LOS ANGELES -- UCLA opened last season with an 84-81 home loss to Monmouth and closed with a five-game losing streak that culminated with a 95-71 loss to crosstown rival USC in the Pac-12 Tournament opener.
So things were bad from start to finish.
The Bruins have only had four losing years since the iconic John Wooden took over in 1948, and last season was one of them. They were average offensively and much worse defensively. So, for obvious reasons, fans were furious. Everybody knew it. Steve Alford knew it. But that didn't make March 14 any less weird.
That didn't make the "FIRE ALFORD" banner any less weird.
"I saw it on Twitter," Bryce Alford acknowledged
"You kind of laugh," answered the coach's son. "But then it's like, 'What human being would take the time to do that?' ... When people are talking about wanting your coach fired, obviously, that's something. But when it's also your dad, it's a little different. And then knowing that I was on the team that people were mad about ..."
Bryce Alford and I were having this conversation after a recent win in a hallway outside of UCLA's locker room. His father was handling media responsibilities. His mother, brother and sister were right over there. And I can't think of another family in all of college basketball that has had a stranger year than this Alford family.
They experienced the lowest of lows.
Now they're enjoying the highest of highs.
A 15-17 record produced that insane banner and more personal attacks than any father-son duo should ever have to endure, and any mother-brother-sister combo should ever have to hear. It even led to Alford, less than a week after the banner flew, writing a letter to UCLA fans in which he apologized for what he called an "unacceptable" season and announced he would undo the one-year contract extension he signed a year earlier.
Now Alford's Bruins are 13-0 -- with a 97-92 win at Kentucky on their resume -- and ranked No. 2. They're playing fast and playing well. They have two freshmen who are possible NBA Draft lottery picks (Lonzo Ball, TJ Leaf), and a senior guard who is flourishing in his new role while shooting 39.6 percent from 3-point range (Alford). They're the Pac-12 favorites and a legitimate Final Four contender.
So, yeah, what's happening at Baylor is impressive. And the Creighton story is great. And Villanova looking like possible repeat champs is tremendous. And I love Malik Monk going for 47 points as much as the next guy.
But UCLA is the best story in college basketball.
How Steve Alford went from there to here is the best story in college basketball.
"Those trials and that tough season just opened up some doors for some special things," Alford said. "And I don't know if this will be that special season. But we're having fun right now."
"When people say horrible things about my dad, it breaks my heart," said Kayla Alford, the youngest child, and only daughter, of Steve and Tanya Alford. And isn't that the truth for almost all of us?
Most of us love our parents.
We hate to hear anything bad about them. It hurts to hear bad things about them. So it's ideal, in that regard, that most of our parents are just normal people doing normal things because we're never faced with public criticism of the parents we love.
Think about that.
Now think about what it must've been like for Kayla Alford last March.
Or Kory Alford, the oldest child.
And especially Bryce.
Like Bryce explained, it's never easy to hear that fans want your coach fired. But it's difficult on another level when the coach is your father, and it's on an entirely different level when some fans want your coach and father fired because he had a terrible team for which you took 408 shots, because what that suggests is that some fans are blaming you, at least in part, for your father's terrible team.
This is why I've long believed there are few tougher situations for a student-athlete than playing a big role for a team coached by your father that struggles at a school with a passionate fan base. That exact situation got so bad for Bryce Alford's high school teammate, Cullen Neal, that he chose to transfer out of his dad's program at New Mexico and enroll at Ole Miss. Bryce Alford never got to that point, clearly. But he acknowledged he got to some pretty low points, and, oddly, he still hears negativity related to his relationship with his coach.
"Like today, for instance," Bryce said after Saturday's game with Ohio State inside Las Vegas' T-Mobile Arena. "I get announced for starting lineups, and I hear four or five people yelling, 'You only play because your dad's the coach!' And I'm like 'OK. All right.' If you're a competitor, that lights a fire under you."
Bryce had 20 points in that game.
UCLA won 86-73.
All that said, Steve and Bryce literally signed-up for this. Steve watched his predecessor, Ben Howland, get fired with three Final Fours on his resume immediately after winning an outright Pac-12 title. And UCLA fans pushed for that firing! So a reasonable bunch, by and large, they are not. And as long as you'll accept that Steve Alford understands how Google works, it's safe to assume he understood what he was walking into when he took UCLA's offer to leave New Mexico and replace Howland in Westwood. And Bryce Alford could've played basically anywhere. He picked UCLA. So this is what he wanted, for better or worse.
But the rest of the family is mostly on the periphery.
They did not sign up for last March.
And things got crazy last March.
"Yeah, you know, they did," said Tanya Alford.
I asked if she saw the 'Fire Alford!" banner.
"It's not always mountaintops and victories," Tanya said. "There are going to be losses and down times. And you learn from those experiences. But is it fun? No. ... And those people [who flew the banner], those are people I don't know. They're nameless people. And if that's the way they live their lives, I feel sorry for them that they're that bitter. I always wish the best for people. So it's kind of sad that that happened."
But it's not happening anymore.
"It's a lot more fun now," Tanya said. "I'm happy for the staff. And I'm happy for the players. And I'm happy for the fans."
I'm not going to insist it's unprecedented because I'm not a historian. But it has to be unprecedented for a coach to have an undefeated national title contender nine months after fans flew a banner over campus demanding said coach be fired. Which is why that whole scene back in March was bananas in the first place.
Fire Steve Alford?
Never mind that it would've cost more than $10 million. Or that it would've involved terminating a coach who made the Sweet 16 the previous two years. Or that it would've been a gross overreaction to a losing season caused by the fact that the Bruins had lost seven NBA players in a two-year span. No, the dumbest reason to fire Steve Alford was because he was about to have a really good team. And why would you pay more than $10 million to fire a coach who is about to have a really good team?
I'd be lying if I told you I thought the Bruins would be this good.
But they were 16th in the preseason AP poll.
So they were always supposed to be good. And what we've learned since the preseason is that Lonzo Ball is a program-changer, that TJ Leaf might also be a one-and-done player, that Bryce Alford is more dangerous when asked to do less, that Aaron Holiday is the best sixth man in the country, so on and so forth. As a result of all of that, and other things, UCLA is better than most expected. But UCLA was always going to be really good. And, again, it makes no sense, barring off-the-court issues, to fire a coach with a really good team.
Either way, that's all in the past -- although, given the reputation of UCLA fans, it's probably also in the future because, like nearly all coaches, Alford will almost certainly have a rough season again someday. But whatever. Everybody can worry about that day if and when that day arrives. Because it's all good now.
There won't be any "Fire Alford!" banners flying above campus any time soon. But there might be another banner hanging in Pauley Pavilion next year.
A 12th national championship banner.
And wouldn't that be something?