Big Ten Icons: Steve Alford
Steve Alford may well have been the quintessential Indiana basketball player. He grew up in New Castle, a town that reveres the game, and learned it from his father, Sam Alford, a Hall of Fame high school coach at New Castle Chrysler. Under his father’s tutelage, Alford developed the fundamental skills, the shooting touch, the court sense and the toughness that constitute the preferred style of play in the land where basketball is king. A two-time all-state selection, Alford was the state’s leading scorer as a senior with 37.7 points per game and won the coveted title of Indiana’s Mr. Basketball in 1983.
With that type of pedigree, was there any question where he would go to college? Steve Alford was born to be an Indiana Hoosier and to play for Bob Knight. Not many did it much better.
Knight may have been philosophically opposed to freshmen eligibility, but he had no qualms about starting freshmen who could play, and Steve Alford could play. He helped the Hoosiers to a 22-9 record in his first season, highlighted by a victory over top-ranked North Carolina in the East Regional semifinal of the NCAA tournament, the last game of Michael Jordan’s college career. Alford scored a game-high 27 points that night and averaged 15.5 for the season. His teammates voted him their most valuable player, the first of four team MVP awards he would win in Bloomington.
His summer was a bit busy as well. Alford was the youngest player chosen for the Knight-coached 1984 U.S. Olympic team, beating out more experienced hands such as John Stockton and Charles Barkley. His teammates included the cream of the college crop: Jordan, Patrick Ewing, Sam Perkins, Chris Mullin, Wayman Tisdale. And Alford was hardly overmatched — he averaged 10.2 points per game, hit 64 percent of his shots and was No. 2 in assists on a team that waltzed to an Olympic gold medal.
The next two years were quieter. Beset by uncharacteristic lapses in academics and off-court discipline, Indiana endured a pedestrian 19-14 season in 1984-85 and missed out on the NCAA tournament after going 7-11 in the Big Ten. Its consolation prize: a runner-up finish to UCLA and Reggie Miller in the NIT. Alford averaged 18.1 points and repeated as team MVP.
The ship appeared to be back on course in 1985-86; the Hoosiers were 21-7 overall and 13-5 in the Big Ten, which earned them a No. 4 seed in the NCAA tournament. But they caught an upstart Cleveland State team on the night of its life and went out in the first round as Ken “Mouse” McFadden and Clinton Ransey engineered a monumental upset. Though the season ended in disappointment, Alford was a consensus first-team All-American.
Author John Feinstein had spent the ’85-86 season embedded with the Hoosiers, and his best-seller account of the experience, “Season on the Brink,” hardly cast Knight or his program in a flattering light when it hit bookstores in the fall of 1986. Thus Alford’s senior year began under a cloud of uncertainty. With characteristic rise-to-the-occasion grit, Alford turned it into one of the most memorable campaigns in Indiana history, demonstrating leadership and mental toughness to match his physical ability. Moreover, the three-point shot was added to the college game for Alford’s senior season, which was a boon to a marksman with his shooting range.
Knight had done some unusual (for him) recruiting that off-season, taking guard Keith Smart and center Dean Garrett from junior colleges in Kansas and California. The newcomers added quickness and size to a returning group that featured Alford, Rick Calloway, Daryl Thomas and Joe Hillman. And they meshed. The Hoosiers were 24-4 in the regular season, shared the Big Ten title with a 15-3 mark and entered the NCAA tournament as the No. 1 seed in the Midwest Regional. In succession they took care of Fairfield, Auburn and Duke, and then survived a nail-biter against LSU in the regional final to return to the Final Four for the first time since an Isiah Thomas-led Indiana team won the 1981 national championship.
The site was the Superdome, where a teenage Smart had worked as a vendor and an usher while growing up in New Orleans. His homecoming would prove to be implausibly dramatic.
The Indiana-UNLV semifinal was an NBA-style shootout, end-to-end action, with the Hoosiers surviving a three-point barrage by Freddie Banks to win 97-93. Alford did some slick shooting of his own, collecting 33 points on his way to a tournament-best 138. “We thought we could catch up to Alford, but we never did — he killed us,” UNLV coach Jerry Tarkanian groaned.
Indiana’s title-game opponent would be Syracuse, which disposed of Rick Pitino’s Providence squad in the other semifinal. Alford neutralized point guard Sherman Douglas’ superb floor play with 7-for-10 three-point shooting and Smart had the hot hand when it mattered most, flicking in a 16-foot jumper from the left baseline with just under two seconds remaining, lifting the Hoosiers to a 74-73 victory.
The national championship was the fifth in school history and the third for Knight. It also marked an appropriate ending to Alford’s storybook Indiana career. Knight grabbed him and hugged him on national television as the jubilant Hoosiers cut down the nets. “I’m happiest of all for this guy because of all he’s been through with me,” Knight said.
Alford was a second-round draft pick by the Dallas Mavericks and played four NBA seasons with the Mavs and the Golden State Warriors. He then followed his dad and his mentor, Knight, into coaching. His first stop, at Indiana’s Manchester College, featured a 31-game winning streak and a berth in the NCAA Division III national title game in 1995. Moving on to Southwest Missouri State, he reached the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament in 1999. Back in the conference he knew best, his Iowa tenure included two Big Ten tournament titles and six postseason appearances. He has won back-to-back Mountain West Conference titles at New Mexico and recently signed a contract extension to remain with the Lobos through the 2020 season.
But to many people in Indiana, Steve Alford will always be a Hoosier. His 2,438 points (19.5 ppg) are second in school history behind Calbert Cheaney’s 2,613. He was a four-time team MVP, three times first-team All-Big Ten and a two-time first team All-American. He was the Big Ten Player of the Year and won the Jesse Owens Award as the Big Ten’s male athlete of the year as a senior. The Hoosiers were 92-35 in his four years, 48-24 in the Big Ten. The Olympic gold medal and the national championship were bookends to a remarkable career.
A final assessment from the man who probably knew him best and appreciated him the most: “If Steve has a claim to basketball immortality,” Knight said, “it’s what he got out of himself.”