Sports fodder …

Doug Knuth has worked his magic once again. The Nevada Wolf Pack athletic director lost men’s basketball coach Eric Musselman last week to the Arkansas Razorbacks so Knuth immediately went out this week and got the next best thing. The Wolf Pack on Thursday named former UCLA, New Mexico, and Iowa head coach Steve Alford to replace Musselman. Alford and Musselman were born four days apart (Muss on Nov. 19, 1964, and Alford four days later) in neighboring states (Alford in Indiana, Muss in Ohio). So Knuth, it seems, is hiring the Indiana version of the Ohioan Musselman. Both were mentored at a young age by legendary coaches. Muss by his dad Bill and Alford by Bob Knight. Bot have had similar coaching success. Alford, actually, has a more impressive resume in college coaching than Muss, going to 11 NCAA tournaments as a Division I coach. He has won 509 games in Division I (20 or more wins 15 times), which is more than twice that of Jake Lawlor’s school-record 204 wins at Nevada. Alford is also quite familiar with the Mountain West, winning four conference titles and 207 games in six years (2007-13) at New Mexico. Under Alford the Wolf Pack shouldn’t lose any of the momentum it built up under Musselman. Alford might even take it to the next level.

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Alford, who was fired by UCLA last December, has had just one losing season (15-17 in 2015-2016) in 23 full seasons (13 in the Big Ten and Pac-12 combined) as a Division I coach. The former Bob Knight point guard at Indiana (he won a national title in 1987) is a gritty competitor, a winner and one of the most successful college coaches over the past two-plus decades. His hiring might be an even greater coup for the Pack and Knuth than even the hiring of Musselman, who had never been a college head coach before. Since he became athletic director in April 2013, Knuth has transformed the university’s athletic department, hiring such outstanding coaches as Jay Johnson and T.J. Bruce in baseball, Jay Norvell in football and Musselman and Alford in men’s basketball. The four seasons of Musselman brought the Pack tremendous success on the court, in the ticket office and in the national media and Knuth is seemingly doing all he can to keep that success rolling with Alford. Some athletic directors (see Cary Groth) replace a Chris Ault with a Brian Polian. Knuth replaces a Musselman with a coach that might be even better.

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Alford, to be sure, won’t come to Nevada without controversy. He lost six of his last nine games at UCLA, including a 15-point loss to Liberty in his final game. He was the first UCLA coach to not go past the Sweet 16 since Walt Hazzard in the late 1980s and the first Bruins coach to not win a Pac-12 regular season title since Larry Brown (1989-91). He left New Mexico for UCLA just days after signing a 10-year contract extension. A UCLA fan once flew a plane over the UCLA campus with a banner that read “Fire Alford.” He was the coach of Pierre Pierce at Iowa, the basketball player that was charged with the rape of a student. He was criticized at times at UCLA and Iowa for his strong religious beliefs, at one point addressing his critics by saying, “I have an audience of one (God).” UCLA fans at one point signed a petition demanding he be fired. Like Musselman, with his fiery temper, his you’ll do-it-my-way-or-get-out-of-the-way attitude and let-me-tell-you-how-great-I-am-and-how-hard-I-work personality, Alford has things in his background that led him to Nevada. Alford also isn’t the salesman Musselman proved to be. He was criticized by UCLA fans for being distant and too wrapped up in his religion and personal life, saying basketball was the fourth or fifth most important thing in his life. Musselman’s personal life was basketball, winning games and making money. He uses his family to help his coaching career. Alford answers to a higher authority than athletic directors, fans and media.

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Knuth, it seems, is perfect for Reno. He’s a gambler. He’s a go-for-broke type of guy who’s always trying to hit a home run with his coaching hires. Some athletic directors might become gun-shy after seeing Musselman leave after just four seasons. Some athletic directors might then go out and hire a coach they feel could stay a decade or longer and give the program stability. Some athletic directors might not return messages from controversial guys like Musselman and Alford. Knuth, though, isn’t just some athletic director. Knuth prefers to push his programs to new heights as quickly as possible. And whatever happens after that, well, that just means it’s time to do it all over again. It doesn’t bother Knuth at all to hire a coach who, if successful, will likely leave within five years. To Knuth, all that means is he hired the right coach. The arena was filled, the athletic department made money and the team won a lot of games. And everybody (the fans included) comes out the other end as winners. It’s perfectly fine to be known as Stepping Stone University when you have someone like Knuth hiring the coaches. He has a knack for finding difference makers.

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It might be unfair, though, to label Alford as just another coach looking to use Nevada as a stepping stone. That might prove to be true but the 54-year-old Alford has said he wants this to be the final coaching stop of his career. He’s already done the Power Five, big-money thing at Iowa and UCLA. What he found is those are places that could fire you with a 7-6 record in December after four NCAA tournaments in five years. He might be tired with all of that nonsense. Basketball and winning, after all, isn’t the motivating factor in his life as it was with Musselman. But a coach can win consistently at Nevada. Musselman proved Nevada can be a perennial NCAA tournament school, that it can get to the Sweet 16, it can get ranked consistently in the Top 25 and it can be a part of the national landscape. Alford can have the same success in the ticket booth and on the court at Lawlor Events Center as he did at The Pit in New Mexico. Alford, unlike Musselman, might not be in Nevada simply coaching for his next job. He’s already had that next job. He might be looking for that perfect job and Nevada just might be it.

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It’s now safe to label Knuth as the greatest athletic director in the history of Nevada sports. Jake Lawlor was well liked but he was simply the athletic director of a big high school. The Wolf Pack has more assistant defensive football coaches now than Lawlor had for all his sports combined. Chris Ault did some wonderful things, such as leading the university into the easy-money Division I-A football era, but he was just a football coach who didn’t like having a boss. Groth was good at shaking hands and hugging and little else. Knuth is also good at shaking hands, slapping backs and smiling at boosters but there’s a determined, cutthroat, focused, intelligent, forward-thinking, businesslike approach to everything he does. Don’t let the smile and handshake fool you. It was Knuth who didn’t hesitate to get rid of two coaches (football’s Brian Polian and basketball’s David Carter) who failed miserably at the box office and were mediocre on the field and court. Wolf Pack men’s basketball is no longer a meaningless mid-major that simply got lucky with one out-of-the-box hire in Musselman. It’s now a national program that attracts national coaches because it has a national athletic director.

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UNLV’s last two men’s basketball head coaches have been Marvin Menzies out of New Mexico and T.J. Otzelberger of South Dakota State. Good coaches out of good programs. Otzelberger, who nearly beat Musselman at Lawlor this past season, might turn out to be great. Maybe. But the Wolf Pack’s last two men’s basketball hires are Musselman and Alford. Great coaches with great programs (Muss in the NBA, Alford at UCLA, Iowa) on their resumes. Do you need any more proof of where the most nationally relevant men’s basketball program resides in this state?