LOS ANGELES — Hours after reaching an agreement to become UCLA's new coach Saturday morning, Steve Alford was already hard at work trying to repair his program's reputation among Southern California recruits.
One of Alford's first calls was to Pacific Hills High School coach Ivan Barahona, whose star player, Namon Wright, is a top Class of 2014 combo guard and a player both New Mexico and UCLA had previously offered. Alford called while Barahona was golfing Saturday afternoon and again while Barahona was sitting down to Easter dinner with his family, making a point both times to emphasize Wright was one of his top recruiting priorities.
"My wife got mad at me because I was on the phone so much," Barahona said Tuesday. "Namon always liked Coach Alford, but the thing that kind of forced him to back off before was the idea of coming to New Mexico. Now that Coach Alford is at UCLA, he has a double whammy. He can say, 'I'm Steve Alford and I'm at UCLA. Come on down.'"
Perhaps keeping top Los Angeles prospects will indeed be that easy for Alford, but what's critical for UCLA is that he has more success than his predecessor. In the latter half of his tenure, former UCLA coach Ben Howland lost favor with Southern California's top high school and club coaches, some of whom were turned off by his stubborn demeanor or by their belief that his structured style did not showcase their players to NBA scouts.
Of the 10 players Howland signed since the Class of 2010, only San Diego native Norman Powell hailed from Southern California. Howland had to resort to hiring Atlanta-based AAU coach Korey McCray as an assistant in 2011 to try to create a pipeline from the East to help compensate for the program's in-state recruiting woes.
It's the belief of UCLA athletic director Dan Guerrero that Alford is the right coach to repair the fractured relationships between the program and Los Angeles-area high school and club coaches. Guerrero points to Alford's success luring all-Mountain West performers Tony Snell and Kendall Williams from Southern California to New Mexico and to the fact that Alford's first addition to his staff, longtime Lobos assistant Duane Broussard, has recruited Los Angeles well.
"Steve was successful bringing in some guys at New Mexico," Guerrero said. "And I feel as he puts the rest of his staff together, knowing full well there's obviously excellent talent in Southern California, that the emphasis will be on keeping quality players who can make the grade here at home."
New Mexico indeed enjoyed some success in Southern California, but Alford still has to prove he can woo and coach the region's most sought-after prospects.
Williams, a Rancho Cucamonga native, signed with New Mexico after UCLA rescinded his scholarship offer too late in the process for him to attract other Pac-12 offers. Snell, Riverside native, was largely overlooked by top Pac-12 and Mountain West programs. The only other Southern California natives Alford coached at New Mexico were Tony Dandridge, a holdover from the previous staff, and Demetrius Walker, an Arizona State transfer.
Alford's strategy to grease the wheels a bit is to reach out to as many Los Angeles-area high school and club coaches as possible in the next few weeks, whether by phone or in person. Since his father was a high school coach in Indianapolis, Alford said he has a unique appreciation for how important building those relationships can be.
"Everywhere I've gone, connecting to high school coaches and programs has been instrumental to what we've done," Alford said. "We're going to try to do that here as well. You visit high schools, you get on the phone and you let them know how important they are, whether they have players or not. And of course, if they have a player, that gives it a little more urgency."
It will surely be easier for Alford to recruit Los Angeles from UCLA than New Mexico because of the program's history, location and prestige. Nonetheless, Alford needs a staff of hard workers and skilled recruiters and he needs at least one assistant who can serve as a buffer between him and the players the way Craig "Noodles" Neal has at New Mexico.
Howland had such an assistant in Kerry Keating to help smooth over issues. It's no accident that Keating's departure to Santa Clara coincided with the start of the transfer epidemic at UCLA that contributed to Howland's firing.
To help Alford's recruiting efforts, UCLA is doing its best to market its new coach as being very different than his predecessor even if the differences aren't as striking as school officials might have you believe.
Guerrero referred to Alford as an "up-tempo" coach in the press release announcing the hire even if his New Mexico team was only 239th in possessions per 40 minutes this past season. During Alford's introductory press conference Tuesday, Guerrero described his new coach as someone who could "bring a brand of exciting basketball" to Westwood.
"I've had an opportunity to see his team play the past several years, and he lets his team play," Guerrero said. "I like that."
It's early, but there are signs West Coast recruits do too.
Westwind Academy's Jeff de Laveaga, who coaches Zylan Cheatham, said Alford has a great chance to land the highly touted Class of 2014 small forward now that he's at UCLA, especially if immediate playing time is available. And Barahona reiterated that UCLA is far more appealing to Wright with Alford at the helm than it would have been with Howland.
"I think what was haunting Ben Howland was his stubbornness and his style of play," Barahona said. "His reputation was he put handcuffs on you and he didn't let you play. Alford gives UCLA a clean slate, a new start. He gives UCLA that star power, a big name."