Like most college basketball fans, I’ve been watching March Madness.  The highlight of the first day of action was #14 Harvard upsetting #3 New Mexico, led by former Iowa coach Steve Alford.  Many Hawkeye fans still dislike Alford and celebrated New Mexico’s loss.  This has led several people to ask me why he is disliked by many in Iowa and what my personal opinion is of Alford.

These are nothing more than my opinions and observations I’ve made from years of being a Hawkeye fan.  Just fair warning!  But here are a few reasons why Steve Alford still captures the attention – good or bad – of the Iowa basketball fan base.

Steve Alford’s Record at Iowa

The conversation about coaches in major college athletics begins and ends – always – with wins and losses, and Alford didn’t win enough at Iowa.  Period.  Despite a few very memorable high points, Steve Alford wasn’t as successful as his Hawkeye coaching predecessors from a pure winning standpoint.  Some observers try to justify his performance by comparing it to the Iowa coaches that have followed him…talking about how Iowa is a basketball graveyard and that justifies Alford’s lack of success.

But Iowa wasn’t a basketball graveyard when Alford took over the program.  From 1979, when Lute Olson led the Hawks to their last Big Ten (regular season) title, through the day Alford was hired in 1999, Iowa had made 17 of the previous 21 NCAA Tournaments.  And of course, Dr. Tom Davis had won all ten of his first round games in the NCAA Tournament…a remarkable feat.  When Davis was pushed into an early retirement in 1999 (a controversial decision at the time that looks absolutely horrible in hindsight), Alford was hired to take the program to “the next level”, improving on the program’s successes.

Instead, he didn’t come close to approaching the success that Olson or Davis had.  Today, Iowa basketball doesn’t muster up a lot of respect nationally.  But that phenomenon started during Alford’s tenure as Iowa’s coach…certainly not before.  In a bizarre twist, Alford somehow managed to not only lower the national profile of Iowa basketball during his coaching tenure by not living up to the successes of the coaches who came before him, but to simultaneously use that diminished stature to argue that Hawkeye fans should be happy with their now reduced level of success.  Incredibly, many national pundits actually bought that argument.

As I said, Iowa had made 17 of the previous 21 NCAA Tournaments when Alford was hired.  In eight seasons as Iowa’s coach, Alford helped the Hawkeyes earn three NCAA Tournament bids.  On the surface, that doesn’t look all that bad.  However, consider that in two of those three seasons, Iowa went to the Big Ten Tourney unsure of their post-season fate and needed a huge run in the conference tournament just to squeak out a bid. 

In 2001, Iowa had lost seven of their last eight games going into the conference tourney and needed at least two wins to be comfortable with their position in the Big Dance.  The sixth-seeded Hawkeyes ran the table, winning four games in four days to claim the Big Ten’s automatic bid and received a #7 seed in the NCAA Tournament.

2005 was far more controversial.  Now in his sixth year at Iowa, Alford’s 2001 team was the only Hawkeye squad to make the NCAA’s.  Many Iowa fans were suggesting that athletic director Bob Bowlsby should fire Alford if he couldn’t deliver a second NCAA berth in his sixth year.  At 19-10, Iowa was very much on the bubble heading into the conference tourney, but an upset in the tournament quarterfinals over Michigan State gave the Hawks at least an argument to make the Big Dance with a 21-11 record.

Iowa did make the field with a #10 seed…a decision that was widely denounced nationally.  Bowlsby, as head of the NCAA selection committee that year, was accused by some of helping Iowa secure a spot in the Dance to avoid having to face the pressure of firing the basketball coach he hired at Iowa six years earlier.  Realistically, I think that’s a silly conspiracy theory and totally off base…but that’s how Iowa’s bid was spun nationally at the time.

Iowa proceeded to lose their first round game…breaking a string of 11 straight victories in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.  And of course, Alford followed that up the next year with his best team making the NCAA Tourney as a #3 seed – and promptly losing to #14 Northwestern State.  That 1-3 record in the NCAA Tournament over an eight year span – in light of all the success the program had when he was hired – simply wasn’t good enough.  And at the end of the day, that’s the number one reason why so many Hawk fans don’t like him today.

Why the Hate?

While it ultimately comes down to winning and losing, there were many other reasons why Steve Alford was so disliked by many Hawk fans.  Alford was constantly overstating his coaching accomplishments at Iowa (and he did have some).  He would call his two Big Ten Tournament titles “Big Ten championships”, which suggested they were equally as meaningful as regular season titles…a ridiculous notion for anyone who follows college basketball.

He’d also trumpet his three NIT bids at Iowa, talking about how many years in a row Iowa had made the post-season – as if making the NIT and NCAA were equivalent accomplishments – and famously praising his ability to get his teams into “March situations”.  Bear in mind that while NIT bids today are a true accomplishment based on merit, that wasn’t the case in the mid-2000s when Alford’s teams earned those bids.  Back then, any Big Ten team with a winning record was basically guaranteed an NIT berth, and Alford considered any season that ended with a winning record a major accomplishment worthy of recognition.  That might work at some schools, but not at a school that had a tradition of much greater things when he took over.

Now, understand that every coach is going to spin their accomplishments positively.  It’s their job to highlight their successes and downplay their shortcomings.  But Alford took it to absurd levels that reminded Iowa fans of Iowa State football coach Dan McCarney.  Simply put, Steve Alford was in denial about the shortcomings of his performance at Iowa.  Rather than acknowledge he wasn’t getting the job done in some areas, he simply insisted he was getting the job done and that anyone who disagreed just had unrealistic expectations.

You can make some horrible errors in judgment (Joe Paterno, Bob Knight) or be one of the least likable people on the planet personally (Nick Saban), but if you win, at least your own fan base will love and defend you.  Alford didn’t win enough…and then you tack on the fact that many, many people didn’t find him particularly likable, either.  While I never personally experienced this, there were many stories – not just after the fact, but when he was still coaching at Iowa – that he was arrogant and less than likable in everyday interactions.  Again, if you win like Nick Saban, no one cares…many Iowa fans (again, I can’t say personally) felt that Lute Olson came off as pretty arrogant, but he was still beloved because he had success.  Alford came off as arrogant and didn’t win.  Bad combination.

Steve Alford seemed like a great hire in 1999.  He won a national championship at Indiana and was a rising star in the coaching ranks – in fact, most observers considered him the coach-in-waiting at Indiana for whenever Bob Knight decided to step down.  Alford made no secret of the fact that he pined for the Indiana job, and while that makes sense, the fact that he made no effort to conceal his love for the Hoosiers made him even more unlikable to Iowa fans.  He always seemed to have more affection for a job which was never offered to him than the job he actually had.  It’s like a high school guy who shuns his sweet and reasonably attractive girlfriend to chase the super-hot cheerleader who won’t give him the time of day.

Finally, there was the Pierre Pierce situation…which is a whole other post in and of itself that I don’t have time to write right now.  But that wasted a considerable amount of fans’ goodwill, to put it mildly.  Again, much of this – in fact, all of this – could have been overlooked if Alford had won and won big.  But he didn’t…in fact, he took the program he inherited backwards.

Excuses, Excuses

Steve Alford also left the cupboards completely bare for his successor.  His last team went 17-14 on the strength of senior Adam Haluska, but the 2008 team was destined to be an underperforming team again.  In fact, there were rumors that new athletic director Gary Barta gave Alford an ultimatum to make it back to the NCAA Tourney in 2008 in order to keep his job and that that was one reason Alford decided to bail for New Mexico.  Maybe that’s true, maybe not.  Either way, there was no way in the world – even with the recruiting class he had coming in – that Alford could have led the 2008 Hawkeye team to the NCAA’s.  And if he failed to do so, that would make three NCAA trips in nine years, including two where Iowa was lucky to squeak in.  That’s just an unacceptable level of performance given the program he inherited.

Of course, Alford’s best argument that he really did do a good job at Iowa was made by Todd Lickliter, who took over the program and turned Iowa basketball into a total dumpster fire for three seasons.  But that doesn’t excuse Alford’s performance, because that wasn’t the program he inherited.  Jerry Burns and Ray Nagel don’t get a pass as Hawkeye head coaches just because Frank Lauterbur was a disaster (they may get a pass for other reasons…just not that one).  In the same way that Iowa fans shouldn’t be happy with Burns/Nagel-level results on the football field – because, hey, it’s better than FXL! – the fact that Lickliter was a massive failure doesn’t excuse Alford’s lack of consistent success at Iowa.

Still, Steve Alford has never taken any real accountability for his failures at Iowa.  Instead, he has used every opportunity he could the past six years to perform a delicate balancing act – simultaneously blaming other factors for why he failed at Iowa while steadfastly maintaining he didn’t fail.  While at New Mexico, Alford has continued to insist he did a good job at Iowa and that he was sunk by poor facilities and the fact that Iowa was “a football school”. 

There may be some merit to both of those statements, of course.  Iowa’s basketball facilities were woefully outdated and continue to lag behind many of their conference peers.  But Alford never really mentioned any of that – at least not publicly – when he was actually coaching at Iowa.  If he needed better facilities, he should have lobbied for them publicly, which is exactly the way Hayden Fry got his football practice facility built.  If the coach has a case for better facilities and the administation isn’t budging, he can always take it to the fans himself, since they’re the ones who would need to fund it in the end anyway.  Of course, that’s all dependent on having a good relationship with the fans in the first place…which wasn’t always Alford’s strong suit.

To the extent that Iowa is a football school, that’s because Kirk Ferentz has had success following in Fry’s footsteps…while Alford came up short in living up to Iowa’s basketball tradition.  Iowa wasn’t a football school in 1999 when Alford was hired, that’s for sure; Iowa was one of the few schools that had been respectable for a couple decades in both football and basketball.  If Iowa was a football school in 2007 when Alford left…well, whose fault is that, exactly?  This is just another way that Alford managed to play both sides of the blame game…as I mentioned before, he lowered the national profile of Iowa basketball by not performing at the level of Olson and Davis and then used that lower national profile to argue that his results weren’t bad for a school like Iowa.  In the same way, he accused Iowa of being a football school in 2007, when his failures over the past eight years were largely responsible for Iowa fans spending more of their time championing the more successful football program and making Iowa seem like a football school in the first place.

The fact that Alford resorted to excuses to explain his lack of success at Iowa were no surprise to many Hawkeye fans, because he always seemed to have plenty of excuses for why his Iowa teams lost…and it was seldom his fault.  After the Hawks lost a game, he’d too often find a subtle way to point out the shortcomings of his players rather than just attributing it to either the entire team or – even better – to the coaching staff.  A quote from New Mexico’s loss Thursday to Harvard highlights what I’m talking about.  Alford’s New Mexico squad suffered from a bad shooting night, and Alford is quoted as saying, “We can’t shoot for them…It’s a glaring weakness on this basketball team.”  You can see how fans might interpret a statement that we (the coaches) can’t shoot for them (the players) as a head coach throwing his players under the bus, so to speak…as though the coaches drew up a perfect game plan to handle Harvard but hey, it’s not my fault our players can’t shoot!  Alford did this all the time at Iowa – whether he meant to or not – and it did rub some fans the wrong way.

Steve Alford: The Postscript

Lack of performance, personality conflicts, excuses…there are many reasons why Alford isn’t beloved in Iowa.  The irony of all of this is that I think he’ll continue to be a very good mid-major coach at New Mexico.  First of all, he learned a lot from his time at Iowa, and he’s still growing as a coach with a long career yet ahead of him.  Second, as far as mid-majors go, New Mexico is a basketball powerhouse in their conference, with a good fan base and a strong home court advantage.

But mostly, Alford will be able to recruit at New Mexico relatively better than he ever could at Iowa.  At New Mexico, Alford can walk into a Mountain West recruit’s home and say, “Hey, I’m Steve Alford.  I won an NCAA championship with Indiana in 1987.  Come play for me.”  That works on a kid choosing between, say, New Mexico and San Diego State.  That pitch doesn’t work when recruiting a Big Ten kid choosing between Iowa and Indiana, though…because the Hoosier coaches would just say, “He’s right, he did.  We have the banner hanging in our gym…want to see it?”

You might read this long post and think that I hate Steve Alford.  I don’t…I honestly don’t.  I don’t know the man personally.  I don’t wish Alford any ill will, but then again, I can’t say I’m really rooting for him either.  A lot of times when guys leave Iowa – even if they didn’t have success here – I’ll wish them success elsewhere, as long as they reciprocate.  If a guy is rooting for Iowa’s success and has no hard feelings toward the program, then I don’t cheer against him just because he didn’t get things done here.

A perfect example came up on Wednesday night.  Iowa played in the NIT against Indiana State, and their coach is former Alford assistant Greg Lansing.  Now, if I don’t consider Alford to be a huge success at Iowa, then I can’t consider his assistant to be one, either, now can I?  And while Alford resigned at Iowa to go to New Mexico – granted, one step ahead of the posse – he wasn’t actually fired at Iowa.  Lansing was flat out fired.

Yet Lansing is, by all accounts, a great guy.  And apparently, from his comments before and after the NIT game, he harbors no ill will toward the institution.  He speaks very highly of his time at Iowa and while he didn’t have the greatest success here, he wishes the school the best.  As a result, I’ll root for him and his teams whenever I can.

Alford has never expressed similar sentiments toward Iowa – no “I’m sorry it didn’t work out for all of us there, but I wish them the best of success and I’m always rooting for them” comments.  I guarantee you when Iowa plays Indiana from now on, I know which team he’s rooting for.  And because of that, I don’t really go out of my way to root for him either.  I guess the best way to put it is that my feelings for Alford have reverted to those I have for most non-Hawkeyes…I’m not invested in their success one way or the other.  I wasn’t thrilled to see New Mexico lose on Thursday, but I wasn’t heartbroken, either.  I just didn’t care.

I understand why many Iowa fans are rooting for him to lose, though, and it’s hard for even me not to feel that way.  Hopefully the post above provides a bit of understanding as to why so many Hawkeye fans feel the way they do.  I think at the end of the day, some Iowa fans feel threatened by any success Alford might have at New Mexico, because if he has success there, the national media might buy into his foolish argument that his performance at Iowa really does constitute “success” at a school like ours.  I personally don’t wish Steve Alford any ill will at New Mexico, but whether he fails or wins a national championship there is irrelevant to the fact that his time at Iowa was not some kind of grand success.  That’s why I hate it when some uninformed knucklehead views it that way, because that’s disrespectful to the tradition that Lute Olson and Tom Davis created in the ‘80s and ‘90s.  And the more success Alford has at New Mexico, the more inclined an outsider might be to believe it.

And along those same lines, my biggest wish is that people on the national level would stop suggesting that Alford-level achievements are all Iowa basketball can reasonably aspire to.  Hawkeye basketball is capable of so much more…dare I say it, capable of reaching “the next level”.  All it takes is commitment from the fans and the university administration – and finding the right coach.  For all the positive things you might say about Alford, I have to insist that he wasn’t the latter.  Let’s hope Fran McCaffery is.

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