It is a long way from the campus of Manchester College in North Manchester, Indiana where Steve Alford started his head coaching career.
As a player, he was part of an Olympic gold medal-winning team that included Michael Jordan, Patrick Ewing and Wayman Tisdale. He led the Indiana Hoosiers to the national championship in 1987, and although everyone remembers Keith Smart's winning jumper, it was Alford who made 7 of 10 three-pointers and scored 23 points to keep the Hoosiers in the game.
The former Indiana hero, now in his 19th year (does this seem right?) of coaching, seems to have found a home in Albuquerque as head coach of the New Mexico Lobos.
In his third year with the Lobos, Alford has the team positioned for its first NCAA appearance since 2005, and only the second since 1999.
After spending eight frustrating years at Iowa, trying to recruit against the likes of Michigan State, Indiana, Illinois et al, Alford resigned and took the New Mexico job after Ritchie McKay was fired. Generally, this was considered a step back in most circles, moving from a Big Six conference to a mid-major, the Mountain West. But for Alford, it was probably the best move he possibly could have made.
His years at Iowa could at best be described as disappointing. The Hawkeyes won two conference tournament titles during Alford's eight years but made the NCAA tournament only three times. Out of those three appearances, Iowa managed only one win and, despite being a #3 seed in 2006, were upset by the Northwestern State Demons in the first round. Overall, his squads finished with a 61-67 conference record.
In fact, Alford's greatest success in the tourney came in 1999 as the head man at Southwest Missouri State (now Missouri State) when the Bears reached the Sweet Sixteen before losing to Duke.
At New Mexico, his record has been much better. Over the past two and some seasons, his teams have compiled a 30-11 record in conference play. In some mid-major conferences this is misleading. But the Mountain West has a number of teams that can compete on the national stage, especially in a season like this, where the parity is evident. This season more than the past two, the Lobos have played a solid non-conference schedule and sit at 22-3, are ranked nationally and stand at #9 in the RPI.
This team won't be cutting down the nets in April. They most likely won't be going to Indianapolis either. But, they will be in the tourney and they do have a chance to make some noise. And give Steve Alford a chance to return to the stage he dominated 23 years ago.
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