Nostalgia can be nice.
For Indiana fans, it might be thinking back on the days at school in Bloomington — walking through the Sample Gates and around the gorgeous campus, going out to establishments on Kirkwood like Nick’s or Kilroy’s, hitting up the great tailgate scene before heading into Memorial Stadium on crisp fall Saturdays, and of course, going to basketball games at Assembly Hall on the coldest winter evenings.
With the Indiana basketball job coming open, some level of nostalgia is just fine. Indiana’s greatest basketball heights now came 30 years ago, and finding a tie to past greatness is not an unreasonable want, though it may be short-sighted. Looking to an Indiana alum, one that Understands The Culture Here, can be an answer for the uncertainty sitting over then program’s future.
In his press conference to announce Tom Crean’s firing, Indiana AD Fred Glass discussed certain qualifications that he thought the next Indiana basketball coach should have. One quote was particularly telling: “To me, IU ties is a double check plus. Being a former IU person is a double check plus. Being from the state of Indiana is double check plus.”
This sounds like something of a nod to Steve Alford, the point guard who grew up in New Castle, won Indiana Mr. Basketball in 1983, and was the starting point guard for Indiana’s last title team in 1987. Alford previously was the head guy in both Iowa and New Mexico, and currently is coaching the UCLA Bruins to a 30-win season. Immediately, the national media had a field day thinking about a homecoming for Alford. And though UCLA is still in the NCAA Tournament, a lot of smoke still has been blown from a specific direction about Alford’s interest in the job, and Alford has not denied interest either.
But for reasons completely unrelated to basketball, Alford should not be a candidate for the Indiana job. In fact, it's fair to question if he should still be in college coaching at all. A series of events in Iowa City from 2002 to 2005, followed by a calloused lack of understanding and contrition with regard to his actions and the impact they had on sexual assault victims in the years that followed tell the story.
On October 1, 2002, Iowa basketball player Pierre Pierce was charged with third-degree sexual assault, a Class C felony worth up to 10 years in prison. The incident had occurred a little under a month prior on September 7, 2002. The day after the arrest, Iowa AD Bob Bowlsby announced that Pierce was suspended from all team activities. That same day, Alford vigorously defended his accused player, saying that he “supported him 100 percent,” In the same article, Alford spent time discussing his own successes with the team, and indicated that journalists should spend more more time talking about what the team — and specifically he — had accomplished, claiming that “Nobody writes about the fact that we have three players in Dean (Oliver), Luke (Recker) and Reggie (Evans) in NBA camps right now.”
This wasn't a one-time defense, or one-time comment. Alford launched a campaign for one of his freshman stars in Pierce, well prior to the legal case’s resolution.
Consider his other statements as the case progressed. Alford also stated about his player that "unfortunately, the judging has already started and that's the pain."
At Big Ten Media Day that season, Alford continued to defend Pierce, saying: "I totally believe he's innocent... I believed it from Day One, and I still believe it.”
After this incident, a special report was commissioned by the University of Iowa about how all parties handled this situation. According to the report, supporting Pierce ran counter to the advice that Bowlsby had given him, saying that he should await the resolution of the legal matter. The report also mentioned that when dealing with the aftermath of the incident prior to the arrest, Alford attempted to evade the traditional resources at University of Iowa. Instead, he wanted Pierce and the victim to go through a Christian organization called Athletes in Action, which had a representative on campus with whom Alford was friendly. It was this action that led the victim to pursuing criminal charges.
Ultimately, the charges were reduced from a felony to a misdemeanor, and on November 1, 2002, Pierce pleaded guilty of this lesser charge. Pierce indeed redshirted during the 2002-03 season, and was back playing on the team the following season.
In a 2003 radio interview, Alford still defended Pierce, and basically said everyone else needed to get over it: “This is already behind us. I already told you, two lives have been affected. Now, they’ve gotta move on. … You can’t keep dwelling on something that’s already happened. … What I’ve tried to do with Pierre and his family is really support him in every way I can.”
But the Pierce story doesn’t end with this incident.
Pierce came back to the team for the 2003-04 season and for most of the 2004-05 season. During the 2004-05 season, however, Pierce was arrested again, this time for assaulting a former girlfriend and attempting to burglarize her apartment. This time, he was finally kicked off the team. Though he faced several years of jail time, he spent less than a year in prison, thanks to a plea bargain.
By then, though, the damage had been done, and Alford had helped to foster an environment in which Pierce was allowed to be a repeat offender. By defending Pierce when it wasn’t necessary to do so, Alford indirectly contributed to him committing another crime in Iowa City.
All of these ugly accusations were brought to light again in 2013, when UCLA hired Alford as their head coach. From the moment Alford was hired — literally days after he signed a 10-year extension to remain head coach at New Mexico — questions arose about whether UCLA AD Dan Guerrero had done his due diligence on the Alford hire. In Alford’s introductory presser, he brushed aside how he handled the situation, stating that he “followed everything he was supposed to do” during the Pierce case at Iowa — something that the official report contradicts.
Later, Alford and Guerrero both issued statements on the case, where they came off as more apologetic and respectful in tone. The entire situation resulted in UCLA looking foolish, and Alford still seeming unaware of any lessons learned from the matter. If Indiana decides to hire Alford, expect plenty of well-deserved scrutiny, especially after Glass made it clear from the Kevin Wilson firing that Indiana places a premium on the physical welfare and safety of students.
Alford’s proponents and others hit a similar refrain, often. This was 12 years ago, they’ll tell you — and time absolves sins, or something.
But the sheer passage of time doesn't and shouldn't absolve Alford. Still, to this day, Alford’s only showing of contrition came in a prepared statement issued in face of steep public pressure. At the bare minimum, Steve Alford owes answers. Does he understand, after years of maintaining his relative innocence under respondeat superior despite evidence otherwise, how his actions have impacted victims of sexual assault?
The temptation might be strong to hire a past champion at IU who is currently in the college coaching ranks, Indiana University should not give in to this nostalgia. Hiring Alford would be a signal that the school cares too much about its own past success, and is willing to overlook basic decency for trying to recreate a bygone era of college hoops. Hiring Alford would be a signal that Indiana cares less about making sure it has a safe campus or taking sexual assault accusations seriously, than it does getting the latest five-star recruit.
Hiring Alford would be a dark day for Indiana University. But his continued ascension up college basketball’s ladder without expressing any sort of understanding over why his actions in handling the Pierre Pierce case were wrong sends a message to society & sexual assault victims far darker -- and one that matters far more than winning basketball games.