ALBUQUERQUE — The kid who grew up shooting hoops in John Wooden Gym in Martinsville, Ind., is following the Wizard of Westwood’s footsteps all the way to Tinsel Town.
In a move that was as stunning as it was swift, Steve Alford stepped down as the head men’s basketball coach at The University of New Mexico to accept the same position at UCLA. The announcement came Saturday morning, just days after Ben Howland was fired as the Bruins’ head coach and less than two weeks after Alford signed a 10-year, $20 million extension with UNM.
Assistant coach Craig Neal was named interim head coach until a permanent replacement is found.
UNM athletic director Paul Krebs said there is no timetable for naming Alford’s successor.
“There is no reward for getting it done next Friday as opposed to the week after that,” Krebs said.
Neither Alford nor Krebs could make a definitive statement on the buyout clause in Alford’s current contract with UNM, but Krebs did say the 10-year extension did not officially begin until this coming Monday. That deal called for a $1 million buyout in the first full season, but the current figure would likely fall in the $150,000 to $200,000 range.
Either way, Alford’s tenure at UNM is over. It lasted six seasons and produced 155 wins, four Mountain West Conference regular season championships, two MWC tournament titles and six trips to the postseason, including three appearances in the NCAA Tournament. The Lobos won at least 28 games in three of his six seasons, making his short stay in Albuquerque the most successful span in school history.
The Lobos, of course, will be remembered for falling short in the postseason under Alford. The team made national headlines last week after falling as the No. 3 seed in the West Region to Ivy League champion Harvard, the No. 14 seed.
When speaking about the lure of UCLA, Alford said the Bruins’ postseason success was the measure of that program’s greatness. He also admitted that the lack of UNM’s postseason success in his half-dozen years (just two wins in the NCAA Tournament) is something that cannot be overlooked.
In moving to UCLA, Alford will reportedly sign a six-year deal worth $2.6 million annually. In the end, he said it wasn’t the money that got him to leave New Mexico.
“It’s UCLA. It’s 11 national championships,” he said. “It’s not just the top tier, it’s not just one of — it’s the most storied men’s-side program in the history of college basketball. That’s a huge draw when you’re a gym rat.”
Alford referenced his time as a grade-school kid in rural Indiana to help explain why he would bolt on virtually no notice. Wooden grew up in Martinsville and later built UCLA into the most feared and dominant team college basketball has ever seen. If you played basketball in Indiana, you grew up knowing about Wooden and his impact on the sport.
Alford said he was initially contacted by UCLA officials on Thursday. By Friday night they had agreed to a deal.
“This really has been a quick 48-hour period,” he said. “But it just felt right. It feels awful to leave you because you’re so happy and I know I could have been happy here for a long, long time and we would have continued to win and continued to win championships. But when an opportunity presents itself like UCLA, it was just really difficult to say no to that.”
Krebs said he had retired for the night Friday when UCLA athletic director Dan Guerrero attempted to contact him via text and by phone. He said UCLA never asked for permission to contact Alford, but the school was under no obligation to do so.
“As on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday; I thought this [UNM] was where I was going to be,” Alford said. “I could see myself retiring here. We love the community, we love the people. There are so many positives about it, but in this business, in my business, this is the pinnacle.”
Alford did not address the status of the current UNM players, although he did say his sons Kory and Bryce would join him in the move to UCLA. Kory Alford was a freshman on the Lobos roster this season, while Bryce is an incoming freshman.
Krebs said the school will release Bryce Alford from his national letter of intent that bound him to New Mexico.
Lobos center Alex Kirk and power forward Cameron Bairstow said their coach’s departure came as a complete shock to the team. Neither one ruled out a potential transfer for some players.
“I definitely think it’s somewhat of a possibility,” Bairstow said. “Basically you sign to play with the head coach. It’s more about the head coach than the school and the program, the place and the academics.”
Among the issues Krebs said he will address will be the proposed boost in prices for tickets and concessions, both meant to subsidize Alford’s new contract that essentially would have doubled his pay beginning next season. Presumably the next coach will not command a similar salary, thus allowing the school to minimize the spike in costs.