They descended upon the City of Angels with about as different a basketball background as can be imagined.
One has been famous for more than 30 years, the ultimate Hoosier, Bobby Knight’s pet project, a champion and figure of college hoops lore.
The other was almost completely anonymous on the national scale as recently as February.
One last shot at the big time took Steve Alford to UCLA.
One zany March Madness run took Andy Enfield to USC.
Now they’re in the Pac-12 together, about 14 miles from each other or 90 minutes in traffic, and the challenge is clear.
Win back Los Angeles.
For each program, that may mean different things.
For UCLA, winning back L.A. means winning back a jaded fan base, and winning back a jaded fan base means winning big. Elite Eight big. Final Four big. National championship banner big.
These Bruins fans are restless, starving for their first title since 1995 after getting oh-so-close three times under former head coach Ben Howland.
“You talk about academics, there’s excellence; you talk about basketball, there’s excellence — it’s a whole campus where if you’re not excellent, you stick out,” Alford said, sitting relaxed and calm, but also nervously fidgeting with his wedding ring, after lunch at Pac-12 media day earlier this month. “That’s a tremendous challenge, but it’s also a tremendous opportunity.”
It’s an opportunity that Alford was not sure he’d get again if he’d thumb his nose at UCLA athletic director Dan Guerrero, along with high-profile candidates Billy Donovan, Brad Stevens and Rick Pitino.
So he packed up and left Albuquerque, where he’d led the New Mexico Lobos to a win or share of four Mountain West Conference titles.
“I didn’t know if that door would open again,” said Alford, whose tenure at UCLA got off to a rocky start as questions arose about his handling of the Pierre Pierce sexual assault case while at Iowa in the early-2000s. “Now I’ve coached more than I’ve played, I’m 48 years old. UCLA for my family, UCLA for my career — I wasn’t convinced that at 55, the door would open again. Sometimes when opportunity knocks, you open the door. If you don’t, you may not hear the knock again.”
The knocking for Enfield started on the second weekend of the NCAA tournament in March. His Florida Gulf Coast squad became the most successful No. 15 seed in tournament history, “Dunk City” capturing the hoops nation by storm. A few months later, Enfield rode the swell all the way West, taking over a Trojans team that spun its wheels — if not shifted into reverse — under former coach Kevin O’Neill, who once coached Arizona.
Enfield’s tenure has not been without controversy, even if it was unintended.
A reporter attending a recent USC practice shared some in-the-heat-of-the-moment words that Enfield had with his team, and “If you want to play slow, go to UCLA,” instantly blew up the Internet and became the topic du jour for inquiring minds at Pac-12 media day.
It was then that Enfield clarified his comments. He made it clear that while gaining control of Los Angeles was a priority, he had his sights set on bigger targets.
“We don’t focus on UCLA,” said Enfield, though he might want to have a chat with his fan base. “We’re in the Pac-12; we have to beat 11 other teams to do what we’re trying to do. We play UCLA twice every year, and we have 29 other games.”
With the two teams focused, then unfocused, then focused again on each other, the rest of the conference’s coaches are just trying to swoop in to recruit every so often, though most admit that after the twin coaching changes, the narrow window may have closed.
“UCLA, you can just kind of count on it happening, and USC has already gotten off to a good start with their recruiting,” Washington’s Lorenzo Romar said. “People can say it’s open season, that sounds good. But it’s still Los Angeles. It’s still UCLA, and it’s still USC.”
Both candidates have refined their pitch in their claim to represent the city.
Enfield is pushing his pace like he wants his point guard to — fast, relentless. Dunk City West, with hops and hoops and alley-oops.
“To me, it’s just natural to play like that,” Enfield said. “You watch the NBA; that’s how they play. They play fast.”
If Enfield is all about speeding by, Alford is trying to slow it down, to have recruits and fans stop and smell the roses.
Alford has a lot to sell, in addition to the fact that he had great success at New Mexico with California products such as Kendall Williams, Tony Snell and
UCLA transfer Drew Gordon.
But now he’s got some help with his sales force.
“The hallway from our locker room out onto Pauley is about as surreal as it gets,” Alford said. “You’re talking about 11 big championship banners on one side, all the NBA draft picks, All-Americans on the other side. You don’t see that any other place.
“I want our kids to feel that.”