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Hoosier to Hawkeye
An inside look at Steve Alford's journey of faith and basketball.
By Tom Rogeberg

“Whatever it is, we find a way to make sure in our program that at least our student-athletes are being challenged academically, socially, physically and most important of all, spiritually.”
He’s won almost every accolade a basketball player can.

• Indiana High School’s “Mr. Basketball”
• National High School Player of the Year
• Olympic gold medalist
• Two-time first team collegiate All-American
• Four-time MVP for Indiana University
• Leader of the Hoosiers’ last national championship team
• NBA star

Now as a coach, he’s staring down another achievement-laden career. Already he has coached more Division I college basketball victories than any other coach by the age of 42.

With a résumé that epitomizes basketball success at every level, it speaks volumes of Alford’s character that one of the awards most valuable to him is the FCA award that recognized him as being a great encourager.

Last March, Alford received FCA’s John Lotz “Barnabas” Award at the Final Four in Indianapolis. The meaning of the name Barnabas from the New Testament is “son of encouragement,” and both the award’s namesake John Lotz (University of Florida coaching legend) and Steve Alford are synonymous with that often-neglected character trait.

For Alford there is no question that his own greatest supporters have been his parents, his wife and his brother. They’ve probably been the best encouragers I’ve had aside from my relationship with Christ,” he says. One needs only to spend a little time with Alford to see that the relationships he has with his Lord and his family are his chief priorities.

One core factor in Alford’s growth has been FCA, which has developed into a central part of his life and relationships, and it has met him with ministry at each new stage of his life. It is through FCA that Alford even now chooses to serve others.

***

Steve Alford grew up in New Castle, Indiana, where his dad, Sam, was his high school basketball coach and his brother, Sean, one of his teammates. In a state where basketball is king, Indiana boasts nine of the 10 largest gyms in America. But the Fieldhouse in New Castle, where the Alfords played, is the world’s largest. During Alford’s senior year at New Castle Chrysler High, his team played before crowds of more than 10,000 eight different times, several times back-to-back on both Friday and Saturday nights.

“The majority of high school players probably don’t play in front of 20,000 in their entire career, and we did that in one weekend,” he says. “What an incredible, special opportunity to have such a family atmosphere. Mom was there. Dad was the coach. My brother and I were playing together. I couldn’t have asked for much more.”

Steve and Sam Alford

But there was one thing that Alford wished for a state championship for his father — that was not to be. Despite receiving more honors than he could have ever dreamed, the humble Alford says, “That [championship] didn’t take place, so I failed at the one thing I was really driven to achieve. And I think that was the Lord’s way of saying, ‘You’d better understand what success is. I don’t look down on the loser or look favorably on the winner. It’s really about how you go about it.’

“I’ve learned a lot in athletics that has helped me spiritually,” he continues. “A foundation – the fundamentals of what it’s like to be a basketball player. I was never the strongest, quickest or fastest, but I tried to out-work and out-think people. I tried to love the game and respect the game more than my opponents. I still try to do that as a coach, and I think that’s parallel to my life as a Christian – understanding the fundamental basis of my faith – fall in love with it and go from there.”

Besides being the basketball coach, Alford’s father was the FCA Huddle Coach at his school, and so, Alford became active in FCA as an eighth grader. “I probably got involved with FCA before I was ‘legally’ supposed to because at that time FCA started with ninth graders. I just fell in love with everything FCA meant and the fellowship that went along with it, learning about Christ and the fundamentals of living the Christian life.

“But it was a camp I went to at St. Olaf College (Minn.) going into my junior year of high school that really changed my life. I met an individual by the name of Rick Nielsen who was the song leader, and he led me to the Lord. He made me look at my spiritual life much, much more deeply and fundamentally and understand what was missing in my life. The void was not having my life filled by Jesus Christ, and FCA showed me that. That’s why I’ll always be a huge supporter of FCA.

“I was somebody who really had everything in high school. I was ‘Mr. Basketball.’ I was an all-stater. I was the leading scorer on my team. It wasn’t like I was searching that deep; and FCA made me take a whole different look and approach to my life.”

***

Alford’s wife of 20 years, Tanya, first met Steve when the Alford family moved into her neighborhood. Both were in the fifth grade. An athlete herself, Tanya used to rebound for him in her driveway. Because she’s known him for so long and understands what it’s like to be an athlete, Tanya is acknowledged by her husband as a great support.

“She’s a phenomenal wife,” he says. “She’s also an amazing mother, and there’s nothing more important to me right now than what’s happening to our children (Kory, Bryce and Kayla). I know that I’ve got a very Christian wife who is teaching our children the value of spirituality.”

There’s another woman in Alford’s life who understands what it’s like to be the wife of a coach – a role he says may be more difficult than actually being the coach – and that is his mother, Sharan, whose husband coached for 40 years of their marriage. Alford credits his parents for laying all the proper foundations for him and still goes to them for counsel.

In fact, when Alford took the head coaching position at Southwest Missouri State University (now Missouri State), the school gave him permission to hire his father as an assistant coach. “That was a tremendous blessing,” he says. “One, for God to open up that door; and two, for Southwest Missouri State to allow us that opportunity. A lot of universities and colleges wouldn’t allow us to do that.”

At the University of Iowa, Sam Alford became Director of Basketball Operations under his son before retiring in 2004, which allowed Alford and his father to spend nine years together in college basketball.
 
“That was a lot of fun,” says Alford, “but not just because of what he brought to the table in knowledge, wisdom and being a head coach. With me in my 30s at the time and still being a young head coach trying to endure different things, Dad was right there to help me. It was a time in my life that I’ll never forget. For a lot of sons, being able to play for their father is one thing, but then to be doubly blessed to have a chance to work with him was even more special.”

Others who have been of great help to Alford during his coaching career include fellow Christian coaches Lorenzo Romar, Ritchie McKay and Ed Schilling. The list of influences also includes his former coach at Indiana, Bobby Knight, who is poised this year to become college basketball’s all-time winningest coach.

While some of Knight’s former players at Indiana found his coaching style difficult to take, Alford has nothing but positive things to say about “Coach.”

“I had a great opportunity in playing for him, and I’d do it all over again,” he says. “I miss those times, because I learned so much. He found a way to get the most out of me. I was a byproduct of his program, and when you start looking at all the byproducts of his program, there are a vast number of us who have gone on to hold influential positions in many different areas other than basketball. I think most of those people would say a lot of what they learned about life came from Coach Knight.”

At IU Alford led the Hoosiers in scoring and was named the team’s MVP in each of his four seasons. In 1987, he became a first team All-American for the second time, was named the Big Ten’s MVP and also led his teammates to an NCAA championship. At a White House Rose Garden tribute to the Hoosiers, President Ronald Reagan told Alford he was “a conscientious student and a model citizen.” The President also added, “His values are as important as his field-goal percentage … my kind of basketball player and America’s kind of student-athlete.”

When he graduated, Alford was Indiana’s all-time leading scorer and was subsequently selected as one of the greatest players ever in college basketball. Achievements like that led Alford to a professional basketball career with the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks and Golden State Warriors, after which he immediately jumped into coaching. At age 26 he became the youngest head basketball coach in the nation at Division III Manchester College (Ind.). After four seasons and a record of 78-29 (including a 31-1 final year), Alford took over the program at Southwest Missouri State. Another four years produced another 78 victories, and in 1999 Alfordwas selected to be the head coach at the University of Iowa.

His first win at Iowa sent a clear message about the kind of coach Alford was as his Hawkeyes defeated the defending national champion Connecticut Huskies at Madison Square Garden, 70-68. Then, in 2006, his Hawkeyes ended the season 25-9 (Iowa’s second-highest win total ever) in a season that included an undefeated home record at Carver-Hawkeye Arena and a Big Ten Conference Tournament championship.

This season, with only two seniors and a very young team, Alford knows that the games will be challenging, but also exciting. “Last year we had a lot of returning lettermen who knew what it was like to play in the Big Ten, which is one of the best leagues in the country. Pardon my bias, but I think it is the best, having played in it and now coaching in it. But it’s a very difficult league to perform in on a consistent basis. Young players lack consistency because they don’t fully understand all the little things that you have to do to prepare yourself mentally and physically.

“Those are challenges, but it would get too boring if it was the same year in and year out,” he continues. “There are some pretty special young men in our locker room, and they want to learn. They want to get better. And when you’ve got that, it’s always fun.”

As a well-known coach, Alford agrees he has influence among his players, assistants, the fans and the media. “It’s a huge responsibility,” he nods. “I feel very honored, very blessed. And it’s a very humbling experience to coach, especially in the state of Iowa where we have no professional sports. Our team, for the state of Iowa, is in many ways their pro team, so we get a lot of attention. All but one of our games last year were on TV, so your actions obviously speak volumes.” Consequently, Alford is careful in how he conducts his interviews or when he publicly expresses his viewpoints, and often would prefer to be called just “Steve” and not “Coach.”

***

“I was never the strongest, quickest or fastest, but I tried to out-work and out-think people. I tried to love the game and respect the game more than my opponents. I still try to do that as a coach, and I think that’s parallel to my life as a Christian ...”
Still, no matter how successful a coach is, some people are bound to demand more, and dealing with criticism can be difficult. But Alford reminds himself that it is not about what one person or another says, but “really is all about, ‘Can you be pleasing to Almighty God?’” he asks. “If my eyes are fixed on God and I’ve surrendered everything to Him, it’s amazing how those things just take care of themselves. I never want to take on the bitterness of those who do often criticize.”

As a coach unafraid to hide his faith, Alford also faces inevitable criticism. He admits that there are schools out there that try to limit Christian coaches. “You’ve got to know when you can say things and when you can’t,” he says. “But I’ve always believed that an unspoken word can go a long way. Your actions, how you go about things, how your children are – all those things are very, very important. I’ve won some battles with administrations in those regards, and I’ve lost some.

For instance, you may have to change names – like maybe you can’t have ‘chapels,’ but you can have ‘student-led sessions.’ Whatever it is, we find a way to make sure in our program that our student-athletes are being challenged academically, socially, physically and most important of all, spiritually.”

When informed that the 2007 FCA Camp theme, “Game Ready,” would be based on the verse Ephesians 6:11 in which Paul counsels all believers to put on the full armor of God, Alford said, “One thing we’re always talking about when we get ‘Game Ready’ is are we mentally ready? Are we physically ready? Have we prepared our team offensively and defensively?

“There’s a sign in our locker room that says, ‘Victory favors the team that makes the fewest mistakes.’ I can relate to that spiritually. When you’ve got the full armor of God on, it’s easier to make the right choices. If you put on the armor of God, you have the protection of God with you. If you don’t have it, you’re going to make more mistakes, and you’re not going to be able to handle them as easily.

“I still may make mistakes. I still stumble. I still miss the mark. I still sin. But I’ll be able to handle that sin more quickly and move on in my life and still grow spiritually because I’ve got the armor of God to protect me.”

Steve Alford – “Mr. Basketball”

High School:
- Indiana’s “Mr. Basketball” (1983)
- National Player of the Year

College:
- 4-time IU MVP
- 2-time first-team All American
- NCAA National Champion
- Olympic gold medalist
- Member of Indiana
- University’s Athletic Hall of Fame

NBA:
- Drafted by the Dallas Mavericks
- Played for both the Mavs and the Golden State Warriors
- 4-year career
- Scored 744 points, recorded 176 assists
- Shot free throws with 87 percent accuracy

Coaching:
- Started at South Knox High School before taking over at Manchester College
- 3-time Indiana Collegiate Conference Coach of the Year (’93, ’94, ’95)
- Member of Manchester’s Hall of Fame
- Coached Southwest Missouri State to a four-year 78-48 record
- Took over at Iowa in March, 1999
- Led Hawkeyes to an undefeated home record in 2005-06 and a Big Ten Tournament championship
- Earned a #3 seed in the Atlantic Regional of the 2006 NCAA Tournament

FCA:
- Named FCA Basketball Athlete of the Year his senior year of high school
- Has attended multiple FCA Camps both as a camper and as a staff member
- Received FCA’s John Lotz “Barnabas” Award in 2006


Photos Courtesy of the University of Iowa

*For more stories about faith and sport, visit www.sharingthevictory.com, the official magazine of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.


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