UCLA basketball coach Steve Alford faced his first full-court press from California media this week when introduced as the man picked to guide the program immortalized by John Wooden.
Then, Alford dribbled the ball directly off his foot.
When asked whether Wooden would have handled the 2002 sexual-assault charge against former Iowa player Pierre Pierce as he did while coaching the Hawkeyes, the buck was passed as quickly and crisply as any basketball.
“That was an instance that happened years ago,” Alford said. “I followed everything that the University of Iowa, the administration, the lawyers that were hired … I followed everything that I was told to do.”
Garbage. Baloney. Don’t believe it for a fraction of a second.
Patrick White prosecuted the case in 2002 while serving as Johnson County Attorney. He knows the facts, the conversations, the who-knew-what-when details as well as anyone.
Let’s assume for a minute — fight the eye rolling, if only briefly — that Alford simply followed instructions like a mindless foot solider in a controversy that had set the campus ablaze. It’s entirely within the realm of possibility that Alford received only scraps of truth from Pierce along the way, since players facing trouble do that in far less dire circumstances.
In the end, though, Alford’s attempt to wash his hands of the situation is a pill far too difficult to swallow.
White stayed in constant communication with then-athletic director Bob Bowlsby and university attorney Mark Schantz. Of Alford’s assertion to all of Bruin-dom that he simply did what he was told: “I doubted the accuracy of that,” White said.
It was almost impossible for Alford to be deaf, dumb and blind to the end.
A university investigation revealed that the faith-based group Athletes in Action — led locally by a close friend of Alford’s who traveled with the team — contacted the victim, a former Iowa women’s basketball player, to invite her to a prayer meeting. The contact was inappropriate, intimidating and could only play out as an attempt to mute the victim.
Does anyone honestly think university leaders or attorneys would advise Alford to associate himself with that?
White remembers a teleconference with reporters after a deal was struck to reduce Pierce’s charge to misdemeanor assault causing injury for his admission of guilt. Sitting in his living room in pajamas and slippers as he recovered from quintuple bypass surgery, White recalled being asked if there was anything else he’d like to add.
“I said yes, and was critical of Steve’s continued comments about Pierce’s innocence and how hurtful that was to the victim,” White said. “Essentially, I said the situation was illustrative of why sex-abuse victims found it difficult to testify.”
Someone quickly played a tape of White’s comments to Alford.
“I got a call at about 5 or 5:15 (p.m.) the same day,” White said. “Steve calls — and in fairness, I’d criticized him publicly — and it only took about 30 seconds for the yelling and raised voices to start.”
The screaming continued on both sides, White estimated, for a half-hour.
“He basically said what he said at UCLA (press conference), that he didn’t do or say anything that he wasn’t told to do or say,” White said.
The problem: It’s not believable.
I interviewed others this week who were associated with the most crucial moments and conversations in 2002. Those people had first-hand knowledge of the facts, and echoed the same inability to digest Alford’s explanation.
What personal and moral responsibility, then, did the leader of Iowa’s basketball team have for the victim he discredited and marginalized in public, over and over again? Once the facts had been sorted, guilt assured and all doubt removed, what did Alford owe in that moment?
Alford, so quick to rush and defend the player — an assailant, convicted again in 2005 after threatening a victim with a knife and serving 11 months in prison — never offered the same public support to the woman who was assaulted by the person he worked so tirelessly to return to the court.
All of it — the darkness, the perception of deceit that led to fans boycotting games and thousands signing petitions — created distance and distrust that eventually helped steer Alford to New Mexico.
In a way, Alford’s moral missteps of yesterday have led to Iowa’s optimism of today.
The Hawkeyes prepared to play Baylor on Thursday for the championship of the National Invitation Tournament at New York’s Madison Square Garden, college basketball’s grandest backdrop.
If Alford had stayed, would Fran McCaffery be coaching Iowa now? Alford won one NCAA Tournament game in his eight seasons. Tom Davis, the man before him, won at least one NCAA game in 10 of his 13 seasons.
When Alford’s comments this week pushed the pain back to the fore, though, the discussion of integrity far out-trumped Xs and Os.
Alford could not be immediately reached for comment Thursday. Does anyone wonder what the response would be, though, since the defiance of 2002 was trotted out anew this week?
In late 2006, White retired as county attorney. The Pierce situation, he says, helped deepen his admiration for Bowlsby, the man representing the athletic department during those dark days.
Bowlsby, White said, showed integrity that so many argue Alford sorely lacks.
“It was complicated because athletes were involved,” White said. “There was a no-contact order, but you had people who needed access to the same building all the time. It took a lot of gymnastics by Bowlsby to work out how they could continue with their lives without violating that order.
“Bowlsby was terrific.”
The bond grew after White stepped away from his full-time job. Shortly before Bowlsby left for Stanford, the two shared an idea while working together on a grade-school task force.
White began volunteering to work in Iowa’s sports marketing department. There was one problem: The department shared a floor with the men’s basketball office, meaning he would routinely cross paths with Alford at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
“I would say hello and he would just nod. We didn’t have any conversations,” White said.
White attempted to ease the chill, setting up a meeting appointment with Alford’s secretary. On the day White walked in, though, he was told the coach would not see him.
Iowa basketball had built a solid season at the time, so White emailed Alford a note of congratulations as an attempt to mend their past.
“He emailed back and basically said that I threw him under the bus and started his downfall,” White said. “He said I helped turned the fans against him. I think he gave me much more credit than I deserved.”
There it was again. It was someone else’s fault — not Alford’s. Blame rested somewhere, anywhere, rather than his own front porch.
It’s a pattern of excuse-making at the highest level. It’s gutless — then and now.
Bryce Miller can be reached at 515-284-8288 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter: @Bryce_A_Miller
Category: Iowa Hawkeyes men's basketball