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Is this heaven? No, it's Iowa

Alford and UCLA seemed an ideal match, but a decade-old controversy from his days coaching the Hawkeyes now has skeptical fans saying . . .

May 19, 2013|Chris Foster
  • New UCLA Coach Steve Alford strolls across the Pauley Pavilion court to address the media.
New UCLA Coach Steve Alford strolls across the Pauley Pavilion court to… (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles…)

UCLA and Steve Alford.

A basketball program of unmatched pedigree led by a former prodigy who became a national champion and Olympic gold medalist before making a steady climb up the coaching ladder.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday, May 23, 2013 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 2 inches; 62 words Type of Material: Correction
UCLA basketball: In the May 19 Sports section, a profile of new Bruins Coach Steve Alford said that in 2005 former Iowa basketball player Pierre Pierce pleaded guilty to first-degree burglary, assault with intent to commit sexual assault and fourth-degree criminal mischief. Pierce pleaded to third-degree burglary and false imprisonment in addition to intent to commit sexual abuse and fourth-degree criminal mischief.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, May 26, 2013 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 2 inches; 62 words Type of Material: Correction
UCLA basketball: In the May 19 Sports section, a profile of new Bruins Coach Steve Alford said that in 2005 former Iowa basketball player Pierre Pierce pleaded guilty to first-degree burglary, assault with intent to commit sexual assault and fourth-degree criminal mischief. Pierce pleaded to third-degree burglary and false imprisonment in addition to intent to commit sexual abuse and fourth-degree criminal mischief.

On paper, a harmonic convergence.

How they came together, a choreography of those themes, would make for a dazzling introduction, which UCLA held at center court in historic Pauley Pavilion last month.

The aura of John Wooden, his contributions to sports and society -- and those 10 national titles -- was thick. Alford mentioned Wooden three times in his first three minutes at the microphone.

"We found a coach that not only represents and honors the treasured history of UCLA's place in college basketball, but also a coach who will bring a brand of unselfish basketball," Athletic Director Dan Guerrero gushed.

What could go wrong?

Plenty.

When the news conference was over, what was supposed to be a breezy, feel-good event quickly turned sticky and uncomfortable.

During a one-on-one interview, Iowa came up. Alford, who coached the Hawkeyes for eight seasons, was asked about his staunch defense of Pierre Pierce, a player accused of sexually assaulting another student in 2002.

"I totally believe he's innocent," Alford had said at the Big Ten Conference's basketball media day that year. "I believed it from Day One, and I still believe it." Days later, Pierce, a star guard, agreed to plead guilty to misdemeanor assault and also sit out one basketball season.

Three years later, Pierce would go to prison after assaulting another woman. He pleaded guilty to two charges of first-degree burglary, assault with intent to commit sexual assault and fourth-degree criminal mischief.

Now, asked to explain his actions and comments so many years later, Alford took a defensive stance after the news conference last month.

He said he had handled the situation the way his bosses at Iowa had instructed him to. "I really didn't do anything," he said. "The university made the call on everything."

So, they told him to say Pierce was innocent?

"When those comments came out, it was just about supporting your player," he said sternly. "But you have no idea what's going on."

UCLA athletic administrators were stunned. They had signed Alford to a seven-year, $18.2-million contract with the expectation that his hiring would invigorate an apathetic fan base. They expected him to be greeted with open arms.

Guerrero was also questioned -- about whether UCLA had properly vetted its new coach and investigated what happened at Iowa. He said he "clearly discussed" the Pierce situation with Alford before hiring him.

However, when Alford was asked a similar question, he said the topic never came up.

Guerrero later amended his comment, saying he discussed Pierce with his staff and Alford's representatives, but not with Alford.

The controversy prompted one group of UCLA fans to circulate a petition calling for Guerrero to be fired because he had "disregarded Mr. Alford's history of defending a sex offender or did little to no research into Mr. Alford's past."

With little publicity, the petition generated nearly 2,000 signatures.

Alford has since offered an apology. It came more than a decade after his actions, and nine days after the comments he made after his much-anticipated introduction at UCLA had drawn criticism from Los Angeles to Iowa City.

And to at least one person closely involved in the case, it was too little too late. Jerry Crawford, an attorney who represented the victim, said it "seemed to be born of political necessity rather than a sincere change of viewpoint."

So much for that perfect match getting off to a smooth start.

::

Alford, 48, grew up in Indiana -- and very much in the spotlight.

Basketball in the Hoosier state isn't an elective. "You learn basketball before your ABCs," Alford said.

And he learned it well.

His father, Sam, was a successful high school basketball coach. Steve worked, watched, listened, learned, and worked some more.

"He told us he was late for the prom his senior year because he was shooting," said Cortney Scott, who played one season for Alford at Iowa. "I was like, 'Man, you didn't enjoy life.' "

Basketball was life. Alford worked on his shooting form by tossing ping-pong balls into a Pringles can, and he wore out nets on the hoop in his driveway.

He played for his father at New Castle Chrysler High and was named Indiana's Mr. Basketball as a senior in 1983. That he would go to Indiana to play for Hoosiers Coach Bob Knight was an easy call.

Dan Dakich, who played for the Hoosiers from 1982 to '85, said, "I came to Indiana hoping to contribute, start if I could. Steve came to Indiana to be an All-American."

Alford started as a freshman and, the following summer, won a gold medal as part of the 1984 United States Olympic team coached by Knight. He was a consensus first-team All-American as a senior, when the Hoosiers won the 1987 national title.

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