Let me be honest upfront and say that I had resigned myself to Steve Alford being the coach of UCLA to start 2018, as it seemed like Alford and the UCLA athletic department had ridden out the anger and frustration of the fan base.
Of course, considering this is the current era of UCLA basketball, it shouldn’t have been a surprise that this program would find a way to remind everyone of their incompetence.
On Saturday, Jeff Goodman of ESPN reported that UCLA had let go of assistant coach David Grace. Grace had been the main recruiting force for the Bruins and had been behind UCLA bringing in top talents like T.J. Leaf, Ike Anigbogu, and Jaylen Hands, among others. Grace has also been with the program since Alford was hired. Of course, there had also been reports of friction between Alford and Grace the past few years and that Grace had been looking into open head coaching jobs in the past few years.
All of which is to say that this firing just doesn’t make a ton of sense. Of all the parts of the UCLA basketball program that are suffering at the moment, recruiting is not one of them. UCLA has brought in recruiting classes that have ranked in the top 5 the past few years, to go with a smaller class the previous year that featured Lonzo Ball (of whom David Grace is credited as his primary recruiter). If the argument is that Grace was not holding up his end as far as actual coaching is concerned, that may be fair, but so would be the rebuttal, which is that no one on the UCLA coaching staff has really proven an ability to develop and coach up players as it is. Singling out Grace in this regard looks short-sighted.
But going deeper, the situation around the firing becomes murkier. Let’s take a look at this quote from Ben Bolch in the immediate aftermath of the firing:
David Grace on what Steve Alford told him about not being retained at UCLA: "He said that Dan [Guerrero] wanted to make the change and the next day I talked to Dan and Dan said he never told him to make a coaching change, so I don’t know where that came from."— Ben Bolch (@latbbolch) April 14, 2018
These are the kind of quotes that don’t reflect well on anyone involved with UCLA. Steve Alford saying that Dan Guerrero wanting him to make a change following a disappointing season wouldn’t be out of the ordinary, especially as a means to provide Alford one last opportunity to make things work, but the follow up where Guerrero allegedly told Grace that he had never requested a staff shakeup raises the question of what actually happened. The fact that UCLA refused to release a statement after this story blew up speaks to how flat-footed the athletic department appears to be.
Consider also this quote from Alford last Wednesday:
Steve Alford, when I asked him on signing day (Wednesday) if any of his assistant coaches were leaving: "That I don’t know. Obviously, I just want the best for my staff and if they can advance in what they do then I’m always behind them 100% on that."— Ben Bolch (@latbbolch) April 14, 2018
The kicker here is that Grace told Bolch that he was informed he would be let go before the Final Four was played, approximately 2 weeks prior to Signing Day. So now the question is raised of if any of the incoming recruits knew that this was happening. Grace stated that he’s still under contract through June, but you have to think these incoming recruits would like to know if the coach who has been on them will be there for the next season. This whole episode has shades of the Jeff Ulbrich/Roquan Smith fiasco which portended the downfall of Jim Mora.
And, just to cover all of the bases, Grace states that UCLA will tell him in a letter that the FBI investigation had nothing to do with his release. Grace claims he ran a clean ship, and while it’s hard to believe anyone in college basketball is truly clean, the fact that Grace gets his side of the story out first means UCLA either cannot use this as a public excuse for the firing, or has to admit that they are, in fact, under investigation by the FBI.
But what this story does more than anything is reignite the fire in the UCLA fanbase to remove Steve Alford. As I mentioned at the top, I had resigned myself to Alford’s return next year, and so had much of the fan base. But the reveal of a coaching change that makes no sense, and features conflicting information on who ordered it, once again brings Alford to the forefront, and not in a positive way. Maybe Dan Guerrero will finally be embarrassed enough to do something this time, or maybe high-end donors will finally decide this is the final straw. I’m still not holding out hope, but it is safe to say that Alford’s seat has once again gotten hotter.