How Do You Get Back on Track After a Career Detour?

The job that was supposed to work out well, doesn’t.shutterstock_60239728

You parachute out of that job to take another that is not on the road map to a successful career .

Somewhere between Point A and Point C you got detoured to Point Z.

Can you get back on the right road?

Maybe; here’s an example of somebody who got detoured and how they got back on track.

Men’s collegiate basketball coach Steve Alford (college coaches, in case you haven’t noticed, are big business – Alford’s new contract is for $18.2M for 7 years) is a great illustration of a career that started well, detoured, and has gotten back on track in the fast lane.

Alford was an All-American basketball player at Indiana University, the heartland of boy’s and men’s basketball. He played for the legendary Bob Knight, led the Indiana Hoosiers to a national championship, and played on the Olympic gold medalist team with Michael Jordan and Patrick Ewing. Knight described Alford’s graduation and departure from IU this way: “If you were married to Miss America and she walked out, how would you feel?

It was tremendously hard work, lots of sweat, and yet there’s another word that get’s associated with Alford’s life; charmed.

Alford turned to coaching college after a brief pro career and following successful stints as head coach at two colleges he was hired to coach at the University of Iowa.

The glory days of Iowa men’s basketball were in the 1950’s, and the team last reached the Final Four in 1980. Alford never got them back, and resigned in 2007 – most likely before he got fired – and took the head coaching job at the University of New Mexico.

New Mexico can be politely as the land of detours rather than the land of enchantment if your earlier stint was coaching in the more prestigious Big Ten. Alford six years marked the highest winning percentage of any coach in the history of the school’s men’s basketball program.

When UCLA, formerly one of the most storied programs in the country but struggling of late, came calling in a surprise move, Alford jumped.

Cut to the chase: So how do you jump back from a career detour?

  1. Performance counts; Alford’s teams won at New Mexico, which put him on the radar for consideration elsewhere.
  2. Be ready to jump. Alford had agreed but not executed a 10-year contract extension. When the path to get your career back on track presents itself, be ready to say “yes.”
  3. The path back may not be perfect. Great schools, like great employers can be choosy about who they hire. The UCLA program had just fired Ben Holland, and it’s seen as a program trying to return to glory before it gets eclipsed; in other words, a proud fixer-upper.
  4. You likely only get one shot to get back on track. If Alford bombs at UCLA he’s headed back to the New Mexico’s of the world; OK programs but not considered elite schools.

So you can get back on track after a career detour. Work hard, do well, and recognize that the road to a comeback may not be covered with roses.


Life Back West is an occasional set of writings focused on ways people, teams and organizations can be both more effective (doing the right thing) and more efficient (doing the right thing well). More about executive, career and team / leadership coaching services can be found at the “About J. Mike Smith and Back West, Inc.” sidebar or the “Hire Me” tab above. You can also read an online interview with me at WhoHub, as well as participate in my learning community courtesy of KnowledgeCrush.

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