Thursday, February 24, 2005

Maly's Column on Alford for Iowa Sports Connection

We should all give Iowa’s athletic administrators credit for one thing.

They tried.

The hiring of Steve Alford as the Hawkeyes’ basketball coach on March 22, 1999 looked to be an excellent idea.

Alford had been a standout player at Indiana, He obviously knew the game. He did well in his earlier coaching jobs.

He appeared to be the right kind of guy to coach Iowa, a university with a strong basketball tradition in a Big Ten Conference that cared more about football.

Unfortunately, Steve Alford and Iowa haven’t turned out to be a good fit.

Alford hasn’t been the winner that fans expected. He loses games he shouldn’t lose. He loses players he shouldn’t lose. He loses fans he shouldn’t lose.

Taking into account everything I know, Alford is a fine person and a hard worker. He could be a success in many jobs.

But coaching basketball at the University isn’t one of them.

Consequently, I think it’s time for Iowa to turn the men’s basketball coaching over to someone else.

Alford doesn’t get all he should get out of his players, he doesn’t beat the Northwesterns, the Michigans and the Wisconsins of the world as often as he should, and he doesn’t take his team to the NCAA tournament as many times as he should.

When he coached at Southwest Missouri State, Alford seemed to be the perfect guy for a high-powered job like Iowa.

Unfortunately, that no longer seems to be the case.

This should have been a very good season for Hawkeye basketball. With players such as Jeff Horner, Pierre Pierce, Greg Brunner, Adam Haluska and Erek Hansen, Alford had the makings of a team that should be finishing high in the Big Ten standings and winning a couple of games in the NCAA tournament.

Iowa streaked to a 12-1 record in November and December. Everything seemed fine. I thought that maybe—just maybe—this might be the start of something big.

I wondered if people would then quit joking that “Kirk Ferentz and Steve Alford have one thing in common—their teams both peak in November.”

Unfortunately, now the jokes are back.

One thing that’s not a joke is attendance at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. Continuing a disturbing trend, fans are staying away from Iowa’s games in droves.

Not many coaches talk about attendance, but all of them know what might happen when fans lose interest.

“That’s why coaches get fired,” Larry Eustachy told me a day after I had written how Iowa State’s attendance had fallen since Johnny Orr coached there.

Eustachy, of course, learned later that declining attendance isn’t the only reason for which a coach gets fired. But that’s a column for another day.

Strangely, this season’s Hawkeyes lost their first two Big Ten games. Michigan upset them in the conference opener at Carver-Hawkeye. Not good.

Then Ohio State beat them at Columbus. Not good.

Remember, Pierce was still playing for Iowa then. He was the team’s best player. Still, the Hawkeyes were losing.

Later, Pierce was kicked off the team. He’d been given a second chance by Alford, and blew it. He had to go.

The tailspin on the court continued. Alford couldn’t solve the problems.

All of us began wondering if home-grown players such as juniors Horner and Brunner – and maybe even sophomore Haluska – would finish their Hawkeye careers without ever appearing in an NCAA tournament.

Attendance has continued to sink. When 4,000 Illinois fans bought their way into Carver-Hawkeye Arena for a Saturday afternoon game in February to give Iowa only its second sellout of the season, it was more than disappointing.

It was an embarrassment.

I’ve been watching Hawkeye basketball since Pops Harrison coached the team in the mid-1940s. I can’t ever remember something like that happening.

Steve Alford is a fine person and a smart person. But it’s time to pull the plug on him as Iowa’s basketball coach.

[This column appears in the March issue of the Iowa Sports Connection]