1:02 AM EDT, March 21, 2014
SAN DIEGO — He's been on the job nearly a full calendar year, leading a young basketball team to a conference tournament championship while filling a dormant program with energy and hope.
Yet Steve Alford's career as UCLA basketball coach doesn't officially begin until right now.
Friday night, Viejas Arena, NCAA tournament, opening game, Tulsa waiting.
Despair waiting, relief waiting, ghosts waiting.
"This is when the UCLA coaching hot seat gets really hot," said Tracy Murray, former Bruins star and current team radio analyst. "This is the game that sets his pants on fire."
Win this game with your higher-seeded team, take another tiny step on road lined with 11 championships, and everyone yawns. Lose this game, and nobody forgets.
Jim Harrick is remembered equally for two basketball games: his national championship win over Arkansas and his first-round loss to Princeton.
Steve Lavin is remembered not so much for his four Sweet 16 and one Elite Eight appearances, but for his first-round loss to Detroit Mercy.
The writing of the Alford resume at UCLA begins now, and that black padded sideline seat will have extra broil considering the messy way he's scripted the postseason in his previous 22 seasons as a college head coach.
Alford's former teams have gone to NCAA or National Invitation Tournament postseason tournaments 18 times. Half of those times, those teams have been bounced in the first round. Only once has he led a team to the Sweet 16, and that was 15 years ago.
Even amid the madness of March, here's guessing UCLA fans would not consider this an acceptable fail rate, especially considering that several good UCLA coaches have danced much better and still been given the hook.
Ben Howland made seven tournaments with the Bruins, and was knocked out in the first round twice. Lavin made six tournaments here and was knocked out in the first round only once. Harrick made eight tournaments and was knocked out three times.
Alford's postseason one-and-done history seems even worse because just last season, his third-seeded New Mexico team was upset in the first round by 14th-seeded Harvard.
"I think Harvard is better than what everybody thought because they advanced again this year," said Alford on Thursday after the Crimson pulled a second consecutive first-round upset against Cincinnati.
Yeah, well, Westwood folks probably don't want to hear that because Harvard is still Harvard, and Tulsa is still Tulsa and, in their minds, the great UCLA will forever be the great UCLA.
"It's not fair, but that's the way it is at UCLA," said Murray.
Alford doesn't need to win this tournament to make people believe he has this Bruins program moving in the right direction. But he absolutely cannot lose the opener if he hopes to sustain that belief beyond, say, April. It is especially vital that his fourth-seeded Bruins figure out a way to beat 13th-seeded Tulsa, considering the Golden Hurricane dumped the Bruins and Harrick in one of those first-round debacles 20 years ago.
Folks forgive that loss because it inspired the Bruins to win a national championship the following year. But no, folks still don't forget.
"I still remember it, oh yeah," said Tyus Edney, the Bruins director of basketball operations who played on that team. "But I'm not going to bring it up with our players. You know, we're trying to focus on the positive around here."
Murray also has his first-round loss story, against Penn State in 1991, when a UCLA team with five future NBA players lost to a team with zero future NBA players.
"I remember like it was yesterday…. I mean, they didn't even have any pros on that team," said Murray. "I remember walking into the locker room while North Carolina was walking out to play the next game. I looked at George Lynch and Rick Fox and said, 'Don't let this happen to you guys.'"
Alford doesn't need former Bruins coaches to warn him. He works in a building guarded by a statue of John Wooden.
"Coach Wooden raised that bar to a certain level, and that's where the bar sits, and you can't look at it like a burden, you have to embrace it," said Alford in a quiet moment during Thursday's pregame media events here. "Of course, you also have to be a realist."
Alford talked about the difficulty of playing a team you have never seen in person, during a second consecutive week of travel, in an era of unmatched parity. But, as if he knew nobody back home would be listening, he sighed.
"You understand why there's 11 banners hanging back at Pauley, and you realize how humbling this experience can be," he said. "I'm just trying to enjoy the journey."
It's a journey that has lasted nearly a year. It's a journey that only begins now.
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