We adore our coaches...until they lose
The last time I came here to New York to cover college basketball, the world was different.
It was 2001. Iowa was in the NCAA men's tournament. Before losing to Kentucky in the second-round, the Hawkeyes defeated Creighton in an NCAA first-round game at Long Island's Nassau Coliseum. I told you the world was different.
That was Steve Alford's second season as the Hawkeyes' coach. Four days before Iowa beat the Bluejays in that first-round NCAA game, the Hawkeyes had completed a four-wins-in-four-days run in the Big Ten tournament.
The Hawkeyes cut down the nets in Chicago, and Alford wore one around his net. There wasn't a soul in Hawkdom who had anything but glowing praise for the second-year Iowa coach. If Alford could take that crew to the NCAAs, imagine what would happen once he, whose hire was very popular at the time, got his recruiting to take hold.
Indiana, meanwhile, was coached on an interim basis during that 2000-2001 season by Mike Davis, an assistant who was promoted when Bob Knight got fired in September 2000. There was a lot of speculation that Indiana might try to hire former Hoosier star player Alford from Iowa to take the Indiana job after the season. It was suggested as a distinct possibility by Billy Packer during CBS' telecast of the Iowa-Indiana game. It was also suggested as a possibility in the following day's USA Today.
At the NCAA press conferences in Uniondale on the day before the first-round (they were called "first-round" games) then, I asked Alford if the national talk about him being a candidate for the Indiana job should go away. It was, I thought, a softball. But he hated the question and expressed his contempt that I would even ask it. "You're from freaking Iowa," he said.
He was right. I was from freaking Iowa. Still am.
The clip was played many times on ESPN's SportsCenter over the next several hours. And I caught hell from a lot of Iowa fans for having the audacity to ask that brutally vicious question. Worse, some said, I was going to make Alford mad and he'd leave Iowa. Some people wrote letters to the editor calling for me to be silenced and/or fired.
We're in the process of moving our Gazette offices from one building to another, and I spent a couple hours recently to rid my desk of a lot of stuff I hadn't seen in years. I found a letter written during that time in 2001. It wasn't kind. If the president gets a similar letter, the FBI gets involved.
But I hadn't quite learned my lesson in New York, so when I got home I wrote a column saying I didn't understand what the teeth-gnashing was all about. If Alford did go to Indiana, I said, Iowa could just turn around and hire another good coach. That was the absolute wrong thing to say, I quickly was told. People liked the coach who was in place. Iowa couldn't possibly get anyone else as right for the job.
As an aside, do you think Alford would have taken that Indiana job had it been offered to him in the spring of 2001? I kind of do.
Now, I'm not trying to set myself up as some martyr who is above the fray. Really. Stop laughing, I mean it.
No, it's just to illustrate how fickle we can be, and how we can shift priorities to fit our preferences. Note that I said "we." I praised then-Iowa athletic director Bob Bowlsby in print for hiring Alford in 1999. If I'd have written "I don't think this is going to end well," I'd have been a prophet. But that view didn't occur to me.
When you're in this line of work and you offer commentary and ask questions of the big guys, you better accept that what you write or ask won't always be popular. Nor should it. What you also better accept is you risk being ostracized if you write or say anything that annoys a coach who is riding a wave of popularity. Of course, sportswriters shouldn't worry about whether or not you're going to keep a coach as a friend. You don't need the people you write about to be your friends because that makes it a lot harder to be honest about them if things go sideways for them later.
Anyway, like most things that aren't genuinely important, this one blew over quickly enough. The next time I talked to Alford was in the Wrigley Field press box that summer, and he laughed about the flare-up on Long Island. I don't remember having another unpleasant exchange with him over the next six years, and I was among those who were critical in print of his decision to reinstate Pierce to the program after Pierce took a redshirt year for his guilty plea to misdemeanor assault, a charge that had been knocked down from third-degree sexual abuse.
Indiana, meanwhile, hired Davis on a full-time basis. The unimaginable thought of Alford going home to coach at his alma mater was extinguished.
Funny, the Hoosiers went to the national-title game the following season under Davis, but that still wasn't enough to win over IU's fans. That was two coaches ago, and they haven't been to as much as the Elite Eight ever since.
We know how the rest of the Alford era went at Iowa. Those visions of big NCAA successes never came to fruition. The Pierce situation went from awful to worse when he was arrested in February 2005 on charges of first-degree burglary, two counts of domestic abuse/assault, assault with intent to commit sexual abuse, false imprisonment and fourth-degree criminal mischief.
As the six years after Long Island passed, many Iowa fans grew weary of Alford. I got told many a time that I wasn't being hard enough on the coach. But I'll always wonder what would have happened in 2006 had the Hawkeyes not blown that first-round NCAA game against Northwestern State and gone on to make a nice run in the NCAAs. Would most Iowa fans have re-warmed to him? We'll never know.
The Hawkeyes had a very good team in '06, a club that won the Big Ten tourney and would have gone to the NCAAs even if it hadn't. Northwestern State. Wow.
The hot coals about Alford certainly haven't cooled in Iowa. My Facebook timeline had repeated entries of links to a column Chicago radio talk show host Dan Bernstein wrote for a website. The headline was "UCLA hired a scumbag."
I really wonder if everyone who posted or shared that link would call UCLA's new coach that to his face. No, I don't wonder. They wouldn't. But it's OK to do so on the Internet, I guess. We're a bunch of Bravehearts on the World Wide Web. (Watch someone jump on this paragraph and call me an Alford-protector in the comments section). Bernstein, to his credit, reiterated things he said on the air about Alford from the get-go after the Pierce stuff happened.
The Pierce business was bad, real bad. Horrible, in fact. Pierce got a second-chance with the Hawkeyes only because he had a lot of basketball talent. Not enough to ever play a day in the NBA, but he was a talent.
There were many who never forgave Alford for originally declaring Pierce innocent, and for welcoming him back to the team after his year of not playing. I wouldn't dare suggest those people didn't exist and weren't vocal about their feelings. But Alford's No. 1 sin to some other Iowa fans wasn't that, or his perceived arrogance, or the less-than-warm things he said about the situation at Iowa after he left for Albuquerque. It was that he didn't win enough.
It wasn't an Iowa thing. It's a fan (and media) thing. It's a human being thing. How long do you think Knight's personality and methods would have been admired at Indiana had he gone .500 every year? Winning is a powerful thing. It has clouded a lot of judgment over the course of sports history.
If I'd had any inclination to criticize or even question Kirk Ferentz during the times his Iowa football program was riding high, it would have invited letters to the editor calling for me to get sent far, far away. What are you trying to do, drive him to the NFL?
Last season? It got to the point where I couldn't write a single blog post about Iowa football without someone mercilessly ripping Ferentz and Iowa Athletic Director Gary Barta. Why? The Hawkeyes aren't any good!
Today, Iowa men's basketball coach Fran McCaffery is a king. Everyone in Hawkdom loves the fact his team is still playing in the NIT, that it continues to move forward, that the future looks bright. For the first time in a long time, Hawkeye basketball is entertaining and full of potential.
So while in New York this week, I most definitely won't be asking McCaffery about job-openings. For one thing, he isn't going anywhere else, so it would be absurd to ask. For another, I don't want to go anywhere else, either.
So what caused all this rambling The reactions to Alford's hiring at UCLA over the weekend and, more importantly, the fact I'm not getting to New York early enough today to write something fresh from the NIT site.
Until then ...