Wolf Pack athletic director Doug Knuth stepped to the lectern standing at halfcourt inside Lawlor Events Center on Friday afternoon to introduce Steve Alford as Nevada’s head basketball coach and got a standing ovation.
The roughly 600 fans in attendance to welcome the new face of Wolf Pack basketball first wanted to say thanks to Knuth, the man tasked with replacing arguably the most popular coach in school history, Eric Musselman, who departed Nevada five days earlier for Arkansas. It was a deserved ovation.
By hiring Alford, a proven coaching commodity, to the most lucrative (by $6.6 million) and longest contract (by five years) in Nevada athletics history, the Wolf Pack sent a clear and resounding message to its fans.
“Nevada is serious about basketball and is putting all of its money on the table.”
It’s an investment I never thought I’d see from the Wolf Pack. In any sport. In any fashion. Nevada just handed out a 10-year, $11.6 million fully guaranteed contract. Knuth took what could have been a death blow to the fan base – losing Musselman, the best coach in program history, to SEC money – and turned it into a real reason for excitement. Alford isn’t a Band-Aid hire. He actually might be an improvement over Musselman, which is no knock on the man who resurrected the Wolf Pack. Alford’s résumé is just that good.
* 509 wins over 24 Division I seasons
* 11 NCAA Tournament berths, including four Sweet 16 appearances
* 15 seasons with a Top 25 ranking, including four times in the top 10 (with three different schools)
* Five conference tournament championships and four regular-season crowns
* Roaring success in the Mountain West, where he won six titles and three coach of the year awards
* And a history of sending players to the NBA, a league he himself played in
“I think we nailed it,” Knuth said.
Only time will tell. Even the best hires can fail. But it’s hard to find a path where this doesn’t work out. The Wolf Pack could have rolled the dice on an up-and-coming assistant coach, which is a boom-or-bust proposition. It could have dipped into its past and hire somebody with a local tie. It could have lowered its budget and plucked a Division I coach from a smaller school. Instead it went big and hired the most accomplished coach in the MW’s history outside of San Diego State's Steve Fisher (who the MW coach of the year award is named after).
Nevada spent big, showing the MW that it isn’t ready to give back the throne after winning three straight regular-season titles. It told fans deciding whether to ditch their season tickets that the school is committed. But that commitment was only possible, Knuth said, because of the fans in the first place.
“That 100 percent is about the fans,” Knuth said. “The fans have spoken the last few years by filling up Lawlor Events Center and creating this incredible atmosphere. Our home record has been incredible the last few years, and it’s because of our community and it’s because of our students. That’s what attracts another great coach. They want to come to a building where people are rabid about basketball and about their team and that helped attract a guy like Steve Alford. If we didn’t have that, we wouldn’t have had a chance at a guy like Steve Alford.”
Alford said all the right things at Friday’s announcement. He listed several reasons why Nevada was the right fit for him. He started with the fan base, lavishing praise on Northern Nevada’s “hard-working group of fans who are knowledge about basketball and support it at a high level.” He added the administrative support, the roster he inherited, his success and enjoyment of the MW, Reno’s climate and then ended with a joke.
"The last thing that drew me here was golf,” Alford said, lamenting the timing of the hire only because he hasn’t been able to watch the Masters this week.
While Alford mixed in his share of jokes, he said he was serious about wanting to stay at Nevada for the long haul. While that’s a common talking point at introductory press conferences, Alford’s contract backed up his words. His buyout starts at $8 million before falling to $6 million, $4 million, $3 million, $2 million and then $1.5 million by his sixth season in Reno. He doesn’t sign that deal – and Alford was the one who pitched a long-term pact during the recruitment process – if he wasn’t serious.
Wolf Pack fans were constantly fretting about losing Musselman to more wealthy schools, and the coach made sure his buyout was low enough it wouldn’t be an issue if he got a bigger offer. You can’t blame him, but Alford made a stronger pledge to Nevada, which also took its share of risk by fully guaranteeing his contract. The Wolf Pack isn’t getting out of this deal at any point. They’re committed.
“I didn’t know it was going to be that long, but it ended up working out and I think it’s awesome,” Alford said. “You look at it and most contracts being signed right now are for five years. To double that showed a commitment by them but it also showed a commitment by me. That’s why it’s a win-win. They’re in it for the long haul. I’m in it for the long haul. For me, that really solidified what I want to do with a type of marriage that will work. I didn’t want one side to get what it wants and there’s a fracture two, three years down the road. We want to continue to build what’s been built here and continue to win.”
Wolf Pack fans have tasted success and don’t want to lose that taste as it did following the end of the Nick Fazekas era. Without a strong hire this week, that could have been the case. With this hire, the momentum should be sustained.
Fans who felt miserable walking into work Monday morning following the news Musselman bolted for Arkansas got to leave work Friday afternoon knowing their program was in good hands. It’s been quite a week.
Sports columnist Chris Murray provides insight on Northern Nevada sports. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @MurrayNSN.