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New UCLA Coach Steve Alford steps out on a big stage — is he ready?

The spotlight will be on the basketball coach from New Mexico right from the start, with the pressure to take the team to the Sweet 16 or better.

March 30, 2013|Bill Plaschke

He has a rock-star image with an opening-act resume.

He was once Hoosiers, but, in the last decade, Gene Hackman has led the exact same number of teams to the Sweet 16.

He prides himself on playing Ivy League-smart basketball, which was pretty cool until a couple of weeks ago when his team was knocked out of the NCAA tournament in the first round by, um, Harvard.

Of course, regarding Saturday's hiring of Steve Alford as the UCLA basketball coach, there is only one question that matters.

What does Bill Walton think?

Seriously, plucking Alford's fallen star from the wilds of New Mexico and placing it in the middle of Hollywood feels more like a casting decision than a coaching decision.

Hey, John Wooden's school is now being led by a guy whose basketball roots are in Wooden's small-town Indiana! Look, an undisciplined program is now being led by a disciple of Bobby Knight! And, oh my, look at that hair!

The reality is that Alford, 48, hasn't been a serious top coaching prospect for several years. He was unable to inspire either Iowa or New Mexico out of the first weekend of the NCAA tournament in his 14 seasons at those two big programs. His sideline presence sold tickets and inspired confidence until it came time to win big games. Witness this month, when he signed a 10-year extension at New Mexico shortly before his team entered the record books by becoming the first squad in NCAA tourney history to lose to Harvard. His tourney reputation is about as strong as that contract, which he quickly tore up to come to a place that he perhaps believes will have the power to heal and restore.

Sort of reminds you of Jim Mora, doesn't he? Dan Guerrero surely made this hire hoping lightning strikes twice. Guerrero also made the hire because, typical of UCLA in these sorts of searches, the Bruins just can't attract first-choice coaches. Yes, he wanted the young superstars like Butler's Brad Stevens and Virginia Commonwealth's Shaka Smart. But because UCLA is a place that properly still demands Wooden-like greatness even though it has won only one title in 38 years, those types of coaches often feel they have too much to lose.

Guerrero knows he needs to be creative. But in this case, he might have been too re-creative. That's not a word, but it could easily describe the hiring of a guy who led Indiana to a national title as a guard in 1987, yet has somehow never been asked to return there as a coach.

"The fact that he has been on a big stage, that really helped us decide he was ready for this position,' said Guerrero of Alford.

That was a long time ago. If Guerrero was going to hire a coach on his distant past, he never would have fired that three-time Final Four dude known as Ben Howland.

The Los Angeles stage is as big as his last two coaching stops in Albuquerque and Iowa City combined. Alford is going to feel the heat here, immediately, and his ability to lead this program at least back to the Sweet 16 after a five-year absence could depend on his ability to handle it.

Judging from his tough tone in his first conference call Saturday, he's going to come out swinging.

"I'm about building programs — not teams, not seasons, but programs," Alford said, later adding, "Nobody understands pressure any more than I do. You're not going to find anyone more competitive than I am.''

The questions are just beginning. First, can a Midwestern kid recruit in Southern California? That was one of Howland's failures, and it is now Guerrero's mandate.

"It's critically important — I believe we sort of lost the connection to the L.A. market in a way that should not have happened,' Guerrero said. "This is an opportunity for us to get it back."

Also, can a fundamentally brilliant former floor leader concoct the kind of energetic and fun basketball that entertains the Westside crowd while persuading the great players to stick around? Guerrero is putting it on the record that the numerous Howland transfers were unacceptable.

"It's harder and harder for us at UCLA, the number of kids coming in and deciding to leave," Guerrero said. "Our hope is that he can come in and bring quality players who can grow and develop."

Who knows what he can do? Bruins fans can only hope that Alford will be everything Ben Howland wasn't, plus a few things that Ben Howland was, all mixed in with a little Hoosier hysteria.

Let's just hope Guerrero didn't get caught watching the paint dry.

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