Pieces from the Past: Alford surely isn't too shy

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I covered many things and wrote many columns and stories before this blog was born. Since I'm on vacation and out of America for the week (my Dobermans are staying at home with my house-sitter, a burly fellow who has wild mood swings and a nasty temper), I'm going to try keep the blog moving this week with pieces from the past that will be new to almost all of you.

Here is the column I wrote after Steve Alford's introductory press conference as Iowa's men's basketball coach on March 22, 1999. A long time ago.

Alford is now at New Mexico. I'm still here.

IOWA CITY -- It was Christmas morning to some University of Iowa administrators Monday afternoon.

"I think he'll be absolutely spectacular," school vice president Ann Rhodes proclaimed.

"I couldn't be more excited," men's athletics director Bob Bowlsby insisted.

The bouquets were for new Hawkeyes men's basketball coach Steve Alford , who comes in from Southwest Missouri State fresh from leading his team to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament. That isn't an achievement to be taken lightly, even if Alford 's new team got every bit as far. Accomplishing that at Southwest Missouri may be the equivalent of Iowa going to the Elite Eight, or even the Final Four.

To hear Alford tell it, expecting the Hawks to contend for Big Ten titles and advance beyond the NCAA's round of 16 is more than reasonable.

"We've got aspirations of doing some special things here," Alford said.

Holding a shiny new contract worth anywhere from $600,000 to $900,000 a year for five years probably gives a man confidence.

And why not? If you can lead Southwest Missouri State to the second week of the NCAAs, you can move mountains at Iowa. Or at least occasionally chase Big Ten glory.

"I know what kind of work goes into winning a Big Ten championship and a national championship," Alford said. His work was done as a player, as an indentured servant to Bob Knight at Indiana.

Without Alford 's seven 3-pointers in the 1987 NCAA title game against Syracuse, Knight wouldn't have collected his third national crown.

Knight and Alford aren't close these days, which speaks better of the latter. Alford admitted that having his name tossed around by Indiana fans as a possible successor to the fading Knight has probably strained their relationship. They may have been coach-and-player, but their diverse personalities probably can't permit them to remain mentor-and-pupil.

Alford has just four years of Division I experience as a head coach, but that's four more than Tom Izzo brought when he was promoted to the coach's job at Michigan State. Two Big Ten titles have followed in East Lansing.

No Missouri Valley Conference crowns are in Alford 's resume, though. His Bears tied for second place this season behind Evansville, coached by another former Knight player, Jim Crews. But when the NCAA bell rang, Alford 's men mauled Wisconsin and Tennessee before their inevitable loss to Duke last Friday.

Monday's press conference in the Big Ten Room of Carver-Hawkeye Arena debunked what this misguided columnist hinted at to start this week. Alford can work a crowd. He was as quick with his wit as he was releasing his jump shot a decade ago. When Bowlsby was asked Alford 's salary, the new coach immediately interrupted by saying, "Since going to the Sweet 16, we're still negotiating."

He said his name is pronounced All-ford, not Al-ford, and he "played for a guy (Knight) who would say it differently than that."

He'll be fine on the I-Club's rubber-chicken circuit this spring, especially when he repeats how he is in pursuit of league and national titles. Iowa fans have craved that kind of direct passion from their basketball coach, and now they'll get it.

So the Bowlsbyization of Iowa athletics is now complete with football coach Kirk Ferentz and wrestling coach (Mr. 2-for-2 in the NCAA Championships) Jim Zalesky. Unlike Ferentz and Zalesky, however, young Alford isn't hesitant to tell us he has been places and done things in his life.

"I had zero dunks in my career," he said, "but in my career I scored over 6,000 points.

"In the (1984) Olympics I was a starting guard with Michael Jordan in the gold-medal game."

And, of course, he mentioned that national title he helped donate to the Hoosiers.

That is all good for Iowa's needs. The Hawks' basketball coach is typically one of the three most visible people in the state. Better for the new guy to have ample experience living his life in public.

"I've been under a lot of attention, I think, since I was 16 years of age going into the race for Mr. Basketball as a high school player in Indiana," Alford said.

Being Mr. Basketball in Indiana is like being Mr. Spielberg in Hollywood.

"I played in a high school gym that seats 10,000," Alford said. "My senior year in high school, we played in front of eight sellouts. I've been used to the big stage. The Olympic Games team, we played an exhibition game in the Hoosier Dome that saw 70-plus-thousand people attend the game."

Just playing four years for Knight makes most of life's other challenges seem quite manageable.

So Alford has arrived to take the Hawkeyes into the new millennium and to relatively new heights. Or so we're led to believe.

"Any way you want to slice it," Bowlsby said, "he's a winner."

The 2000 Final Four will be held in Indianapolis. Should we assume it will be a welcome-home party for Alford ?

Hardly, even though that would be the true definition of "absolutely spectacular."


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