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John Blanchette: Steve Alford’s long route to success

Steve Alford, left, has guided the UCLA Bruins to back-to-back NCAA Sweet 16s. (Colin Mulvany)
Steve Alford, left, has guided the UCLA Bruins to back-to-back NCAA Sweet 16s. (Colin Mulvany)

HOUSTON – Intense remedial tutoring has finally swayed a few knee-jerk logicians into grudging acceptance that UCLA’s unexpected run to the Sweet 16 does not validate the Bruins’ much lampooned invitation.

Either it was or wasn’t justified on the merits on Selection Sunday, not by what’s happened since.

Now, the selection of a coach is quite another matter. Which doesn’t mean that the snipers who emptied their magazines when UCLA hired Steve Alford two years ago have declared anything more than a temporary cease-fire. He hasn’t hung a banner in Pauley Pavilion yet, and that’s always going to be the standard.

But back-to-back Sweet 16s in Alford’s first two years in Westwood at least suggests his boss has a clue.

And the genius who first hired Alford? He’s laughing it up in Spokane.

“It took more nerve than brains,” said Bill Robinson, the retired president of Whitworth University who once enticed a 27-year-old Alford to take over a small-college team in Indiana in midseason. “But I knew he would succeed.”

The rematch of the Gonzaga Bulldogs and Alford’s Bruins today in NRG Stadium for the right to advance to the NCAA’s Elite Eight has some delicious ingredients. The Zags’ win earlier this season and the psychology thereof. The UCLA pedigree vs. new money GU. Shooters and more shooters. And, of course, the stakes.

Tune in at 4:15. Bound to be fun.

It could be a little uncomfortable for Robinson’s daughter, though. Bailley Wootton works in Gonzaga’s CASL program for social service. But when she was a teenager visiting the Alford home maybe 16 years ago, then 4-year-old Bryce Alford made a confession.

“I love her,” he said.

This summer, Robinson will officiate the wedding of the other Alford son, Kory, who suits up for UCLA. He also delights in telling how he beat Alford in a 1-on-1 game to five in his Spokane driveway (“rubbed him off the fender of my Taurus for a 35-foot bank shot”). There is a closeness in the two families that goes beyond the first boss-protégé connection.

But the craziness of that story was bound to create a bond.

Robinson was about five years into his tenure at Manchester College. Alford was the reigning icon of Indiana basketball, having won a national championship with the Hoosiers in 1987 and an Olympic gold medal before that, both for combustible Bob Knight. But in 1991, he’d been cut by the Sacramento Kings, a suitably humble coda to four fruitless seasons in the NBA, and was helping his dad, Sam, coach at New Castle High School.

And Robinson had an emergency. His basketball coach, Ron DeCarli, bailed on the school five games – and losses – into the season. With just a graduate student and a volunteer – which just happened to be Hall of Famer Clyde Lovellette – for assistants, and a wrestling coach for an A.D., Robinson made an excecutive decision.

“I’m going to hire Steve Alford,” he said.

That was on a Tuesday. By Wednesday, he’d managed to sneak this statewide celebrity into town to tour the campus, including the school’s phys ed center where chairs had been placed for that evening women’s game.

“Are those chairs,” he asked Robinson, “bolted down out there?”

Heh, heh, heh. Wonder if the editor cut that joke out of Alford’s book “Playing for Knight.”

And by the next Monday, Alford was coaching the Spartans – for $30,000 a year. He wasn’t a miracle worker – they finished 4-23. But the next year he had them in the NCAA Division III tournament, and by 1995 in the championship game.

Robinson insisted this arc was no great surprise: In his dad, Knight and NBA veteran John MacLeod, Alford had remarkable teachers. And he had instant cachet.

“The first time he and Tanya went to the mall in Fort Wayne, he never made it into the store,” Robinson said. “He signed autographs for 45 minutes and left.”

He also managed to fuse competitiveness with camaraderie in coaching his teams. At Manchester, Robinson recalled, a notoriously poor foul-shooter got cocky after making 29 in a row at practice and challenged the coach. Alford accepted – and made 242 straight before quitting, trash talking the entire time. It’s much the same at UCLA.

“With him,” said leading scorer Norman Powell, “we get the best of both worlds.”

It hasn’t all been a charmed coaching life. Iowa fans soured on what they felt were underachieving teams. At New Mexico, he agreed to a 10-year contract extension – and took the UCLA job 10 days later. Criticism of his mishandling of Pierre Pierce’s sexual assault cases at Iowa eventually induced him to apologize.

And the Bruins trailed Kentucky 41-7 at the half this season.

But he’s also won 513 games – and he has the Bruins at least back in the neighborhood of what UCLA fans believe is a birthright.

That’s some validation – of Bill Robinson’s chutzpah, if nothing else.

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