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Published on January 13, 2016

by Dave Pond

This story appears in FCA Magazine’s January/February 2016 issue. Subscribe today!

Just the mention of UCLA Basketball conjures up memories of its historic past under the direction of legendary head coach John Wooden, and his all-for-one, team-before-self mindset. Every Bruin coach since has faced the lofty expectations to match the unprecedented level of success the Wizard of Westwood attained, winning 10 national titles, seven of them consecutive from 1967-73.

Fitting, then, that the team today operates under the watchful eye of Steve Alford. Indiana’s favorite basketball son and an Indiana University legend with an NCAA championship of his own as a player, Alford moved west in 2013 to take the reins at UCLA. He promptly led the Bruins to back-to-back Sweet 16 appearances in his first two seasons, while seven of his players have ended up cracking an NBA roster.

But despite the success his UCLA teams have had, Alford, invoking memories of Wooden, refuses to let earthly accolades define him.

“Basketball,” he says, “is what I do. It’s not what I am.”

• • •

Steve Alford is the son of two Indiana schoolteachers. His father, Sam, pulled double duty as a basketball coach at a number of area high schools, so the saying is true for Steve: he was born with a basketball in his hands.

At three years old, the future Indiana “Mr. Basketball” learned to count by watching the time tick off scoreboards at his dad’s games. But the elder Alfords also made sure sons Steve and Sean knew where their blessings came from.

“It wasn’t just a basketball home,” Steve says. “More importantly, it was a spiritual home. My parents did a phenomenal job raising us. They taught us right from wrong and made sure we knew the root and foundation of everything within us.”

Eventually, the family settled in New Castle, Indiana, where Sam and Steve formed a dynamic coach-player duo at New Castle Chrysler High School.

“It was so much fun being a coach’s kid,” Steve says. “Since I had keys to the gym, I was able to go up and shoot at any hour, with or without my ‘coach.’ I also had my dad—who could continue to help me become a better player—at home.

“Just the chance to do everything together, it was really great father-son time. Our whole family would go to church together on Sundays, and then we’d go to the gym or watch film in the afternoons. That’s when my father would kind of take his coaching hat off and just be ‘Dad.’ It was so cool to me.”

Sam served as a volunteer FCA Huddle leader, which allowed his sons an early look at the impact FCA can make on students. At the time, you had to be in ninth grade to attend, but Sam let Steve tag along to Huddles a year early.

“It was amazing,” Steve says. “I felt an immediate connection with FCA because it involved two things that were starting to become incredibly important to me—Christianity and athletics.”

"Basketball is what I do. It's not what I am." -Steve Alford

Steve made his dad’s team as a freshman and was the Trojans’ go-to scorer by his sophomore year. His involvement with FCA grew too. During the summer before his senior year, Steve and a few other Chrysler athletes traveled to Minnesota’s St. Olaf College for FCA Camp.

Rick Nielsen, Iowa FCA State Director at the time, served as the camp’s song leader. A former hoops player at the University of Northern Iowa, Nielsen remembers his first meeting with Alford as eye-opening, to say the least.

“I loved playing the game,” says Nielsen, who was inducted into the Iowa FCA Hall of Fame in 2005. “So I spent the first afternoon of free time at the gym, hoping to play basketball and get in a good workout. This young man from the New Castle group came over and asked me if I’d ever heard of Indiana basketball.

“In a somewhat sarcastic tone, I told him I'd never heard of it. He looked at me and said, ‘You're about to go to school.’" 

The Indiana player (not Alford) told Nielsen to put together the best team he could, and he and his Indiana buddies would take them on—show them how the game was really played. Competitive juices boiling, Nielsen grabbed four guys—several who had played college ball and a couple Huddle leaders who were scholarship players at the time.

“I matched up with one of the Indiana guys who was about my size and said, ‘I'll take this Hoosier,’” Nielsen says. “About two minutes into the game, the guy who originally challenged me came over, put his arm around me and said, ‘Have you figured out you picked the wrong guy to guard? That's Steve Alford, and he's probably going to be Mr. Basketball in Indiana this season.’

“That’s how my friendship with Steve began, at an FCA Camp more than 30 years ago.”

Alford and Nielsen bonded immediately and soon began praying together every day. The camp Scripture, James 1:12, was a life-changer for the rising prep star, who went to church and knew of Christ but had yet to form a real relationship with Him.

“James 1:12 [NIV] says, ‘Blessed is the one who perseveres under trial because, having stood the test, that person will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him,’” Alford says. “To this day, I add it to every one of my basketball cards that I sign, because it helped bring me to the Lord and make a personal decision to follow Him.”

Alford tells others that Nielsen led him to Christ during FCA Camp, but Nielsen says it was all God’s doing, He was working in Alford’s life long before the young player realized it.

“Steve’s parents had already established a very strong spiritual base in his life, as he was active in church and Sunday school and raised in a strong Christian home,” Nielsen says. “During that week at camp, we’d discuss everything from spiritual issues to the anxiety he had about where to play college basketball and the challenge of being a superstar athlete already in high school. 

“I think Steve knew he had some incredibly important choices to make and began to recognize the platform the Lord had given him as one of the top basketball players in the country. Then he made a complete commitment to Christ, to actively serve Him and make Him his top priority and Lord of his life.”

As his teammate predicted, Alford was indeed named Indiana’s Mr. Basketball the next year, in addition to FCA Basketball Athlete of the Year and Converse High School National Player of the Year. The college choice became somewhat obvious: he went to play for Bobby Knight and the Indiana Hoosiers.

During his sophomore season, Alford joined the Knight-led 1984 Olympic team, earning a gold medal while playing alongside future NBA superstars like Michael Jordan, Chris Mullin and Patrick Ewing.

Off the court, Alford’s passion for FCA continued at Indiana. Despite the rigors of schoolwork, basketball and his own growing stature, Alford served as the Huddle’s co-president for two years. When he arrived on campus, FCA had less than a dozen active participants, but during his time at Indiana, God grew the Indiana Huddle to more than 150.

Following an NCAA career that ended with a national championship, Alford was selected by the Dallas Mavericks in the first round of the 1987 NBA Draft. He played four seasons in the NBA, mostly as a reserve, before returning to Chrysler to coach alongside his dad. Shortly after, a coaching call piqued his interest.

“Our basketball coach had quit, and I wanted to recruit Steve,” says Bill Robinson, who served as president of Division III Manchester (Indiana) College from 1986 to 1993. “I tracked him down, and when we talked I was immediately impressed by Steve’s drive to succeed and his commitment to the values I believe are most important.”

Alford took over the struggling Manchester program, and his even-keeled style (at just 26 years old) brought immediate stability. However, it took some time for the community to get used to having an Indiana basketball icon as part of the Manchester family. Shortly after moving to North Manchester, he and his wife, Tanya, made about an hour drive east to Fort Wayne to pick up some basics.

“They never even made it to a store,” Robinson says. “Steve was pretty much mobbed for autographs when he walked into the mall; after 45 minutes, they decided to go home.”

"I love basketball. I loved playing it, and I absolutely love coaching. Simply put, we're trying to help young men become men." -Steve Alford

Basically since he was in high school, Alford has had to maintain a much larger than average personal space, but Robinson says, “He’s one of the most loyal human beings ever created, and it shows up in his close relationships.”

Over the next three seasons, the Spartans went 74-13, earning Alford Indiana Collegiate Conference Coach of the Year honors each year. In 1995, he moved to Division I as the new head coach at Southwest Missouri State University (now Missouri State). He brought Sam with him.

Alford’s program-restoring reputation really began to grow at Southwest Missouri State. Over four seasons, the Bears never finished lower than fourth in their conference and reached the NCAA Sweet 16 in 1999.

“Steve has a leadership presence that changes the room when he enters,” says Robinson, who remains close with Alford more than 25 years after their initial meeting. “He’s unafraid of any situation. He knows when to step up and when to listen. He learns from all kinds of people. His leadership style is flexible, as was Christ's. He’s both charming and demanding—sometimes he’s firm and autocratic, and at other times he’ll have those he is leading participate in the analysis and decision-making.”

Alford took the job at Iowa in 1999 and led the Hawkeyes to a 70-68 win over defending NCAA champ UConn in his first game. Alford’s arrival sparked a revival among Hawkeyes fans, who sold out every home game the next two seasons.

Bringing It Home: Rooted In Christ
Steve Alford is no stranger to basketball. Starting as a coach's son, the current UCLA head coach rose through the ranks. Read more

Through all the hoopla, the Alford family of five (daughter Kayla and two sons, Bryce and Kory) continued to give back and ingrain themselves in the local community. Alford was serving on FCA’s National Board of Directors, and the family created and supported a number of charitable organizations.

In March 2006, Alford received FCA’s John Lotz “Barnabas” Award at the NCAA Final Four in Indianapolis. Barnabas, an early church leader whose story can be found in the Book of Acts, was known for his encouraging spirit and action, and Nielsen says you’d be hard-pressed to find a more qualified recipient of the honor.

“Once, while Steve was coaching at Iowa, I was going through a very difficult stretch of life that had truly left me high and dry,” Nielsen says. “Steve was also experiencing some tremendous challenges and fighting his own personal battles, but, despite all of that, he invited me to Iowa’s media day to get me out of the house, in hopes of getting my mind off what I was going through.”

Media day was scheduled to end at 5 p.m., and at precisely 5 p.m. Alford grabbed Nielsen and led him away from the gathered journalists. 

“I'll just never forget him putting his arm around my shoulder and heading toward that tunnel,” Nielsen says. “As media personnel chased after him for one last picture or comment, Steve just smiled, pointed to his watch and said, ‘It's 5 p.m., end of media day. We'll have to find another time for this, because I have a pressing commitment to get to.’" 

The two went to Alford’s office to talk about their struggles and go to the Lord in prayer.

“Galatians 6:2 [NIV] tells us to ‘Carry each other's burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ,’” Nielsen says. “For the next hour, we poured our hearts out to one another and spent the latter half of that hour on our knees on the floor praying for one another's burdens.

“Steve had a thousand things on his plate at that moment, but he pushed them all aside to care for me, and he knew the answer for both of our battles was to take them to the Lord in prayer.”

That day marked a turning point in Nielsen’s recovery process and gave him an even stronger sense of the depth of his and Alford’s spiritual friendship.

“That’s the Steve Alford I know,” says Nielsen, who now works in prison ministry and as a public speaker and entertainer. “He’s a man who takes his share of lumps as a coach, living in a fishbowl while trying to do his best to represent his faith and convictions in the extremely challenging world of big-time athletics.

“I promise you, I’m just one of many people over Steve's career who he’s quietly helped through life by pouring his heart for Christ into them.”

Following the 2006-07 season, Alford resigned from Iowa to take the head coaching position at New Mexico, where history repeated itself in more ways than one. Not only did he turn the Lobos program around (New Mexico won almost 75 percent of Alford’s games), but his son, Kory, suited up for his dad, just as Steve had done for Sam years before.

Following the Lobos’ 28- and 29-win seasons in 2011-12 and 2012-13, UCLA came calling. Years earlier, when Steve took the Manchester job, Sam gave him a book by John Wooden. Now, Steve would help revive what Wooden built.

Kory transferred to UCLA and walked on to play his final two seasons for his dad. Today he’s the Bruins’ team video coordinator, and younger brother Bryce (a three-star recruit in high school) the team’s starting point guard and leading scorer.

“There’s not a day in my quiet time,” Steve says, “that I don’t thank God for the chance to share this opportunity with my sons.”

While leading one of the nation’s most storied basketball programs, Alford takes deliberate steps to keep himself—and his family—rooted in Christ. In Los Angeles, you have to leave very early to get to work to beat traffic, so that means Alford starts his days as the sun’s coming up with quiet time and thanksgiving.

“It’s not about making time,” he says. “Initially, that may be why you have to do something, like as a player I made time to practice because I wanted to get better. But then it turns into a love, something you just have to have.

Alford_Powell_306 web
"As coaches, we're held to a high standard because we're teachers and have influence on others." -Steve Alford

“From a spiritual standpoint, it’s the same way. You grow to love what impacts your life on a daily basis. So that’s how I know spending time with God is right for me.”

Accountability is also key. Alford’s coaches hold a voluntary Bible study where they learn, share and grow together as Christians, helping them burst past the borders of ordinary coaching relationships.

“I’ve been fortunate to be able to hire some very good people—good Christian men—and they keep me accountable,” Alford says. “It’s something I need each and every day. As coaches, we’re held to a high standard because we’re teachers and have influence on others. When you’re in this type of leadership, how you prepare yourself becomes that much more important.”

• • •

Although Alford makes it clear basketball doesn’t define him, he’s truly grateful for the opportunity to lead his players.

“When I was at Indiana, I went in as a young man and came out as a man,” Alford says. “That’s what college athletics is all about, and it’s something I take very seriously because it’s my job. So, it’s what I do, but it’s not who I am.

“I love basketball. I loved playing it, and I absolutely love coaching. Simply put, we’re trying to help young men become men.”

The title “Christ-follower” (the only one Alford gladly accepts) fuels his competitive nature and leads him to be the best dad, husband and coach he can be.

“I hope I’m always driven because of my spirituality and love for Christ,” he says. “I have a responsibility to be a good parent and husband first, which is paramount to what I try to do here. My goal is to lead our basketball program with a demeanor that allows our players to see how our coaching staff reacts in difficult situations as well as positive situations.

“Hopefully, they’ll see consistency in how we lead and how we teach things, and they’ll see that I’m a competitive guy who loves basketball. But there’s a much more important part of my life that really makes me tick, and that’s my relationship with Christ alone.”

Bringing It Home: Rooted In Christ


“Therefore, as you have received Christ Jesus the Lord, walk in Him, rooted and built up in Him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, overflowing with gratitude.”  — Colossians 2:6-7


Steve Alford is no stranger to basketball. Starting as a coach’s son, the current UCLA head coach rose through the ranks until reaching a point of major influence. His basketball journey has taken him around the country; yet the Holy Spirit steered his faith journey.

Alford made his faith his own at an FCA Camp, and he strengthens his personal walk by relying on the Lord with his priorities as a husband, father and coach. He believes faith goes hand in hand with life, wherever the road takes him.      Much like his days growing up in the basketball gym, wearing nets ragged with late-night shooting sessions, Alford makes a continual quest to find God in the everyday.

“It’s not about making time,” he says. “Initially, that may be why you have to do something, like as a player I made time to practice because I wanted to get better. But then it turns into a love, something you just have to have.

“From a spiritual standpoint, it’s the same way. You grow to love what impacts your life on a daily basis.”

Little matters, over time, make a large difference.

How are we as Christ-followers digging deep into the richness of the Lord? If we are to grow and stake our souls on the teachings of Jesus, we too must put Him first in our minds and hearts.

The more we practice taking time for prayer, getting into God’s Word and asking others to hold us accountable, the more we will, over time, notice our heart shifting from obligation to excitement. As we experience the joy of communing with God, that time becomes something we long for as second nature.

This, Alford attests, is in reaction to choosing what best develops our own personal commitment to Christ: “That’s how I know spending time with God is right for me.”

Time with God is paramount to keep up with the high demands of athletics and life. But, as Alford’s life reflects, if we really stick our spirits to the strength of Christ, we will persevere and make a great impact for Him. Wherever our sphere of influence, we can produce abundant fruit for His Kingdom.


• Where do you have difficulties digging roots in your relationship with God?

• If you haven’t made your faith your own, what’s stopping you from committing to Christ today?

• How can your quiet time with God grow from obligation to excitement?


• Proverbs 3:5-6

• James 1:12

• Galatians 6:9


Father, thank You for constantly pulling me into closer relationship with You. Thank You for refusing to leave me where I am and leading me forward in Your love. Help me keep digging my roots in Your Word and in the time we spend together. May I stand strong on the fruit You produce from the work I put in to know You better. Amen.


–This article appears in the January/February 2016 issue of FCA Magazine. To view the issue digitally, click here: January/February 2016 FCA Mag Digital 

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