Sports Medley: Who
Bears Responsibility for UCLA’s Dismal Basketball Position? 7 Mar 16
by Tony Medley
Don’t blame Coach Steve Alford. He is a coach of mediocre talent
who couldn’t make it in the Big Ten and found himself coaching at the
University of New Mexico, hardly a hotbed of college basketball, where
he had predictably middling results (losing to Harvard, of all people,
in the first round of March Madness). Alford showed a lack of integrity
by breaching a commitment he had made to New Mexico for a long-term
contract when offered a deal by UCLA. But who could blame him? He was
offered a job that made him the highest-paid state employee in the State
of California with unusual long-term security; it would cost the State
of California over $10 million to buy out his contract before 2017,
reduced by a couple of million each year until 2020. What person of
unexceptional talent, character, and accomplishment would be strong
enough to turn that down?
Don’t blame UCLA athletic director Dan Guerrero, either. He was
underqualified for the job but it was offered anyway. A year after he
was hired, in 2003, UCLA was looking for a new head basketball coach.
Guerrero was contacted by a person extraordinarily knowledgeable about
basketball in general and UCLA basketball in particular who advised that
he knew Kansas coach Roy Williams and offered to talk with Williams
about coaching UCLA because he knew Williams was going to leave Kansas.
Guerrero turned the idea down, saying that he already had someone in
line for the job and he didn’t want to lose him. So Guerrero didn’t even
interview Williams, who took the job at North Carolina instead and so
far has won two NCAA titles there.
Then Guerrero hired
another mediocrity, Ben Howland, who was hardly being inundated with
enormously unpopular at UCLA, coaching Bobby Knight’s slow down “motion”
offense, calling timeouts every two minutes, and substituting players
willy-nilly and constantly, and was finally fired and replaced by
Alford, who, incidentally, played the same “motion” offense he learned
as a player for Knight at Indiana that Bruins fans hated, which is a key
to how out of touch Guerrero was. Guerrero had done so little
investigation into his new coach that he was apparently clueless that
Alford had scandalously supported Iowa player Pierre Pierce who was
charged with sexual assault and pleaded out.
But you can’t blame
Guerrero. He knows nothing about basketball coaches (or football
coaches, for that matter) and he must have known he was unqualified for
such a prestigious position (Guerrero apologists will argue that UCLA
has won 21 NCAA titles, all in minor sports, during Guerrero’s tenure;
but the proof of the pudding is in basketball and football where the
money and prestige are, not tiddlywinks). But here was some doofus
offering him a top job at UCLA that paid around $750,000 annually. What
person of pedestrian talent would be strong enough to turn that down?
The Peter Principle rules.
The person who hired Guerrero was Pete Blackman, UCLA Vice
Chancellor in charge of athletics. Like Guerrero’s opportunity with
Williams, Blackman had the chance to hire a top flight executive who
also happened to be an experienced UCLA veteran, Gary Cunningham, as
Athletic Director. Blackman and Cunningham were starting forwards on
Wooden’s 1961-62 UCLA team that went to the Final Four. Cunningham was
the star forward and Blackman nothing more than a solid role player.
Cunningham had been Wooden’s assistant coach, then becoming head
basketball coach, 1977-79 (with a record of 50-8), before resigning to
become Athletic Director at three Universities, the last being UCSB.
Cunningham wanted the
UCLA job. But Blackman was less than interested. He did give Cunningham
a pro forma interview (telegraphing his disdain by failing to even
provide a parking pass for Cunningham who drove 125 miles from Santa
Barbara for the interview), but gave the job to Guerrero, who was AD at
UC Irvine. Cunningham was a Bruin and former coach; Guerrero had no
prior UCLA connection. How could anyone not choose Cunningham over
Guerrero? But Blackman apparently had other criteria by which to hire
Guerrero that were more important than who was better qualified for the
position as the Director of UCLA Athletics.
Some of the former
UCLA basketball players sponsored occasional reunions for all UCLA
basketball alums. I have attended most of them and have seen Cunningham
at several, if not all. I’ve never seen Blackman attend even one. Had
Blackman selected Cunningham as Athletic Director in 2002 instead of
Guerrero I’m confident that Roy Williams would be coaching UCLA, that
UCLA would have won at least two more NCAA basketball championships and
maybe a lot more, and that UCLA’s football program would be on much
better footing than it is.
Was Blackman jealous
of Cunningham because he was a better basketball player? Or did he have
other reasons more important to Blackman than selecting the most highly
qualified person for the position of Athletic Director at UCLA? Who
knows? But that horrible decision burned UCLA and it continues burning
to this day.