FRANKLIN – UCLA coach Steve Alford fit right in Wednesday at Franklin College.
Instead of walking into the annual summer basketball camp wearing his traditional red attire, Alford dressed in a blue-and-gold T-shirt that was just a few shades short of matching Franklin’s school colors. Heck, even the school nicknames, Bruins and Grizzlies, both represent bears.
And, of course, he enjoys being around a community where he is still so revered that the Division III school sold out every spot for this week’s event.
It’s always fun. This is the fifth different coaching job I’ve had and at every spot I’ve had at least one Indiana guy, Alford said during a mid-afternoon break. I still recruit this area.
For Alford, it’s a rare break from the day-to-day responsibilities of monitoring his new players’ progress, tracking recruits, meeting with a new staff and getting players acclimated to doing things his way.
Here, he’s working with roughly 200 boys and girls in grades 1 through 6, most of whom know his name but have only learned his résumé through their parents: 1984 Olympic gold medalist as a teammate of Michael Jordan, leader of Indiana’s last national championship team (1987), second-round NBA draft pick and now the head coach of one of America’s most prestigious basketball programs.
Are you going to be on TV? one young child wearing a Bruins baseball cap asked after seeing Alford finish an interview.
If all goes well in Los Angeles, he’ll be a regular on the airwaves.
Usually, his annual homecoming is a family affair. This time, though, his wife and children stayed in Los Angeles as they adjust to big-city life while Alford came back to this small town in Johnson County, about 25 miles from downtown Indianapolis and not far from the cornfields that dominate the landscape south of Indy.
Why here? It’s home.
His father, Sam, played basketball at Franklin and was an assistant coach at Franklin High School. The campus is just a few miles from Johnson Memorial Hospital, where Alford was born, and only a couple dozen miles from the hometown of another Indiana basketball star with UCLA connections, John Wooden.
When camp ends, at 4 p.m. each day, Alford can make the short drive to his parents’ lake house, and over the last 27 years, he’s worked this camp at different times with his father and two sons, Kory and Bryce.
This time is different. During a lunch break Wednesday, Alford attended a dedication ceremony for Johnson Memorial’s new reflection garden.
Alford, perhaps the city’s most famous son, was honored with a special brick that commemorated his birth at the hospital on Nov. 23, 1964, something the son says was more the result of his mother and father than anything he did. Then it was back to work in a familiar venue.
We think about it more like a family thing than that, Franklin athletic director and basketball coach Kerry Prather said when asked about Alford’s new job. But it’s pretty incredible to think he’s found his way to Pauley Pavilion and through some of the Martinsville connections as John Wooden.
UCLA is never far from Alford’s thoughts.
He got off to a rough start, being criticized for the way he left New Mexico so soon after accepting a new contract with the Lobos, and he issued a public apology after getting a surprise grilling for the way he reacted to sexual assault allegations against one of his former players, Pierre Pierce, when he was coaching at Iowa.
Alford is no longer talking about those problems, opting instead to focus on adding another national championship banner to the 11 that already hang above the Bruins’ home court.
Alford said forward-center Tony Parker has lost 18 pounds and guard Norman Powell has made big strides in the offseason. He’s added size and more shooters to the roster, and he’s looking forward to coaching both of his sons next season, too, after playing and coaching with his father for many years.
The biggest obstacle may be bringing fans inside.
We sell a lot of season tickets, but there is so much to do in Los Angeles from the winter sporting events like the Clippers and Lakers and Kings and then you’ve got the beach, Alford said.
His job is to rebuild the image of UCLA basketball, which is still looking for a long-term successor to Wooden. Alford is not billing himself as that.
I don’t think you do that, he said. There are certain people in our business that you don’t replace – Bob Knight, Dean Smith, Mike Krzyzyewski and you don’t replace John Wooden, either. I think it’s about understanding the excellence he created here. You walk into the library, you walk into a school building and you see (Wooden’s) pyramid of success. He’s meant so much more to the school outside of basketball, and I don’t think there will ever be another coach with 10 national titles. You try to be yourself and understand the excellence.
Blue and gold? It’s something Alford is getting used to.
I thought about that the other day. You know I grew up being red, and I’ve been all different colors through my coaching career. I never thought I’d be in black and gold and then I went to Iowa, he said. But blue and gold is new, and I like it.