Joe Santoro: Alford has tough act to follow | NevadaAppeal.com

Joe Santoro: Alford has tough act to follow

Joe Santoro
Athletic director Doug Knuth, right, introduces Steve Alford, left, as the new Nevada basketball coach in Reno on April 12.
Andy Barron/AP | The Reno Gazette-Journal

Steve Alford has an almost impossible task of becoming the next Eric Musselman. Musselman, who left the Nevada Wolf Pack basketball program last month to become the head coach at Arkansas, was a lightning bolt of phenomenal success. You could argue he’s the greatest coach to ever coach any Wolf Pack sport. Three NCAA tournaments in four years. A Sweet 16. A CBI national title. Musselman won three-fourths of his games overall and more than 90 percent of his home games. His final team at Nevada lost just five games, none at home, and spent the bulk of the season ranked in the Top 10 nationally. Musselman was the Pied Piper of Pack hoops and Northern Nevada couldn’t get enough of him. He shattered attendance records at Lawlor Events Center. No coach at Nevada has ever been as popular and loved. Musselman at Nevada was James Dean, Marilyn Monroe and the Beatles with a flurry of amazing greatness and adulation over a short period of time before he left us far too soon. We might never see it again at Nevada. It would be unfair to put that type of pressure on Alford.

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If there’s a coach who could possibly replace a Musselman, however, it’s Alford. Alford isn’t afraid of anything or anyone. A little pressure won’t scare him. The guy, don’t forget, played for Bobby Knight. He knows first hand what it’s like to try to live up to the standards of a former legendary coach. You think Alford is afraid of the Musselman shadow? Well, try John Wooden, Larry Brown, Ben Howland and others at UCLA. How about Lute Olson, Tom Davis and Ralph Miller at Iowa or Norm Ellenberger and Dave Bliss at New Mexico? Alford, just 6-foot-2, grew up in tiny New Castle, Ind., to become one of the greatest amateur basketball players in the history of the game. He won an Olympic gold medal and a NCAA tournament title. He owned the Big Ten for four years. He was the fourth leading scorer on that 1984 gold medal-winning team behind the likes of Michael Jordan, Chris Mullin and Patrick Ewing. If you think Alford would ever be afraid of any sort of competition or comparison, real or imagined, you better think again.

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Alford, without question, enjoyed a tremendous athletic career as a player. In addition to being named Mr. Basketball in the state of Indiana, wining an Olympic gold medal and a NCAA tournament title at Indiana, he also played 169 games over four seasons in the NBA. Alford, though, is still not the most accomplished athlete to ever become a head coach at Nevada. That honor still goes to Jackie Jensen, who coached Wolf Pack baseball in 1970 and 1971 to a record of 25-45. Jensen, who coached future Wolf Pack head coach Gary Powers (then a pitcher), was a baseball and football star at Cal, playing in a Rose Bowl and winning a College World Series title. He’s the first player in Cal history to rush for 1,000 yards in a season. He went on to play 11 seasons in the major leagues with the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox and Washington Senators, hitting .279 with 199 homers, 929 RBI. He was an All Star three times and was the American League’s Most Valuable Player in 1958.

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The rumor around the University of Nevada is former Wolf Pack basketball coaches Trent Johnson and Mark Fox were both initially interested in replacing Musselman. Given it took athletic director Doug Knuth less than a week to hire Alford, it seems neither Fox or Johnson (or anyone other than Alford) was seriously considered for the job. Knuth needed a big name as head coach. He needed a coach with a proven winning track record. He needed to keep his fan base interested and excited. He needed a coach to come out and say (true or not) he isn’t using Nevada as a stepping stone. He needed someone to accept a 10-year deal with stiff buyouts and a small base salary. Alford checked all of those boxes. Fox and Johnson, while they’re both proven winners, likely wouldn’t have kept the fan base stimulated and aroused for long. They already have both used the Pack as a stepping stone. Hiring either one would have given off a sense of playing it safe and, well, playing it safe leads to boredom and a half empty Lawlor Events Center. Knuth, since he came to Nevada, has been all about moving forward, reaching new heights and trying new things. Other Pack athletic directors already hired Johnson and Fox.

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Fox, who didn’t coach last year after nine seasons at Georgia, is now the head coach at Cal and he has already hired Johnson as an assistant. Fox, it seems, has taken on an extremely difficult challenge at Cal. The Golden Bears have been to just one NCAA tournament in the last six years and won just 16 games over the past two years combined. They should be thrilled to have a coach as talented as Fox. But Cal athletic director Jim Knowlton has received some criticism for hiring Fox just five days after he fired former coach Wyking Jones. The criticism claims Knowlton rushed the decision and let a search firm (Collegiate Sports Associates) basically make the hire. Cal fans and media need to relax. Nobody is predicting a NCAA championship for Cal anytime soon, but the Golden Bears finally got it right. Fox is a solid coach. Cal is lucky to get him (and Johnson, a Berkeley native). Fox will eventually win 20-plus games a year at Cal and be in the NCAA tournament picture most years. That’s the best Cal, a Pac-12 also ran for much of its long history, can hope for.

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The Reno Aces are averaging just 3,664 fans a game at home this season, according to the Pacific Coast League’s web site. Is that cause for alarm? Not at all. Odds are the weather will warm up, school will come to a close, weekend attendance will swell and the average crowd will likely settle in at just more than 5,000 a game this year just like it was last year (5,019). Aces attendance, it seems, is based on the weather and the number of Friday-Saturday-Sunday games on the schedule. If all the games were Friday-Sunday and from June-August, the Aces would average about 7,500 fans a game or more.

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Can the Golden State Warriors win the NBA title this year without Kevin Durant? Durant, who had to leave Wednesday’s Game 5 104-99 win over the Houston Rockets in the third quarter, has already been ruled out for Game 6. He might never play again this postseason if his injury is found to be more serious than a calf strain. First DeMarcus Cousins gets hurt and now Durant? The Warriors are done, right? Well, not so fast. Durant is arguably the best player in the NBA but his absence doesn’t mean the end to the Warriors’ title hopes. You could argue the Warriors play even better and more as a team without him. There’s more ball movement. Steph Curry and Klay Thompson seem to play with more confidence and focus when they don’t have to feed Durant. The Warriors won titles without Durant and Cousins before. They can do it again.