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The NIT Title 30 Years Ago and What It Means for Today

30 years ago UCLA won the NIT title over an Indiana team led by Steve Alford

Utah Utes coach Larry K. was pumped up a lot 30 years ago when UCLA blew him out in the NIT
Utah Utes coach Larry K. was pumped up a lot 30 years ago when UCLA blew him out in the NIT
Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

Chrissorr and many others think we have a shot at the NIT this year.  While I respectful disagree since I was around for the last time we won an NIT Title, I thought I would write a few thoughts about it as it seems somewhat relevant today.

Actually it is pretty ironic to be talking about it because that year we beat Indiana in the finals with a team that included Steve Alford.  According to the book Season on the Brink by John Feldman (if memory serves) Bobby Knight was pissed about losing to an undisciplined and poorly coached UCLA team.

[As an aside,  According to Wikipedia on Season on the Brink: The book recounts how Knight once criticized Alford's work habits and leadership ability, telling him he couldn't "lead a whore into bed." [1] Knight later admitted that Alford was in fact an incredible worker and leader, and that the comments were just Knight's method of motivating players. ]

That UCLA team was led by a skinny sophomore Reggie Miller.  Obviously this team has nothing close to a Reggie Miller on it.

However it did have some other things in common with it.  The starting point guard was Niguel Miguel.  Like Bryce today, Miguel was not a true point guard.  Miguel was very much a converted point guard, previously spending a number of minutes as a small forward.  Miguel was sort of UCLA Coach Walt Hazzard's pet.

The similarities end there.  Miguel was a very good defensive guard and very much a defense first player.  Hazzard made him into a tough guy.  Miguel, after floundering under previous coach Larry Farmer, became a success and played closer to his potential.  In some ways this is more like Norman Powell last season.

Another possible similarity is the backup center.  While Thomas Welsh was rated five stars and is officially a strong prospect to put it nicely he has looked awkward at times.  in 1985, I will never forgot sitting in the front row for the NIT first round watching our then awkward backup center get in the game after it was decided.  He was roundly mocked by some of the guys around me.

Of course the joke was on all of them.  The backup center was Jack Haley and next to Reggie Miller, he had the longest and maybe only NBA career of anyone on that team.  Jack would spend most of his NBA career being mocked as a cheerleader and later "Dennis Rodman's babysitter" but the fact of the matter is he was in the NBA for 10 years.  I think any of the guys around me would have taken Jack's career.

That first round game was significant to me for a number of reasons I have written about before.  UCLA played Montana whose star player was Larry Krystkowiak.  Krystkowiak is now the coach of the Utah Utes.  As a player though, Krystkowiak talked all his teammates into shaving their heads before the NIT game against UCLA to show they weren't scared of Pauley or UCLA.  For those younger readers, while shorts were actual short in 1985, hair was not.  Crewcuts were not the style in 1985.

Of course, watching the ridiculously coiffed Montana Grizzlies from the front row I realized they were indeed scared and a bit awed to be in Pauley playing UCLA.  To be clear, this was not the Bruins of the Walton Gang but rather a NIT Bruins led by a coach who was hired to be an assistant and a star player who the nutrition staff was begging to eat more as he was thought way too skinny to survive a season.  It was that moment I learned that playing in Pauley was indeed a big deal.  Even if the fans did not think so as shown by the relatively few alumni who showed up for the game.

Which brings me to my next point.  The next season I was at a game where I got to hear two old geezers debate over the urinals.  Their giggling conversation went something like this.

Statler:  They ought to hang it in here.  (pointing at the bathroom walls)

Waldorf:  No too good, for the stalls.

Statler:  I know as a target. (in the urinals.)

They were talking about the NIT title banner that had just been unveiled in the rafters of Pauley that evening.

At the time I was pissed, figuratively.  Reggie and the gang played their hearts out.  Nigel had overcome his previous seasons with who I think was the worst coach in UCLA basketball history to become a very good PAC 10 player.  I did not think it fair to the players or the students such as myself who attended most of the games and screamed our lungs out.   Was it an NCAA title?  Of course not.  But it was an accomplishment.

I told myself at the time that the NIT title was a reason for some small hope.  Sure it was a baby step but beating Bobby Knight and Indiana in the final, watching Reggie blossoming into star, and seeing the players rally after the crap they had been through was fun at the time.

Now, I wonder if I am too old and cynical.  I guess winning the NIT would be a sign of something good for this team.  But here is the thing: this team won't get there because it is not a team.  And that's on the coach.

But maybe worst of all the old guys may have been right.   Hazzard was not that good and one season of a NIT title was not a good sign or that things had been fixed.  Hazzard went on to get to the second round of the NCAA Tourney and to win the PAC 12 tournament another season.  But really that first season was his best.

Is that the same for Steve Alford?  In his first season Steve fixed another coach's screw up by moving a guy from forward to point guard (Kyle Anderson last season) and leading a team to some level of post season glory (sweet 16).  But will his teams end up being generally worse and ending up being fired after four years as well?

The thing is if Alford keeps losing the way he is now I don't think we will even make the NIT.  Further, I hope it does not take UCLA four years to realize what this old guy sees now.   Alford is not up to the job.

Go Bruins!