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The Replacements: Andy Enfield and Steve Alford Tip Off

Will the new basketball coaches at USC and UCLA liven up a lifeless rivalry?

When UCLA and USC debut their new basketball coaches this month, it’ll mark the first time the two schools have simultaneously changed direction since 1979. They couldn’t have gone for more different guys. With his charisma and warp-speed offense, USC’s Andy Enfield is as comfortable regaling Jay Leno on The Tonight Show with the story about wooing his supermodel wife over dinner at Taco Bell as he is behind a clipboard. UCLA’s Steve Alford has that blue-collar Midwestern vibe. A onetime college standout who played under infamous disciplinarian Bobby Knight at Indiana, he’s someone who emphasizes control and selflessness among his players.

While Alford preaches about limiting mistakes and patiently finding the best possible shot, Enfield likes to have the ball flying around the court at a pace that borders on reckless.

Alford, who’s 48, has 18 seasons of NCAA Division I head coaching experience; Enfield, who’s 44, was unknown outside a sleepy Florida community until two well-timed wins last March. Alford started the first day of practice by teaching players the importance of proper spacing; for Enfield it was all about the lob pass.

Two coaches with clashing styles hired two days apart at universities 12 miles away from each other—could it be the beginning of a rivalry that has supposedly been going on for decades, only not really? UCLA and USC are natural rivals, but for rivalries to thrive they have to be fueled by extended periods of competing at the same level. So as the collegiate battle for primacy in Los Angeles wages on in football, academics, and many nonrevenue sports, the rivalry in basketball has always seemed forced: UCLA has taken the conference title 27 times since USC last won it outright in 1961, when it was called the Athletic Association of Western Universities.

Comparisons to the Lakers and Clippers have been inevitable. And although USC may have chafed at the analogy in years past, these days, not so much: After decades as a punch line, the Clippers rebranded themselves in 2011. Lob City was born, and the Clippers became the hot ticket to see Chris Paul throwing alley-oops to Blake Griffin. They beat the Lakers all four games last season and picked up their first Pacific Division title. Now it seems USC is copying the Clippers’ blueprint for how to get out from under the shadow of the city’s other traditional basketball powerhouse. “Based on last year’s team, the Clippers were more fun to watch than the Lakers,” Enfield says. “That’s what we’re trying to do here.”

It’s no secret that Los Angeles values an entertaining style of play as much as it does winners. The Lakers set the standard with Showtime in the 1980s. “People in Los Angeles don’t want to come and watch you win or lose with 54 points,” says USC athletic director Pat Haden. “Even if you win, it’s just not what Los Angeles and USC fans want to watch. That was absolutely at the top of the list,” he says of how he wanted to change USC’s game. “It had to be up-tempo.”

Under Enfield’s predecessor, Kevin O’Neill, the Trojans plodded along the past four seasons, scoring fewer than 53 points per game in 2011-12. Haden—who has a habit of letting coaches stay on too long (see Lane Kiffin)—finally fired him 17 games into last season. That was in January. He didn’t even know of Enfield until March, when his team at Florida Gulf Coast University wreaked havoc at the NCAA Tournament by upsetting second seed Georgetown and seventh seed San Diego State. The Eagles became the first 15 seed ever to make the Sweet Sixteen and earned the nickname Dunk City.

“It’s crazy, because one of my friends and I were talking about how exciting their style of play was and how we’d like to play like that,” says Byron Wesley, a junior guard for USC, remembering last year’s NCAA Tournament. “A couple of weeks later he’s here.”

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Steve Alford had the opposite experience of Enfield in March: Having led New Mexico to the second-most wins in school history (he also holds the top spot) and a third seed in the NCAA Tournament, he looked on as Harvard knocked them out in the first round. The upset didn’t have many Bruins fans enthused when the school announced his hire a little more than a week later.

After all, UCLA fired a coach with a better résumé. Ben Howland took the Bruins to the Final Four three times in ten seasons and had recently won his fourth Pac-12 title. But the Bruins were looking inconsistent and suffering from a breakdown in camaraderie. In his Sports Illustrated article “Not the UCLA Way,” George Dohrmann detailed rumors of drug use and fistfights among players, but what stood out most of all were reports about Howland’s habit of tearing into those around him while remaining aloof from players. That’s a cardinal sin at UCLA, where John Wooden won ten NCAA titles as much by inspiring his players spiritually as by teaching basketball.

“I think we just needed a change in culture and the student-athlete experience in our program,” says Dan Guerrero, UCLA’s athletic director. “Steve hasn’t won a game here yet, but I truly believe his best days as a coach are in the future. He’s already changing the culture by connecting alumni and people in the department, building bridges and setting the foundation for great success.”

Wooden has been an influence in Alford’s life from early on. His father, Sam, coached at Wooden’s alma mater in Martinsville, Indiana. Before Alford’s first coaching gig at age 26 for Manchester College in Indiana, Sam gave him a copy of Wooden’s book Pyramid of Success. At Manchester, Southwest Missouri State, and New Mexico, he built a winning atmosphere with teams that had been in disarray. Though Alford didn’t fare as well in Iowa—the team finished in the bottom half of the Big 10 several seasons—he still had seven winning seasons in eight years and guided the Hawkeyes to three NCAA Tournaments. He ranks second behind only Bill Self of Kansas for wins by a current college basketball coach under the age of 50.

And he’s able to draw on his own experience to relate to players. Alford was the leading scorer on Indiana’s 1987 national championship team and won a gold medal at the 1984 Summer Olympics, alongside then-collegians Michael Jordan and Patrick Ewing (back when the team was made up of amateur players). He played in the NBA for four seasons. He knows everything about the pressure and commitment of performing at a high level for a premier program.

“UCLA is about being at the top,” Alford says. “I really took this job because I like that. I’m driven to win a national championship. I’d love to be a part of a national championship as a coach just as I have as a player. There’s very few people who have done both.”

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Six-foot-one white guy with limited athletic ability and zero coaching credentials, Enfield used his 92.5 percent success rate on free throws when he was playing for Johns Hopkins to break into coaching. Pursuing an MBA at the University of Maryland, he declared himself president of a basketball consulting company called All Net Shooting. He made monthly car payments twice as high as his rent in order to drive around in a sporty used Lexus so he could present an image of success to prospective NBA clients. Enfield would stake out the Maryland gym, trying to convince NBA players who might stop by to practice or play pickup games that they needed him as a shooting coach.

Walt Williams, a former Terrapin forward who had been chosen in the first round by Sacramento, became his inaugural pupil after Enfield impressed the eventual 11-year NBA veteran by hitting 28 of 30 three-pointers from the corner one day at the Maryland gym. He later worked with probable future hall of famers, such as Grant Hill, Jason Kidd, Paul Pierce, and Dwyane Wade.

Gigs as a shooting coach with the Milwaukee Bucks and Boston Celtics followed, but Enfield decided to leave coaching behind to focus on business. In 2000, he moved to Manhattan and served as vice president of finance at a tech start-up that develops health care services software. Five years on, he got back into coaching as an assistant at Florida State before landing the job at FGCU, which he led to the Sweet Sixteen in only its second year of NCAA Tournament eligibility.

USC has had all of two Sweet Sixteen appearances in the past 50 years. Haden was concerned that Enfield’s offense—basically NBA Jam minus the acrobatics, giant heads, and flaming nets—was too much. “It’s so unique, his system,” he says. “We wanted up-tempo, but this is like three notches above up-tempo, at least when they’re really going.” Haden thought all the lob passes (a crowd favorite for the timing involved in throwing the ball to a teammate who’s soaring to the basket) looked like showboating until he realized that Enfield had a strategic reason—his theory that it’s easier for big men to catch the ball above their head than at chest level.

“There were numerous opportunities to discuss job openings after we lost in the Sweet Sixteen,” Enfield says, “but I thought the city of Los Angeles—with my personality, the way I coach and the style—is a really good fit. This is L.A., baby. We’re trying to bring Showtime back to L.A.”

His wife’s stint on the cover of Maxim has not hurt his image. Amanda, who’s 35, was a magnet for the camera as she sat in the stands with their three young children during airings of FGCU’s NCAA Tournament games. Enfield—somewhat goofy-looking with a gap-toothed grin and a tightly cropped widow’s peak—likes to joke that he won her over by being a good recruiter, and indeed he seems to have won the first major recruiting battle between the two coaches by scoring an oral commitment in September from point guard Jordan McLaughlin, the state’s top-rated high school point guard. Rarely has USC been able to bring in recruits coveted by UCLA; Enfield’s decision to hire assistant coaches with L.A. ties (something Alford hasn’t done) may have been a critical factor.

That Alford and Enfield are relatively young will be key to building the rivalry: These are two guys who are expected to stick around for a while. Enfield signed on for six years at a reported $1.55 million per year. Alford has a seven-year contract for $2.6 million a year, with a rare two-way buyout that requires either party to pay the other $10.4 million to walk away before the end of the 2015-16 season. He’s also bringing two sons who are playing basketball at UCLA, and at 16, his daughter is a Bruin-in-waiting.

There’s a compelling subplot to the dueling reboots at USC and UCLA: As the hottest name in coaching looking for a promotion, Enfield was mentioned in the media as a possibility for the Bruins. Guerrero says it wouldn’t be appropriate to comment, but few basketball coaches would choose USC over UCLA. Clearly Enfield would have been too much of a risk for Guerrero. It would have been like giving the keys of your Mercedes-Benz to a 16-year-old. For his part Haden calls the hire a “venture capital play.” Because while winning at the highest level is the only option at UCLA, the Trojans are never going to make this a rivalry by playing it safe.