April 5, 2013
I was reluctant to write a column about former Iowa men’s basketball coach Steve Alford because it might be perceived as piling on.
Much has been written about Alford since he was hired this week as the new men’s basketball coach at UCLA, but it’s hardly been a celebratory tone.
It’s no secret to anyone that I’m not an Alford fan, and vice versa. My relationship with Alford became so strained that I stopped covering the Iowa men’s basketball team because of my lack of objectivity shortly after former standout player Pierre Pierce was accused of sexually assaulting a female student-athlete in September 2002.
I was no longer able to be a fair reporter and writer about Iowa men’s basketball because of an incident involving Pierce that hit too close to home.
My niece was an 18-year-old freshman at the University of Iowa, who had met Pierce on campus completely by chance. He showed up in her dorm room one afternoon that same fall — unannounced and uninvited — closed the door and refused to leave. I hate to think what might have happened to this bright, beautiful girl had her screams not scared him away.
Now it was personal.
To stop my older brother, Frank Harty, from coming to Iowa City to confront Pierce himself, I told my family I would contact the athletic department on their behalf, to help them take action. Because of the recent sexual assault allegations made against Pierce, I assumed there would be heightened concern when I contacted the Iowa’s Sports Information Department to tell them what had happened to my niece.
I was told that my complaint would be addressed by the Iowa coaches.
In fact, the only correspondence I received was a letter written by then Assistant Coach Greg Lansing in support of Pierce. Lansing barely acknowledged that the incident I reported on behalf of my family may have occurred. But he mentioned in the letter that Pierce was a good kid.
My family and I were stunned and disappointed when nothing else happened. I couldn’t believe that my family’s complaint fell on deaf ears.
I couldn’t believe that Alford refused to acknowledge a disturbing pattern with one of his players.
I couldn’t believe that the Iowa coaches would ignore a complaint this serious.
It was then that I lost all respect for Alford as a person, as did my family.
My brother, Frank, played football at Iowa from 1978 to 1980 before a career-ending injury, and is proud to be a Hawkeye — at least most of the time. He was angry and hurt, to say the least, when his alma mater failed to take action in this case.
He still is today.
“I did not receive any assurance or even an acknowledgment,” my brother said Friday morning. “As a former Hawkeye, I felt a deep sense of disappointment and betrayal.
“Disappointment turned into disgust when I later learned that, despite this advance notice, that he (Pierce) was a predator. The basketball program attempted to portray Pierce as an innocent victim of circumstance.”
I would have told my family’s story a long time ago, but I was honoring my niece’s wishes that I not say anything. My family also could have applied more pressure to UI officials, but my niece requested at the time that we back off because she wanted to focus on being a college student. We honored her request, but the incident, and the way in which no one in the Iowa men’s basketball program seemed to care, was very discouraging.
I’m telling this story now because Alford’s character is being questioned in the wake of his hiring at UCLA, and because my niece has graduated from UI and moved on with her life. She now lives in Florida and is still proud to be a Hawkeye, though this incident has left a scar.
My brother called her Thursday night to tell her that we were going public with the story. My niece, according to my brother, still describes details of the incident as if it happened yesterday, not more than a decade ago.
It’s scary to think what could have happened if Pierce had not left my niece’s dorm room. Had she not started to scream. My niece says she thinks Pierce left because he heard the sound of voices in the hallway, people were close enough to overhear what was going on.
My niece wasn’t a victim, by law enforcement standards, because no assault occurred. But she was scared and confused. She had been a student at UI for just a few weeks when the incident occurred.
I remember thinking that it would only be a matter of time before Pierce struck again. That indeed turned out to be the case. He was accused of assaulting another female with a knife in 2005. He pleaded guilty to assault and served 11 months in prison before being released in September 2006.
Pierce was charged with third-degree sexual assault in the first case involving the UI female student-athlete. He pleaded guilty to a lesser charge, but was allowed to stay on the team under suspension and take a redshirt season.
Alford had no choice but to kick Pierce off the team after the second assault incident had occurred.
By then, though, the damage already was done. The lives of three young women never would be the same. Attendance at Iowa men’s basketball games dropped, but the team still finished with a 21-12 record.
And I had been exposed to the real Steve Alford. I didn’t like what I saw.
I saw a man who claimed to be a devout Christian yet ignored two young women in order to protect one of his best players — someone who didn’t deserve protection.
Alford actually did call me once — I believe it was in the spring of 2003 — but not to say he was sorry about what happened with my niece. He was upset because I had written a column critical of his leadership. He called me evil and referred to me as a Hawkeye hater.
I was reminded on Tuesday at his introductory press conference for the UCLA job that Alford never will change after he was asked if he thought legendary John Wooden would’ve handled the Pierce scandal differently.
Alford responded by saying that he simply did what he was told by the UI administration and lawyers.
Instead of expressing sympathy or admitting that, in hindsight, he could have handled the situation differently, Alford instead passed the blame.
A person’s character, or lack thereof, often is exposed in times of hardship and controversy.
Alford has done well for himself as a head coach. As a person, though, he leaves much to be desired.
Reach Pat Harty at firstname.lastname@example.org or 339-7370.