I am flying to Kansas City to watch UCLA play basketball in the Hall of Fame Classic, but my thoughts are on football. There are some things in common between basketball coach Steve Alford and, now, former football coach Jim Mora, but there are also some big differences. I thought I would write a few thoughts comparing the two.
Years ago, I wrote that the test of Mora was coming when Brett Hundley graduates. How much was Hundley responsible for UCLA’s success and how much was Mora responsible? Turns out Hundley was a great college player who willed UCLA to wins. Josh Rosen may be an even better pro but Hundley, with his legs and will to win, was a great college player who made Mora look good. But, even then, Mora could not take UCLA to the next level. His best defensively player during his tenure was Anthony Barr. Barr had been wrongly labeled a fullback by Coach Rick Neuheisel.
Similarly, Steve Alford had Ben Howland players as his MVPs until last year for non-losing seasons. Last year, Alford had one of the best offensives in modern college basketball. How much was Lonzo Ball and how much was Alford? We will find out this year. However, despite this great college player, UCLA, led by Alford, was unable to get further than the Sweet 16 and third place in the Pac-12.
Also like Mora, Alford’s next best player was a misused leftover of the previous coach, Norman Powell. For some reason, Ben Howland saw Powell as a three-point shooter instead of a driver/slasher. Alford, like Mora with Barr, converted Powell into what he truly was and he was probably the second best player so far for Alford.
Mora and Alford differed, though,in some important respects. Mora had some interesting victories off the playing field. He memorably destroyed TJ Simers in his attempted take down. He handled the death of a player with class. Mora seemed to me, at least, to always strike the right tone with the media. He also handled the administrative bureaucracy with a deftness that avoided many of the problems of past coaches.
Alford has struggled with the media and saying the right thing. He was blindsided by the Pierre Pierce situation, seemingly unprepared to talk about his past. He cited Bobby Knight over John Wooden at the start of his UCLA career. His recent comments about UCLA fans expecting more than a Sweet 16 were born out of frustration, no doubt, but they are indefensible. Moreover, Alford seems to regularly lose players to not understanding the admission or academic process, whether it is a much needed point guard like Jon Octeus, a marginal player such as Kobe Paras, or a current player as allegedly happened with Jonah Bolden.
Mora followed two coaches who had no business being hired at UCLA. He changed the culture and ended such things as “over the wall” to get out of practice and seemed to be liked by the players. Even in losses his teams never seemed to give up with a great example of the great comeback win earlier this year over Texas A & M and years earlier at Nebraska.
Alford has been plagued by teams that seem to not put out effort on defense, ironically the hallmark of his more successful predecessor. Alford’s best wins have arguably been against powerhouse Kentucky, but so have his worst losses, including a game in which UCLA only scored 8 in the first half.
This season, Alford may be in danger of suffering Mora’s fate if his team does not improve on defense. Mora’s hiring and standing by Tom Bradley may have been his downfall. Alford lost his skills and tactician assistant in Schilling and promoted within instead of working to obtain a similar level assistant coach.
But bottom line: Mora was a better coach than his two most recent predecessors and did some good at UCLA although he ultimately failed. Alford has been more “fun” than his predecessor, but has yet to prove he is a UCLA level coach. Time ran out for Mora this year. Will it run out for Alford too?