Alford led Indiana University to a national championship in the 1987 NCAA tournament, when Keith Smart hit the winning jump shot against Syracuse. At Indiana, he earned first team All-Big Ten honors three times and became Indiana's all-time leading scorer at the time.
Alford played four years in the NBA for the Dallas Mavericks and Golden State Warriors. After retiring in 1991, he became a collegiate basketball coach. He has coached at Manchester University, Southwest Missouri State University, the University of Iowa and the University of New Mexico.
Alford was born in Franklin, Indiana and grew up in New Castle.
Alford learned to count as a three-year-old by watching the numbers tick off the scoreboard in Monroe City, where his father, Sam Alford, coached the high school team. Sam often moved for various coaching jobs. Steve missed only two of his father's games, once when he had chicken pox and once when he made the regionals of the Elks Club free-throw shooting contest. When Alford was nine years old, he attended a basketball camp put on by Coach Bob Knight. Eventually the Alfords settled in New Castle, Indiana, where Steve played on the New Castle Chrysler High School basketball team with his dad as coach. Alford was known to practice shooting so much that he would wear out six or seven nets a summer and frequently forego social activities.
As a high school freshman Alford barely averaged a point a game, but then averaged 18.7 the next season. By his senior year in 1983, before the three-point line was even implemented, Alford averaged 37.7 points per game and earned the Indiana "Mr. Basketball" award. His team advanced to the state quarterfinal but lost to Connersville in the 1983 state tournament. Later, shortly after Alford won a gold medal as a member of Bob Knight's U.S. Olympic team, he gave the medal to his dad in a tearful ceremony at the high school in tribute to the loss.
Alford decided to play basketball for Bob Knight and the Indiana Hoosiers men's basketball team. At Indiana, Alford became the university's all-time leading scorer with 2,438 points (a record later eclipsed by Calbert Cheaney, who went on to become the Big Ten's all-time leading scorer). Alford was the first player to be named the team's MVP four times. During his final three seasons, Alford earned first team all-Big Ten honors. In the Legends of College Basketball by The Sporting News Alford was #35 on the list of the 100 greatest Division-I college basketball players. When The Sporting News named its top ten NCAA basketball players of the 1980s in December 1989, Alford was listed at number ten.
As a freshman, Alford quickly earned the favor of Coach Knight. Dan Dakich, Alford's former teammate and later an interim Indiana coach, said "Steve was incredibly mature as a freshman. He was getting thrown out of practice then. If Coach respects you and knows you can handle it, he'll do that. When I was a freshman, only Randy Wittman and Ted Kitchel, the seniors, were thrown out." That year Alford helped lead Indiana to an upset of the Michael Jordan-led North Carolina Tar Heels in the 1984 NCAA tournament. As a sophomore Alford was named to the 1985 NIT Tournament All-Tournament team after the Hoosiers finished second behind UCLA.
As a junior, Alford and the 1985-86 Hoosiers were profiled in a best-selling book A Season on the Brink. Author John Feinstein was granted unprecedented access to the Indiana basketball program and insights into Knight's coaching style. The book recounts how Knight once criticized Alford's work habits and leadership ability, telling him he couldn't "lead a whore into bed." Knight later admitted Alford was in fact an incredible worker and leader and the comments were just Knight's method of motivating players. The Hoosiers went 21-8 that year and finished second in the Big Ten, with Alford earning All-America and Big Ten Player of the Year honors.
In his senior year, the Alford-led 1986-87 Hoosiers won Indiana's fifth national championship against Syracuse in the 1987 NCAA tournament. The game was decided by a game-winning jump shot by Keith Smart with five seconds remaining. Alford shot 7–10 from the three-point line, scoring 23 points, including a buzzer-beating three-pointer at the end of the first half which put the Hoosiers ahead by one point to start the second half.
For the 1984 Summer Olympics Alford, just 19 years old and a sophomore, was selected to play on the U.S. basketball team, coached by Bob Knight. Alford averaged 10.3 points per game, was second in assists, and shot .644 from the field. He and his teammates went on to win the gold medal at the 1984 games. In this game Alford played alongside Michael Jordan, Patrick Ewing, Sam Perkins, Chris Mullin and Wayman Tisdale. Alford has recounted that during the Olympic training camp, Jordan bet him $100 that he would not last four years on Knight's Indiana team.
Alford was drafted 26th in the 1987 NBA draft. Many fans in Indiana expected Alford to be drafted by the Indiana Pacers, but the Pacers selected Reggie Miller and Alford fell to the Dallas Mavericks. Initially the choice angered Indiana fans but ultimately they and even Alford embraced the decision. Years later, Alford said "not only was it a much better draft choice than drafting me... Reggie turned out not to be a great pick, he turned out to be great for the state of Indiana." Alford played in the NBA for four seasons, mostly with the Dallas Mavericks, although he spent a portion of one season with Golden State Warriors. Over his career, he started three games, scored 744 points, had 176 assists and shot free throws with an accuracy of 87 percent.
Alford quickly became the face of Indiana basketball and a fan favorite throughout the state. Dan Dakich, Alford's former teammate and later an interim Indiana coach, said of him, "Basically, he owns all of Indiana." Alford's wife Tanya said, "Everybody talks about his hair, his all-American image, how mothers would want him to marry their daughter. Everybody thinks he's so perfect. Well, that's a pretty accurate image. That's exactly what he is."
Alford embodied the "David versus Goliath" image of Indiana basketball popularized in the hit movie Hoosiers (released in 1986 while Alford was at Indiana). He was small for a major-college guard, slow without any compensatory quickness and strong only because he ate and flexed himself up to 185 pounds from 150 as a freshman. According to commentators, Alford owed his success to repetition and work. In his workouts he would pick a spot on the floor and take ten shots. If he did not make eight, he would punish himself with fingertip push-ups or wind sprints. At the end of his college career, Coach Knight said, "He's gotten more out of his abilities offensively than anybody I've seen play college basketball. He's about as good a scorer for being strictly a jump shooter as I've ever seen. He's scored more than 2,400 points that way, and that's incredible, considering he doesn't get any tip-ins, drives or dunks."
Alford is considered one of the best free throw shooters in the history of the game. Alford's free throw percentage of .897 (535-596) is ninth best in the history of the NCAA. His form at the foul line is so routine that it inspired a famous mantra from Indiana fans: "Socks, shorts, 1-2-3 swish". Before releasing a free throw, Alford told himself, "Soft over the front edge of the rim," and some people believed they could see his lips move.
Alford began his college coaching career in North Manchester, Indiana in 1991 as head coach of the Division III Manchester University's basketball program. During his four seasons with the team, Alford had a record of 78–29. When Alford began coaching that team, the team had lost its first eight games. During his first season there Alford won four of 20 games. In his first full season as coach the team posted a record of 20–8. In the next season Manchester posted a record of 23–4, and in his fourth and final season his team finished 31–1.
In 1994 and 1995 Manchester won conference titles, and in Alford's final three seasons the team competed in the NCAA Division III Tournament. Under Alford, the team won three straight conference tournament titles (1993, 1994, 1995). The team advanced to the Division III championship game in 1995, placing second in the nation after suffering its first defeat in 32 games. The loss to Bo Ryan's University of Wisconsin-Platteville team marked the only title game in NCAA history matching two undefeated squads.
In 1993, 1994, and 1995 Alford was named the Indiana Collegiate Conference Coach of the Year. In the 1994-95 season the Manchester team was inducted into the school Hall of Fame. In 1999 Alford was also inducted into Manchester's Hall of Fame.
Following his time at Manchester, Alford was named the head coach at Southwest Missouri State University. He began his position there in the 1995-96 season, and would remain there until 1999. During his time at Missouri State, his teams posted a 78–48 record. In 1999, the Bears advanced to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament before losing to Duke.
Steve Alford was named the head coach of the University of Iowa Hawkeyes men's basketball program on March 22, 1999.
Although Alford's first game as coach was a 70–68 victory against the defending national champion Connecticut Huskies at Madison Square Garden, his team went 14-16 during his first season at Iowa. During his second year (2000–01) the Hawkeyes went 23–12 in the regular season and 7–9 in the Big Ten Conference regular season, but they won the Big Ten Conference Men's Basketball Tournament with four straight wins against Northwestern, Ohio State, Penn State, and Indiana. This earned them a #7 seed in the 2001 NCAA Men's Division I Basketball Tournament, where they defeated Creighton in the first round but lost to Kentucky in the second round.
The Hawkeyes' conference record dropped to 5–11 during the 2001–02 season, but they defeated Purdue, Wisconsin, and Indiana in the Big Ten Tournament before losing to Ohio State in the finals. The Hawkeyes played in the National Invitation Tournament that season, but lost to LSU in the first round to finish with a 19–16 record. This was the first of three straight seasons that the Hawkeyes played in the NIT under Alford. They won the first two rounds of the 2003 tournament against Valparaiso and Iowa State before losing to Georgia Tech, finishing with a 17–14 record. That season, leading scorer Pierre Pierce was charged with raping a female Iowa athlete. Alford was adamant about Pierce's innocence. A plea bargain was reached where Pierce pleaded guilty to a lesser charge. He was suspended from the team and redshirted. In 2004, Iowa lost to St. Louis in the first round of the NIT to finish 16–13 despite a 9–7 conference record (the first winning Big Ten Conference record under Alford).
The Hawkeyes finished 21-12 with a 7-9 conference record in the 2004-2005 regular season, but they won their first two Big Ten Tournament games against Purdue and Michigan State before losing the third game to Wisconsin, 59-56. They earned an at-large invitation to the 2005 NCAA Tournament as a #10 seed, where they lost 76-64 to Cincinnati in the first round. In 2005, Pierce was charged with sexual assault of his girlfriend, and he was dismissed from the team before charges were filed. However, Alford's reputation among Iowa fans suffered. Pierce later served 11 months in a correctional facility.
During the 2005–06 season, the Hawkeyes went undefeated at Carver-Hawkeye Arena and finished in a second-place tie with Illinois with an 11-5 conference record, one game behind Ohio State. However, the Hawkeyes defeated Minnesota, Michigan State, and Ohio State to win the Big Ten Tournament and finish 25-8 going into its third NCAA Tournament under Alford. They were seeded #3 in the Atlanta Regional of the 2006 NCAA Tournament, but lost in a first-round upset to #14 seed Northwestern State 64-63, leaving Alford with only one NCAA Tournament win since taking over at Iowa.
During the 2006–2007 season, Alford led the Hawkeyes to an 8–6 non-conference record (losing to in-state rivals Drake and Northern Iowa) and a 9–7 record in the Big Ten Conference (17-14 overall). Iowa failed to make the NCAA tournament or the NIT. It marked the first time since the 1976–1977 season that an Iowa team with a winning record has failed to make either the NCAA tournament or the NIT.
At the conclusion of the 2006–2007 season, Alford resigned from the University of Iowa to accept the coaching position at the University of New Mexico.
Alford was named head coach at the University of New Mexico on March 23, 2007 replacing the fired Ritchie McKay. In his first year as the Lobos coach Alford posted a record of 24–9, 11–5 in league play. Twenty-four wins is the most for a New Mexico head coach in their first year. The Lobos were led by future 1st round Boston Celtics draft pick J. R. Giddens. The Lobos were eliminated in the first round of the NIT by Cal.
In his second season, led by seniors Daniel Faris, Tony Danridge and Chad Toppert, Alford guided the Lobos to their first conference championship in 15 years. He earned the MWC Coach of the Year Award for his team's performance. Alford also set a record for most wins in the first two seasons for a UNM head coach. Alford and his New Mexico squad fell just short of the NCAA tourney and ended up with their second consecutive NIT bid. They won a first round home game against Nebraska and lost on a last second buzzer beater on the road to Notre Dame.
His third year, coaching a mostly young, untested team, Alford's Lobos nevertheless won the regular season MWC title for the second year in a row, were ranked in the top 15 for the majority of the year, and earned a #3 seed in the NCAA Tournament, the team's first bid since 2005. In the first round, they survived a tough game against Montana 62–57, but despite Dairese Gary's 28 points, fell in the second round to an upstart Washington side. At the end of the season Coach Alford received a ten-year contract extension through the 2019–2020 season.
The 2010-2011 season started with Alford's group at 12-4 after non-conference play, but the team struggled to an 8-8 conference regular season record. Drew Gordon and Dairese Gary led a talented team that underachieved much throughout the year into the conference tournament. The team seemed poised to make a run in the MWC conference tournament, but a tragic ACL injury to Gary in the semi-finals against BYU proved to be too much to overcome for this young UNM squad. Their 2010-2011 season ended with an NIT loss to Alabama 74-67. However, with everyone coming back (with the exception of Gary), the following season seemed to hold promise.
The 2011-2012 season began with a rough patch. UNM was picked to win the league for the first time in Alford's five years at the helm, but the team started a questionable 2-2 with losses to home state rival NMSU and a bottom feeder WCC team in Santa Clara. UNM then raced off to a twelve-game win streak and finished the non-conference season at 14-2. UNM then went on to have a 10-4 conference regular season record and a share of the conference title with arch-rival San Diego State. It was only fitting that the regular season co-champions would square off in the MWC tournament title game. With Drew Gordon and Demetrius Walker leading a battle tested UNM team in the championship, Alford and his Lobos prevailed to a 69-58 conference tournament title. UNM received a fifth seed in the NCAA West region, and they defeated Casper Ware and the Long Beach State 49ers in their first game of the NCAA Tournament. The Lobos lost to the Louisville Cardinals in their next game.
In the 2012-2013 season, with a vicious defensive team, Alford led his Lobo squad to a 26-5 regular season record, winning the Mountain West Regular Season conference title. Alford won his third MWC coach of the year honor, and New Mexico garnered another Player of the Year award in Kendall Williams. New Mexico was primed to make a deep run in the NCAA tournament after winning the MWC conference tournament for the second straight year. At 29-5 entering the tournament, New Mexico was an early favorite as a Final Four participant by several analysts and publications, but Alford and his Lobos were upset by an underdog Harvard team, who won their first NCAA tournament game in school history.
On March 30, 2013, Alford signed a seven-year, $18.2-million contract to become the head coach of the UCLA Bruins, replacing the fired Ben Howland. Ironically, Alford's decision to take the UCLA job came just three days after he had signed a 10-year extension at New Mexico. At UCLA's introductory news conference, Alford was questioned about his handling of Pierce in Iowa, and he stated that he did "everything that [he] was told to do." Criticism grew over his hiring, especially over his handling of Pierce. Two weeks after his hiring, Alford apologized for declaring Pierce's innocence "before the legal system had run its course. This was inappropriate, insensitive and hurtful, especially to the young female victim involved, and I apologize for that."
Soon after his hiring, Alford filled his head assistant coaching staff position with good friend and former John Calipari assistant Ed Schilling. Also hired were David Grace, a rising assistant who spent 2008–2013 on the Oregon State staff, and Duane Broussard, who spent 2008–2013 as Alford's assistant at New Mexico. Tyus Edney, who starred on UCLA's 1995 national championship team, continued as director of operations. In his first season, Alford directed the Bruins to the title in the 2014 Pac-12 Tournament, the school's first conference tournament title in six years. They advanced to the Sweet 16 of the 2014 NCAA Tournament—their first regional semifinal appearance since 2008—before falling to Florida, who improved to 4–0 all-time against UCLA in the NCAA tournament.
The Bruins began the 2014–15 season at 4–0 and ranked No. 22 before losing two of three games at the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament. Beginning with their December loss at home to Gonzaga, the Bruins lost five consecutive games, their longest streak since 2009–10. Losses included a 39-point defeat to No. 1 Kentucky—they fell behind 24–0 and trailed 41–7 at halftime—and by 32 points against Utah. UCLA closed out the regular season with three straight home wins to finish undefeated (9–0) at home in the conference for the first time since 2006–07. The Bruins went 1–1 in the 2015 Pac-12 Tournament, but proved most major projections wrong by receiving an invitation to the 2015 NCAA tournament, earning a No. 11 seed. They advanced to the Sweet 16, when they lost again to Gonzaga. The squad became the lowest-seed UCLA team to ever reach the regional semifinals.
Because of these successes on the court, on June 9, 2015, Alford was honored as the 2015 Big Ten Club of Southern California's Person of the Year at the Tournament House, home of the Tournament of Roses in Pasadena.During the 2010 season, during a post-game handshake line, Alford had a confrontation with a Brigham Young player in which Alford called him an "extremely vulgar" name, according to the Wall Street Journal.
In 2011, before a home NIT Tournament game against heated rival UTEP, Alford and his staff got into a heated argument with UTEP coach Tim Floyd and his staff, in a dispute over practice time. After this incident, Alford cancelled the historic and long-standing basketball series between New Mexico and UTEP.
Alford has three children, Kory, Bryce and Kayla. Kory played for the elder Alford at New Mexico and transferred with him to UCLA. Bryce plays for his father at UCLA, where he is tied for the school's all-time lead in three-point field goals.
Alford is a Christian. He has spoken openly about his faith, saying, "I’m a Christian first. I’m a family guy second. As much as I like coaching, as much as I like basketball, it’s third, fourth, or fifth down the line."