EUGENE, Ore. — A basketball love affair is blooming in the Klamath River valley, similar to one that flourished in the late 1990s and through most of the 2000s in Omaha.
Dana Altman is working his magic again.
This time it's at the University of Oregon, the school that lured him west after 16 seasons at Creighton. Altman took a Bluejay program that had won a total of 24 games the three seasons prior to his arrival in 1994 and led it to 327 victories before he left last spring.
By his standards, Altman's Ducks enjoyed mixed success in his first season on the job. They finished with 21 victories and won a postseason tournament, defeating his old team to claim the College Basketball Invitational. They made strides in grasping his basketball philosophy.
He acknowledges progress, but in typical Altman fashion he sums up his debut campaign with a phrase that rings familiar to Creighton fans.
“We have a long way to go,'' he said.
If so, he at least energized his new fan base in the first season, leaving it excited about the journey.
“He's a great coach,'' said Desmond McCann, an Oregon fan and freshman at the school who took his place in the stands 90 minutes before the tip-off for the season's last game. “How many games did he win at Creighton?''
When told it was 327, McCann quickly added, “I hopes he wins that many and maybe more here at Oregon.''
From his seat a couple hundred feet above the garishly designed court at the new Matthew Knight Arena, Eugene resident Derrick Roser also likes what he's been seeing.
Roser's interest in the Oregon program waned in the final years of the tenure of Altman's predecessor, Ernie Kent. Kent took the Ducks to five NCAA tournaments, twice making it to the Elite Eight. But Kent's final two Oregon teams lost 15 more games than the 24 they won and finished at or near the bottom of the Pac-10 standings.
“I grew up here,'' Roser said. “You grow up watching a fighting attitude in Oregon teams, and Ernie kind of lost that the last couple of years. It appears to be back again.
“He's taken players that I don't think should be where they're at and turned them into something with his work ethic. It's exciting.''
From his courtside seat, Steve Lee senses the same. A Eugene land developer, Lee is one of the big-money boosters who tunes up for games in the exclusive Founders Club in the new arena.
He graduated from Oregon in 1977 and has been backing the Ducks through good times and bad since. He sees a program on the rise, thanks to the Nebraska native who now coaches the team.
“I had never heard of him,'' Lee said. “I had heard of Creighton but not of Coach Altman. If you followed the coaching search, they tried to get some very big-name people here and they couldn't.
“I think what happened turned out to be a blessing for both of us.''
They know him now
Dana Altman wasn't Oregon's first choice to take over its basketball program. Nor was he the Ducks' second, third, fourth, fifth or, depending on which reports you believe, eighth pick.
By the time the school turned to Altman last spring, Oregon reportedly had been turned down by Mike Anderson of Missouri, Mark Few of Gonzaga, Jamie Dixon of Pittsburgh, Brad Stevens of Butler, Billy Donovan of Florida, Mark Turgeon of Texas A&M, Tom Izzo of Michigan State and Tubby Smith of Minnesota.
It took 37 days for the school's search committee, headed by former Athletic Director Pat Kilkenny, to find its man. And when it did, Lee, the Oregon booster, wasn't the only one who had not heard of Altman.
Neither had McCann, the Oregon student, nor any of the six friends who stood beside him on the bleachers in the student section. Roser's friend, Keith Tattersall, didn't have the foggiest idea who Altman was.
“But I'm very pleased with the job he's done this season,'' said Tattersall, who lives north of Eugene and has held season tickets the past 10 years.
Equally pleased is Altman's new boss, Rob Mullens. He became Oregon's athletic director in mid-July, hired away from Kentucky, where he had been the Wildcats' deputy athletic director.
Unlike many of the fans, Mullens was familiar with his new basketball coach.
“I used to cheer against him,'' he said with a chuckle. “I'm a West Virginia University grad, so when he was at Marshall, I used to boo him. And I knew of his stops, and I was certainly well aware of the great success he had created at Creighton.''
Mullens' friends in the coaching business had told him Oregon had gotten a good man in Altman. The athletic director hasn't been disappointed.
“He's created a very positive impact,'' Mullens said. “He's so much more than a basketball coach. Everyone told me that the beauty of Dana is that he is very authentic, very genuine. What you see is who he is.
“He's an honest man, an incredible worker and brings tremendous energy to the job. Our fans have fallen in love with him.''
They've watched Altman take a team with low expectations — the Ducks were picked last in the preseason Pac-10 poll — and mold it into one that beat five teams that wound up playing in the NCAA tournament. Oregon finished seventh in the league, then made it to the semifinals of the conference tournament.
The Ducks accepted an invitation to participate in the CBI, where they won five of six games and beat Creighton in the best-of-three championship series.
“A lot of people around here didn't anticipate the Ducks winning one Pac-10 game this year,'' Lee said. “People had very little expectations but they started to get excited when they saw the players starting to play together and figuring things out.
“And people are really excited in the recruiting class he's bringing in here. They believe in him.''
All the tools to win
Altman's first season at Creighton produced seven victories in 1994 but provided rays of hope that a turnaround was in the future. It took Altman four seasons to get the school to the postseason, playing in the 1998 National Invitation Tournament.
The next season, the Bluejays made the first of seven NCAA appearances under Altman. At least one person doesn't believe it will take Altman as long to get the Ducks into the promised land of the NCAA field.
“A lot of things that we didn't have at Creighton when he first got there, they already have here,'' Bluejays Athletic Director Bruce Rasmussen said. “We were in the Missouri Valley, not the Pac-10. We were in the old Civic, before it was even renovated, not Matthew Knight Arena. We didn't have an academic learning center or an athletic performance center.
“We didn't have the budget and staff that he has here. They have a lot of the core things we didn't have. I can see the same things happening here as they did at Creighton, and I don't think it will take as long. When he gets better athletes and a better depth of athletes, I can see them becoming a national contender.''
Rasmussen said Altman faced some of the same obstacles in his first season at Oregon that he did in his initial campaign at Creighton. That assessment is shared by Kevin McKenna, who gave up a head coaching job at Indiana State to join Altman's Oregon staff.
McKenna also was a part of Altman's first staff at Creighton. He remembers the tough times as if they were yesterday.
“We were trying to put something together, trying just to be competitive,'' he said. “We had a lot of the same issues here. We had to battle just like our players to keep things positive and headed in the right direction.
“We had to try to develop a culture in line with how Coach wants to coach and how he wants guys to play.''
Altman also had to scramble to compete against teams with greater talent. A half dozen players either transferred or were lost to academic or other issues.
“If we would have been able to keep our roster intact, it might have been different,'' McKenna said. “There were some talented guys that moved on, guys that put up some numbers last year. They could have helped us.''
A month before school started in late September, Altman's roster shrank from 10 players to seven.
“We lost a guy to an agent, we lost another to academics and we lost Tyrone (Nared) to a heart problem,'' Altman said. “We're sitting here on Sept. 1, and we have seven guys. I'm worried about fielding a ball team.''
Nared underwent a surgical procedure and made it back to the court in late October. Altman also signed two other players, one being former Nebraska guard Jay-R Strowbridge, who wound up leading the team in 3-point baskets.
Once the season started, Altman's first team experienced its share of roller-coaster twists and turns. The Ducks started 7-3, then lost six in a row. The move to the new arena seemed to spur them as they won seven of their next 10 but dropped their final four of the regular season.
Oregon won its first two games in the Pac-10 tournament before losing to Washington in the semifinals. Then came the CBI run that allowed the team to become just the 12th Oregon squad in 105 years of basketball to finish with at least 20 wins.
“When we started clicking,'' senior forward Joevan Catron said, “we were a dangerous team.''
Catron emerged as the best player in Altman's first season, overcoming the injuries that had hindered him earlier in his career to lead the team in scoring and rebounding.
Throughout it all, Oregon's fans and players learned something about their new coach that Creighton fans learned over the years.
“There were games when it looked like it wasn't going to be very promising, not just to get wins but to be competitive,'' McKenna said. “But to Coach's credit and to the players' credit, we just kept grinding away.
“That's been Dana's MO over the years. He's a grinder kind of guy. He's not overly flashy or tries to wow you. But he's always plugging away. In the end, that got results.''
Away from the court, Altman's first season in Oregon has been one of adjustment. He brought assistant Brian Fish with him from Creighton and hired McKenna, who had been with him for nine seasons in Omaha, away from Indiana State. Altman brought son Jordan, who had been a graduate assistant under McKenna, in to be his video coordinator.
“Dana had some familiar people around, and I think that helped,'' said Reva Altman, his wife of 28 years. “Still, it was tough on Dana because we left family and friends behind, as well as the school that he poured his whole heart into for 16 years.
“But coming here has been easy, too. It's been a wonderful experience, and the university and people have been great.''
Reva and daughter Audra remained in Omaha until Audra graduated from Millard West High School in December. She is now a student at Oregon, and Dana and Reva are living in an apartment while they continue a laborious search for a new home.
“It's working out,'' she said, “but I'm ready for a house.''
Altman admits the eight months he was in Oregon without his wife and daughter were difficult. His other two sons, Chase and Spencer, also remained in Omaha.
“Having Jordan around was good,'' Altman said. “Having Audra in school here has been good. I really miss Chase and Spencer, but it's really good to have the others here. Those first eight months were tough.''
Altman's father, Lyle, has made three trips to Oregon. When Altman was at Creighton, his dad rarely missed a game, home or away.
Altman has kept in close touch with Rasmussen, his former boss and friend at Creighton. They talk several times a week, with the conversations rarely gravitating toward basketball.
“It's like any friends talking,'' Altman said. “We talk about what's going on with family, what we're doing. Really don't talk much ball.''
Altman misses the friends he grew close to during his time in Omaha. The rigors of establishing his program have kept him from developing a lot of close friends in his new surroundings.
“We played some golf before the season started, and we'd meet a few guys here and there,'' McKenna said. “It's nothing like the relationships we had at Creighton or I had at Indiana State. Those things take time.
“It's a process, and it's like anything else. You have to get your work done before you have fun.''
In addition to friends, Altman misses other aspects of the life he had grown used to Omaha. There is no Bohemian Café in Eugene, a community of about 150,000 with a more liberal bent than the more conservative Midwest where Altman lived most of his 52 years. He hasn't found anywhere to get a kolache, a Bohemian pastry.
“Other than that, the people here have been great, just as they were at Creighton and everywhere else I've been,'' Altman said. “The people are just like in the Midwest, just a little more liberal than I'm used to.
“A lot of the time, you wouldn't know if you were in Oregon or Nebraska.''
McKenna has seen other changes in his boss.
“This is more of a casual working environment than it was at Creighton,'' he said. “It's not as corporate, and I think Coach is loosening up a bit. He's more loose with stuff. He doesn't tuck his shirt in all the time.''
The first season ended with a strange twist for Altman, who had to face his old school in the best-of-three championship series of the CBI. That required a trip back to Omaha for the opening game, to play in an arena where he had enjoyed great success and against players he had coached for several years.
He agonized over the trip back home.
“There was a lot of emotion there,'' McKenna said. “There were a lot of people he likes and respects. It was really emotional before and after the game. It was neat seeing everybody, but once the game began, it was just a basketball game.''
The crowd of 12,381 at Qwest Center Omaha gave Altman a nice ovation when he entered the arena shortly before game time. Creighton then went out and posted an 84-76 victory that, according to several people who know Altman well, left the coach despondent after the game.
“Coaching for 30 years and being older and wiser hasn't made losing any easier,'' Reva Altman said. “He wants to win. He works hard and he wants that effort to pay off.''
The toughest part of the return to Omaha, Altman said a few days later, was seeing the players. Because of his schedule and the two-hour time difference between Omaha and Eugene, Altman said, he had few opportunities to watch Creighton play this season.
He did something he rarely does when arriving at a visiting arena that night. Instead of heading straight to the locker room, he entered the arena to watch his players — both former and current — warm up.
He shook hands and chatted with many of the Creighton players. He appeared to get emotional when Kenny Lawson, the Bluejays' fifth-year senior, approached him.
When told about the emotional meeting between Altman and Lawson, Creighton guard Josh Jones said that's not surprising. “Dana, he loves him some Kenny Lawson,'' Jones said. “Kenny always was his favorite.''
Altman laughed when told of Jones' comment. It was difficult seeing all the guys, he said.
“I spent a lot of time with them,'' he said. “They're good guys. None of them got into trouble or caused any problems. I miss them.''
Before and after the game, Altman downplayed how he might be treated by Creighton's fans. Some felt jilted when he bolted for Oregon, remembering the day in 2007 when, after a brief flirtation with another head coaching job in Arkansas, Altman promised that Creighton would be the last stop in his coaching career.
Others were displeased with the slight downturn the program took after he came back from Arkansas. The Bluejays did not make it to the NCAA tournament in his final three seasons as coach. Some fans sensed a change in Altman, although those close to him dismiss the notion that he wasn't as committed after the Arkansas incident as he was before.
His sudden departure for Oregon and the lack of a good-bye ruffled other fans. Altman appreciates their displeasure but said there are few things he'd do differently if he had to do it all over again.
“Things just happened so quickly,'' he said. “It wasn't like I was going to take a farewell tour. I wasn't going to have a press conference to announce I was leaving. I couldn't say good-bye to everyone.
“I'm not sure there would have been any way that would have made it easier.''
The bottom line, Reva Altman said, is that there is no right way or wrong way to say good-bye.
“It's a whirlwind when you're caught up in something like that,'' she said. “You make a decision, and there's a plane there almost instantly to take you to a different job. Your emotions are running rampant.
“You just have to do it. There are things he might have done differently. He probably would have given everyone a hug, but I don't know if everyone was willing to get that hug from him.''
Altman's first season ended with a 69-67 victory over the Bluejays. The Ducks scored the winning points with two seconds to play, a basket set up when Creighton point guard Antoine Young was called for a turnover moments earlier when he stepped back across an almost invisible halfcourt line.
Afterward, Atlman said the victory brought him little joy.
“I don't feel as good about winning this as I should,'' he said.
The Ducks' late-season surge — they won seven of their last nine games — provides energy to take into preparations for season two. They lose only two seniors — Catron and Strowbridge — and are bringing in a recruiting class, led by top 100 prospect Jabari Brown of Oakland, Calif., that ranked in the top 20 nationally.
“We supposedly have a great recruiting class coming in,'' Altman said. “I like the guys we're getting, but we're losing Joevan. He was a really good player for us.
“We weren't very good when he wasn't very good. We rode him hard all year.''
They rode him to a postseason title that provided an exclamation point to the progress they made during the season. Those signs of progress, Creighton's Rasmussen said, are reasons Oregon fans are feeling the same sense of excitement that Bluejay nation experienced 17 seasons ago after Altman's first season in Omaha.
“People didn't expect Oregon to be very good, just as people in Omaha didn't expect Creighton to be very good that first year,'' the athletic director said. “What they wanted to see was how he was going to go about building a program.
“If you had more talent, you can focus more on results than in the process. No one expected them to win, so Dana could emphasize the process. The same things that attracted our fans to Dana when he came to Omaha are the same things that are attracting Oregon fans to him.''
Altman's rekindled the hope in Oregon's fan base but hope can get you only so far at the highest level of collegiate basketball. Altman emphasized that shortly after the first season ended.
“It does no good if we're satisfied with this,'' he said. “We have higher aspirations.''
Contact the writer:
402-679-2298, email@example.com, twitter.com/PivOWH