LOS ANGELES >> Steve Alford walked into Pauley Pavilion today for the first time since the 1984 Summer Olympics, took his place under the 11 national championship banners and called his new job as UCLA basketball coach "a challenge."
Alford said he doesn’t think he’ll change who he’s been for the first 22 years of his coaching career now that he’s in charge of the storied program that fellow Hoosier John Wooden built.
He called his new job that comes with an $18.2 million, seven-year contract "a great, humbling, honorable position I am in."
"It’s a challenge and I hope I understand that challenge," he said.
Alford’s introduction on the floor of Nell and John Wooden Court was greeted by applause from a small audience. Chancellor Gene Block was out of town.
The ribbon message board in newly renovated Pauley read, "Welcome Coach Alford and family!" and mascot Joe Bruin and some of the cheerleaders flanked the podium. Athletic director Dan Guerrero presented Alford with his own No. 13 UCLA jersey.
It capped a whirlwind few days for the 48-year-old coach who was hired Saturday, having spurned New Mexico 10 days after agreeing to a new 10-year contract with the Lobos, where he had coached for six years.
"Please know I’m leaving somewhere I have an awful lot of love and admiration for in UNM," he said. "That’s a difficult thing to leave."
Alford and his family took a quick tour of the Westwood campus and he planned to meet with the current players later in the day. Some of them were on hand, including freshmen Jordan Adams and Kyle Anderson, juniors Travis and David Wear, and sophomore Norman Powell.
Star freshman Shabazz Muhammad didn’t attend; he’s expected to declare for the NBA draft.
Alford said the first member of his coaching staff will be Duane Broussard, who was his assistant at New Mexico. He planned to meet with fired coach Ben Howland’s former assistants later Tuesday.
"I’m just trying to get the keys to the building," he said, noting he had already met a dizzying number of staffers whose names he had yet to commit to memory.
"You walk around and you get to see what’s expected here, the high level of excellence that comes with this basketball job," Alford said.
Alford mentioned his early connection to Wooden, whose alma mater, Martinsville (Ind.) High, is where Alford’s father, Sam, coached during his son’s grade-school years. He noted that’s where his father started the John Wooden Mental Attitude award given to a player yearly.
Alford was asked if Wooden would have handled the case involving Pierre Pierce the same way Alford did when he coached at Iowa. Pierce, the Hawkeyes’ starting point guard in September 2002, was accused of raping a female student-athlete at the Big Ten school.
Alford backed Pierce, saying at the time, "I totally believe he’s innocent."
Pierce was charged with third-degree sexual assault and pleaded guilty to a lesser charge. He was suspended and red-shirted that season, but the incident proved polarizing in Iowa City.
In 2005, Pierce was charged with sexual assault again when he was accused of threatening an ex-girlfriend with a knife and choking her. He was dismissed from the team before charges were filed, but Alford’s reputation took a major hit among Iowa fans.
"That was an instance that happened years ago," he said. "I followed everything that the University of Iowa, the administration, the lawyers that were hired … I followed everything that I was told to do."
Alford’s introduction in Westwood wasn’t open to the public. He spoke not far from the gold upholstered seat which was Wooden’s when he attended games before his death in 2010.
Although Muhammad is likely on his way out, Adams confirmed he will return next season. He’s getting around on a scooter after surgery to repair his broken right leg that kept him out of the Pac-12 title game and UCLA’s second-round NCAA tournament loss.
"I’m not going to the NBA," he said, adding that he approves of the Alford hire. "I watched him at New Mexico and really like his team. I’ll adjust fast."
Travis Wear, who will be a senior playing for his third coach in college, said he was surprised when he heard Alford got the job, but he endorsed him.
"He’s got the credentials and all that," he said. "He’s played in the league and the Olympics."
As an Indiana sophomore, Alford played on the gold medal-winning 1984 U.S. Olympic basketball team that played at Pauley.
Among the current players, Powell is most familiar with Alford, having considered playing at New Mexico before deciding he wanted to stay closer to home.
"He’s guard-oriented because he used to play guard," the guard said. "I feel like he suits our playing style."
Powell said he considered transferring to San Diego State in his hometown after Howland was fired, but he didn’t want to have to sit out a year.
"A new coach offers me a fresh start," he said, noting Alford’s emphasis on defense. "We definitely lacked a little on defense so hopefully he can come in and pick up that side for us."
Retired NBA star Shaquille O’Neal popped in at the end to congratulate the new coach and give him a hug.
Among the former Bruins greats on hand were Marques Johnson, Michael Warren and Keith Erickson, along with Tyus Edney, Toby Bailey and Kris Johnson, who played on UCLA’s last national title team in 1995. Rafer Johnson, the 1960 Olympic decathlon champion, stopped by, too.
Bailey, who works as a sports agent, believes Alford was a good hire.
"He’s really disciplined, you can tell that by his New Mexico team," he said. "His team really played defense, which is big if you’re going to compete for a national championship."
At the same time, though, Bailey cautioned that fans in Los Angeles want to watch up-tempo teams, citing the current Los Angeles Clippers and the old "Showtime" Lakers.
"The John Wooden teams pressed and were very successful," he said. "L.A. has so much going on and it has such a small attention span. If you don’t run that style, you really have to start producing."
Howland’s 10-year span — the longest in Westwood since Wooden retired in 1975 — featured grind-it-out defense. "It wasn’t what L.A. enjoys watching," Bailey said.
Alford said, "We want to play more up-tempo, but we want to be very sound defensively as well."
Alford wasn’t in town for long; he will attend the Final Four in Atlanta this weekend.
Tanya Alford said the couple’s three children — 20-year-old Kory, 18-year-old Bryce and 15-year-old Kayla — will finish out the school year in Albuquerque before they all move to Los Angeles. Kory and Bryce will transfer from New Mexico to UCLA, with Bryce planning to play for his father.
"It’s hard to leave somewhere you love because we had no reason to leave," Tanya Alford said. "It became clear this was the opportunity of a lifetime."