Steve Alford will forever be remembered as the crafty All-American point guard who led Indiana to the NCAA championship in 1987. After a brief NBA career, Alford took the next logical and followed his father’s footsteps into the coaching ranks making stops at Division I schools such as Missouri State, Iowa, New Mexico, and most recently UCLA where he won the 2014 Pac-12 title and led the Bruins to the Sweet Sixteen in 2014 and 2015.
Throughout his career, Alford has strived to run his programs with integrity and to coach his players to be unselfish on the court and gracious young men away from the game. Ironically, he learned much of that philosophy from the man who continues to cast an inescapable shadow over all who have followed.
In this CSJ conversation with managing editor Chad Bonham, Alford talks about the legendary John Wooden, how he developed his penchant for hard work, and what kind of players he hopes to develop.
Chad Bonham: Coaching men’s basketball at UCLA is always a unique dynamic considering the school’s history of success. What are your earliest recollections of Coach Wooden?
Steve Alford: My dad coached at Martinsville High School (in Indiana) and the team played its games at John Glenn Gym. Every time I went to practice I would see Coach Wooden’s picture on the wall. So I first learned about him there in Martinsville. When you’re in elementary school, you don’t think much about it, but I was a gym rat and that was during the ’70s. Obviously that was UCLA’s heydays. But the picture of Coach Wooden was from his days as a player and I didn’t really learn about his playing days until I was much older. That’s when I learned that he was a college All-American at Purdue. I started paying more attention to him when I got into coaching in the early ‘90s. I was different. I played for my father so I was a coach’s kid and then I played for Coach Bobby Knight. My background as a player and as a coach is one hundred percent wrapped up in my dad and Coach Knight. But as a fan of Coach Wooden, I always appreciated the way he represented himself as a man of faith. He was somebody who, as he continued to get older and actually got out of coaching, made his biggest impact on me. I started looking into all the things he did. You were looking at somebody who did something in our game that’s probably never going to be duplicated.
Bonham: As a player, you had a reputation for being one of the hardest workers on the court. Where did that come from?
Alford: I developed a knack for being a gym rat and got a lot of my work ethic from my father. I think that was one of my motivations to go to the gym everyday. Even in my elementary years I learned the importance of hard work and the importance of outworking your opponent. Even on days when I didn’t feel like working I would go to the gym and work anyway because I knew that when I wasn’t working, my opponent still was.
Bonham: In a time where it seems that winning at all costs has become the norm, how do you avoid the temptation to take shortcuts?
Alford: In our business, shortcuts are the same thing as cheating. If you try to use shortcuts in our game, you end up doing unethical things in areas such as recruiting. Our program has always been about ethics. It’s been about integrity and doing it the right way. We want to win as much as anybody in our business but we’re going to do it with the utmost integrity and respect for the game.
Bonham: How do you encourage your players to give maximum effort all the time?
Alford: I’m always pushing them to get better. One of our strengths is individual development. Part of Coach Wooden’s Pyramid talks about making every day a masterpiece. That’s a lot easier said than done when you’re dealing with young athletes but if you can convince them that each day—whether we’re practicing for an hour or three hours—that they can get better and improve, then it’s been a successful day.
(Photos: Dirk Hansen via creative commons; Neon Tommy via creative commons)