In this short series, SI.com has spoken with several coaches entering Year 2 at their current jobs about what they learned in the first year and what they’re looking for next season. Next up: UCLA's Steve Alford.
UCLA coach Steve Alford took over in Westwood after stops at Southeast Missouri State and Iowa preceded a six-year run at New Mexico, and his Bruins went 28-9 in 2013-14, winning the Pac-12 tournament and reaching the NCAA tournament Sweet 16. Alford talked about taking on one of the biggest gigs in the country and how much adjustment will be necessary after losing key players like Kyle Anderson and Jordan Adams to the NBA draft.
SI: UCLA is about as big a job as it gets. What did you learn in that first year that you apply moving ahead?
SA: I've been fortunate – this was my first year at UCLA, but it's my 24th year coming up. I've been doing this a long time. I've started five different programs that I've taken over now. I've been able at each stop to learn more of what I wanted to do, as far as what we want to instill, the culture we wanted to build. Yeah, it's different – it's Los Angeles, I've been in the Midwest, I've been in the Southwest, and now I'm in the West. Each stop is different and presents different challenges. But I've done it so much now, I guess, that the transition was very smooth. I had a very supportive administration, the staff has been great. The guys that we had returning and we had to re-recruit, I feel very fortunate they trusted us, what we were communicating to them about what we wanted the program and organization to look like. That trust was built, both coaches to players and players to coaches, and we ended up having a great year because of it.
SI: What were some of the particular things about UCLA that you either adjusted to or took advantage of?
SA: I was pretty versed. I grew up in Indiana. My first four years of elementary were in the gym where coach Wooden went to high school. I followed UCLA from afar for a long time. I knew a lot, probably more than most, coming into the situation about UCLA. Spent a lot of time in Los Angeles recruiting when I was at New Mexico. So I was pretty familiar with everything about UCLA. But just the brand – just an incredibly powerful brand. You look collegiately, UCLA is No. 1 in most national titles, we've won the most Pac-12 titles, educationally from an academic standpoint, just about any field of study a student athlete wants to go into, we're top 10 in the country. When you look at our brand collegiately, we're at the top. Then when you look at our brand professionally, we've put the most players in the NBA, we've produced the most NBA All-Stars. It's just phenomenal when you research and look at the brand at UCLA and look how players get exposure here to the next level. If you're going to a place like UCLA, you've got dreams of playing at the next level. We had pro scouts at 85 percent of all of our practices this year. I don't know of another program that can voice that kind of exposure.
SI: You talked about you knew what you wanted to instill – how much of that got instilled?
SA: An awful lot, that's what we were excited about. Our style of play, being up-tempo, we were top 5 in the country in scoring, I think we were top 5 in the country in assist-turnover. We were able to play fast yet take care of the ball, share the ball, all crucial things we want to do offensively. Fairly young, immature defensive team that I hope can continue to improve and get those things instilled like we want to instill. But we were able to instill the style of play, we were able to instill the winning demeanor that we want – to win 28 games in Year 1, the Pac-12 (tournament) title, the Sweet 16 experience, these guys did a great job on getting the things on the floor that we wanted to instill. For a 12-month span, I couldn't have asked any more out of these guys.
SI: You've got a lot of personnel transition now. Does that make it a different offseason? Do you almost have to re-instill a lot of stuff?
SA: It's similar to last year in that we don't have a lot of guys on scholarship right now. We're waiting on the freshmen to get here, who get in here in about two weeks. Once they get here in a couple weeks, that will help things. We were kind of in that same boat last year. Nice thing about being on a quarter system, we're able to get on the floor and be with the guys a little bit more, especially early in the summer. We took advantage of that last year, we're going to have to do the same thing again this summer.
SI: When you lose a player like Kyle Anderson, he's so different, does that add more to the transition?
SA: Yeah, we were the only team in the country that had a 6-foot-9 point guard. That makes us unique. We're obviously not going to have that this year. But we played Kyle off the ball a lot, too. He was very versatile for us, we could play him inside, we could play him outside. So, yeah, we're not going to have a 6-9 point guard. We've got good, experienced guards, very talented guards, to go with this recruiting class – they're going to be young, but it's very, very talented. We've got guys that can swing from guard to forward, we'll have legit centers this year in Tony Parker and Thomas Welch. I'm hoping we can continue to play as fast as we played a year ago, because I think this is the way our guys like to play. And yet in the half-court maybe we'll have a little bit more back-to-the-basket presence than what we had last year.
SI: So what's the checklist of things you want accomplished over the summer months?
SA: A lot of it is getting to know the new guys. Most of our June and July will be individual skill development. We spend a lot of time on skill development both in the weight room and on the court. And then in August, we start getting into more of the team concepts.
SI: We saw the practice facility announced a little while ago. When you see the infrastructure at a place like UCLA actually improving, how much impact does that have on what you can sell and do down the line?
SA: We hope in huge ways, because you're just enhancing one of the top brands in the country. That's what makes us unique. We're in Los Angeles, we're in one of the biggest markets in the world, we're in a beautiful spot. And just two years ago, Pauley was renovated, and it's a beautiful facility. Adding the practice facility is just going to enhance the entire package of what we're able to sell.
SI: So did anything surprise you at UCLA?
SA: I don't think it was so much surprise -- it was, as I mentioned earlier, the power of the brand. Those four letters, the culture and the tradition that was established by coach Wooden and his players and carried on since coach left back in 1975 – those four letters just have an incredible brand. When we travel, we have huge crowds, whether we're at home or on the road. We have celebrities that come to our games. It's a very cool brand, and that's exciting.
SI: Do you have any concept or ideal thought of that you'd like UCLA to look like a year from now?
SA: That's difficult just because of the climate of college basketball. You don't have guys for three and four years. You look at the Florida team that beat us in the Sweet 16 this year, it's an unusual team to have that many seniors that have been together for three and four years. You don't see that very often across the board. That one's a hard one. Whether we're talking about this year or next year or two years from now, I hope the look – that our guys play extremely hard, they play extremely unselfish, and it's an exciting style to watch – I hope all those things (remain). Bottom line, our guys know it's a privilege to be here, not a right, and representing those four letters on your chest is a huge responsibility. Just know that and do the best you can, and I hope that's what our program always looks like.