Ex-Iowa coach Alford issues apology 11 years after Pierce assault controversy

BY TORK MASON | APRIL 12, 2013 5:00 AM

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It’s been more than a decade since former Iowa men’s basketball player Pierre Pierce was charged with sexual assault, but the dark cloud that has hovered over the program since that time was brought back into focus since March 30.

That’s when former head coach Steve Alford was announced as the new leader of the historic UCLA basketball program, and he seemed ill-prepared to answer questions regarding his handling of the incident at his introductory press conference. Alford released a statement on Thursday expressing regret over his decisions regarding the case.

“At that time, I instinctively and mistakenly came to [Pierce’s] defense before knowing all the facts,” Alford said in the release. “I wanted to believe he was innocent, and in response to a media question, I publicly proclaimed his innocence before the legal system had run its course.”

Pierce was a sophomore guard in the fall of 2002, when he was charged with the sexual assault of another student. Alford’s forceful and adamant defense of his standout player drew fire from some fans after Pierce plead edguilty to a lesser charge and was allowed to return to the team after a one-year suspension.

Alford’s support of Pierce remains a point of discomfort for Karla Miller, the executive director of the Rape Victim Advocacy Program in Iowa City.

“He never withdrew his support, even when Pierce pleaded guilty,” Miller said. “It’s good to hear his apology, but timing seems like an issue. It seems he brought it up to get on with his appointment [at UCLA].”

But Miller said it wasn’t just that Alford supported Pierce publicly. The manner in which he did so highlighted a disconnect between Alford and the victim, she said.

“It says somebody here is lying,” Miller said. “ ‘It’s not my guy, so the victim is lying.’ If he believes his guy isn’t lying, the victim suffers. In the form that other fans and people say horrible things about the victims, tear down their character. The coach tells them to treat the victim as a liar. There’s a ripple effect that isn’t avoidable.”

Pierce returned to the team in the fall of 2003 and blossomed into one of the Big Ten’s best players before being dismissed from the team in January 2005, when he was named the focus of an investigation involving the assault of his girlfriend.

Randy Larson, an Iowa City attorney and founder of the Prime Time League, said Pierce’s reinstatement after the 2002 incident shrouded the city with an air of uncertainty. Residents could only speculate on what happened, which kept the matter at the forefront of public discussion. And the 2005 assault, he said, sealed the opinions of many regarding Pierce’s initial crime.

At UCLA, Daily Bruin Sports Editor Andrew Erickson said the reaction to Alford’s hiring has been mixed, although university officials haven’t commented on the matter.

“You have people who are happy about his pedigree, and others who have become skeptical,” Erickson told The Daily Iowan. “Nothing, no real campus figures have said anything [about the Pierce incident].”

But Miller said the assault, and Alford’s handling of it, has left a black mark on the program that is only just beginning to heal.

“[Pierce] had the unqualified support of his coach,” she said. “It was outrageous, the hubris that ran out of that program at the time was stunning. It was a terrible time; things happened in that case we didn’t think could. It set back the basketball program horribly.”

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