LAS VEGAS — Multiple times each week, the Varsity Club meets in the Pauley Pavilion weight room.
Some days it’s a cardio workout on the treadmill or stationary bike. Other times they pump iron or focus on their core. The group only has four members, but UCLA coach Steve Alford and his three assistants don’t hesitate to boast about their fitness accomplishments when the Bruins players straddle in for their own session an hour later.
“They call themselves the Varsity Club and tell us we’re the Junior Varsity Club! Can you believe that?” point guard Norman Powell said in a phone interview. “They think they’re so funny, teasing with us about how they can lift more than we can. They know it’s not true.
“They’re just a bunch of old men.”
“That’s what we love about Coach Alford,” he said. “He’s intense and demanding on the court but a great guy off of it. With him, we get the best of both worlds.”
Indeed, one year since hiring Alford to replace Ben Howland, things couldn’t be working out any better for UCLA.
The Bruins finished second in the Pac-12 standings and advanced to the Sweet 16 in Alford’s inaugural season. Their 2014 recruiting class was ranked eighth nationally by Rivals.com, and Alford has already landed high-profile commitments from some of the nation’s top juniors and seniors.
“Good things are happening,” Alford, 49, told Bleacher Report. “We definitely feel like we’ve got some momentum.”
And not just on the court.
Ask any player, and he’ll tell you the atmosphere within UCLA’s program has completely changed.
Howland averaged 23.3 wins in 10 seasons and led the Bruins to three straight Final Fours. But his prickly nature alienated fans and players, including one who told Sports Illustrated he often took the stairs at Pauley Pavilion to avoid having to ride with Howland in an elevator.
Even in winning the 2013 Pac-12 title, UCLA’s players looked tight on the court and rarely smiled. It was as if they weren’t having any fun.
Under Alford, the Bruins have a newfound camaraderie and cohesion that extends from the hardwood all the way to the coaching offices. No one is going to mistake the fiery and competitive Alford as a player’s coach. You don’t win four Mountain West Conference titles in five years at New Mexico by being a teddy bear.
Still, by simply taking an interest in their lives away from basketball, Alford—a star player at Indiana under Bob Knight—won the respect and trust of his team in what could’ve been a difficult transition year.
“There were a lot of different opinions about the program when he took over, a lot of different feelings among the players,” Powell said. “I just think we were really excited for something new. He came in and made instant changes from the first time he set foot on campus.”
In one of his first meetings with his new squad, Alford asked each player for a list of ways to improve the program. A few suggested better shoes and training gear. Others mentioned locker room upgrades and additional court access. And some requested more one-on-one time with coaches.
Alford did his best to address each suggestion, and the Bruins took notice. More and more throughout the ensuing summer and school year, they began stopping by his office simply to say hello. If Alford was in a meeting, he’d halt it abruptly to make sure his guys were taken care of.
“Everyone on the team felt so welcomed by Coach,” Powell said. “He actively called us and checked on us and showed us that he cared. It was a good feeling, a new feeling.”
Alford’s efforts helped convince stars such as Kyle Anderson, Jordan Adams, Tony Parker and Zach LaVine to stay at UCLA instead of transferring or entering the NBA draft. The result was a 28-9 record that included a victory over then-No. 4 Arizona in the championship game of the Pac-12 Tournament. UCLA lost to No. 1 overall seed Florida 79-68 in the Sweet 16.
The Bruins’ success was a welcomed site for athletic director Dan Guerrero, who received criticism for his decision to hire Alford the previous spring. Fans were hoping for a flashier choice, such as Kentucky’s John Calipari. And media members were critical of Alford because of his lack of NCAA tournament success and questioned his ability to recruit on the west coast.
The apathy actually caused UCLA’s average home attendance to drop from an already disappointing 9,549 in 2012-13 to 8,136 in Alford’s first year.
“UCLA fans and alumni are really hard on their programs and coaches,” said former Bruins star Tracy Murray, now an analyst with the UCLA Sports Network. “(Alford) is always going to be compared to Coach Wooden, which is unfair. No coach is ever going to do that again.
“I was impressed with what he did in his first year. He was adamant about what he wanted and his players bought in. As long as he sticks to his style, he’ll be successful.”
At New Mexico, Alford grew accustomed to playing in front of sellout crowds at the Pitt. The Lobos were the biggest show in town. But at UCLA, the Bruins are competing with a professional sports market that includes the NBA’s Lakers and Clippers.
Still, Alford is confident Pauley Pavilion will soon be full again (capacity is 12,829). He said plans are already underway to move the student section closer to the court, which will create a more raucous atmosphere.
“We feel like we’ve got a lot to offer,” Alford said. “We’re playing an uptempo style that’s exciting to watch, and our guys are playing hard and unselfish. Hopefully over time people will come to appreciate that.”
An influx of new faces could also help UCLA, especially considering some of them may be recognizable to local fans.
Recruiting analyst Jeff Borzello of CBSSports.com said Alford has silenced the critics who questioned whether he’d be able to compete with Arizona’s Sean Miller or USC’s Andy Enfield for California-based prospects, an area where Howland struggled.
Five-star recruit Isaac Hamilton, a Los Angeles native, will likely start in the backcourt this season, while freshman center Thomas Welsh (Loyola) competes for playing time. Two other top-50 prospects have committed to UCLA: Aaron Holiday is ranked No. 43 in the class of 2015 by Rivals.com, and Lonzo Ball is No. 16 in the class of 2016.
“(Alford) is doing better in California than anyone thought he would,” Borzello told Bleacher Report. “Everyone thought USC was going to lock down SoCal when Andy Enfield was hired, but that hasn’t happened. It’s been Alford.
“No one is going to stop (Arizona’s) Sean Miller from going in there and getting elite guys. But Alford is going to be competitive. He’s made it a priority.”
Along with a renovated arena and an uptempo style of play, Alford has plenty to sell when he visits the home of a recruit. The obvious thing, Alford said, is the UCLA brand and tradition. The Bruins have won a record 11 national titles, 10 of which came under the legendary John Wooden.
“I feel honored and blessed that I got to play for Coach (Bob) Knight, and now I’m coaching where Coach Wooden coached,” Alford said. “Those were two guys that I grew up admiring and idolizing.”
UCLA has also been a pipeline to the NBA in recent years. Three Bruins players—Kyle Anderson, Zach LaVine and Jordan Adams—were selected in the first round of this summer’s NBA draft. That’s the most first-rounders for the program since 1979.
Alford said that NBA scouts were at 92 of UCLA’s 106 practices last season.
“Our guys are getting exposure, they’re getting seen,” Alford said. “Individual development has always been a strength of our system. Our guys get better over time.
“But I’m also not going to shy away from playing freshmen, especially if they’re a high-level kid who can play right away.”
Alford won’t have any choice in 2014-15, as five of UCLA’s top eight scorers from last year’s squad either graduated or entered the NBA draft. Powell (11.4 points), Tony Parker (6.9) and Alford’s son, Bryce (8.0) are the only returnees who logged significant minutes a year ago.
Alford said it’d be a mistake to label the upcoming season as a “transition year.”
“We’ll be younger,” he said, “but we’ll be fine. Our foundation is in place. We’re just going to keep building.”
UCLA supporters are eager to see how things develop.
“Whenever we have one good year, people want to say, ‘UCLA basketball is back,’” Murray said. “To say it’s officially back, we’re going to have to do well in the NCAA tournament. But with (Alford), I certainly like the direction it’s going.
“We may not be back, but we’re definitely on the rise again.”
Jason King covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @JasonKingBR.