By BETH HARRIS
LOS ANGELES (AP) — New UCLA basketball coach Steve Alford apologized on Thursday for the way he handled a sexual assault charge involving a player on his team in 2002 when he coached at Iowa.
Alford has faced media questioning about the incident since he was hired to coach the Bruins nearly two weeks ago. He and UCLA athletic director Dan Guerrero addressed the matter in a statement distributed by the school that didn't mention the name of former Hawkeyes player Pierre Pierce, who was the team's starting point guard.
Alford said he "instinctively and mistakenly" came to the defense of Pierce before he knew all the facts. At the time, he staunchly defended Pierce, saying, "I totally believe he is innocent. I believed it from day one, and I still believe it."
Pierce was charged with third-degree sexual assault and pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of assault involving injury after the incident with an Iowa female student-athlete. He was suspended and red-shirted that season. The incident proved polarizing in Iowa City, and Alford's reputation took a major hit among Hawkeyes fans.
"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," Alford said Thursday. "This was inappropriate, insensitive and hurtful, especially to the young female victim involved, and I apologize for that."
In 2005, Pierce was charged with sexual assault again when he was accused of threatening an ex-girlfriend with a knife and choking her. He was dismissed from the team before charges were filed.
When Alford was asked about the incident on the day he was introduced at UCLA, he said, "I followed everything that the University of Iowa, the administration, the lawyers that were hired ... I followed everything that I was told to do."
That same day, Guerrero said UCLA had vetted its new coach's character and was "comfortable with where we are now."
On Thursday, Alford said, "I have learned and grown from that experience and now understand that such proclamations can contribute to an atmosphere in which similar crimes go unreported and victims are not taken seriously."
He said he wants to make sure the UCLA community knows that he would handle the situation differently today.
Guerrero said Alford "made an error in judgment 11 years ago" but that he has shown true character by acknowledging and learning from it.
"Our evaluation was based on his entire career, both on and off the court, and that is what led us to make our decision that he was the right coach for UCLA," the athletic director said.
Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.