William Jay looked all over his house for the tickets. Finally, there they were. On his dresser.
The tickets read: Creighton vs. Bradley.
“Bradley? I don’t get it,” Bill said.
It had to be a misprint. No big deal. He got in his blue Volvo and drove to the CenturyLink Center garage — just in time to hit the Capitol District before the Bluejay game.
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When he arrived downtown, he almost drove off 10th Street.
The corner of 10th and Capitol was vacant, except for a couple of office buildings surrounded by empty lots and trees.
No hotels. No bars. Looking north, down the hill, no ballpark.
Bill pinched himself. Twice. This had to be the Twilight Zone. Where was everything?
He got out and stopped an old man wearing a Husker basketball shirt.
“Hey, where’s the CenturyLink Center?” Bill asked. “What happened to it?’’
“The Century what?” the old man said.
“The CenturyLink Center,” Bill said. “Or the CHI Health Center, I guess. You know, the arena. Where the Jays play. There’s a game tonight.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about, man,” the old guy said. “But if you’re talking about Creighton, they play up the street, at the Civic.”
Now Bill knew this had to be a dream. Or nightmare.
“You bet,” the old guy said. “Been playing there for years and years. I see a little traffic up there. Must be playing tonight. You won’t have a hard time getting a ticket.”
Bill thanked the old man and drove up Capitol to the Civic Auditorium. The old barn looked like it had expanded. The roof was taller. The front side was all glass. Inside, you saw fans going up an escalator.
Outside, the scene was quiet. Bill stopped a middle-aged couple wearing Bluejays shirts. He wanted to know why Creighton was still playing at the Civic.
“Where else would they be playing?” said the husband, guy named Kyle.
When Bill told Kyle about the new arena on 10th, Kyle shook his head. The city had a vote about 18 years ago for a new arena, but it failed miserably. Never had a chance.
“The city leaders asked Creighton to consider playing there, but they had no interest. Zero,” Kyle said.
“But they were winning big then,” Bill said. “Dana had ’em going. They were the hot team in town.”
“If you’re talking about Dana Altman, you’ve got the wrong town,” Kyle said. “He’s down in Lincoln. Been there since 2000.”
“Lincoln?” Bill said.
“Yes, Lincoln,” Kyle said. “He’s the head coach at Nebraska. Took the Huskers to two Elite Eights. Might have a Final Four team this year. Of course, I really don’t want to talk about it.”
“But ... but ... Dana was the Creighton coach,” Bill said.
“He might have been at one time,” Kyle said. “Back in 1994, he was offered the job. He was feeling the heat at K-State. But for some reason he didn’t feel good about it. Someone at K-State talked him into staying one more year. He won the Big Eight that year, then stayed. When Bill Byrne fired Danny Nee in 2000, Altman was his first call. He’s been there ever since. Built a dynasty. They have a new arena. Sold out every game.”
“What did Creighton do?” Bill said, afraid to ask.
“Bruce Rasmussen hired a guy, an assistant coach from somewhere in Illinois,” Kyle said. “Can’t recall his name, he wasn’t here long. He lasted a few years and left.”
“Left?” Bill said. “Why would he leave Creighton?”
“Money,” Kyle said. “Back then, the NCAA raised the membership requirements for Division I. Creighton had to add some sports. Money got spread thin. We really needed to win big in basketball and draw big crowds. Didn’t happen.”
“So Ras hired somebody else then? Somebody good?” Bill said.
“Nah, Ras left,” Kyle said. “Hated to see him go. The financial situation here wasn’t good. He was still a coach at heart. Went back into coaching. He took over the women’s program at Iowa, then moved up to associate A.D.”
Bill was freaking out.
“But ... we had Ryan Sears, right? Ben Walker? Kyle Korver still played here, didn’t he?”
“I don’t know who those first names are that you mentioned,” Kyle said. “Korver went to Drake, then he transferred to Iowa. Led ’em to the Sweet 16.”
“Please tell me Greg McDermott is here,” Bill said. “And Doug McDermott. Doug played here, right?”
“You mean the kid at Northern Iowa?” Kyle said. “Boy, he had some career there. All-American twice. Player of the year. He was on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Something else, having a guy like that in the Valley. Wish that would have happened to us.”
“Next thing you’re going to tell me is we’re not in the Big East,” Bill said.
“We applied,” Kyle said. “We barely draw 5,000 a game for the Valley. The Big East did expand, and I will say I thought we had a chance, because they wanted private schools. But they added Butler, Xavier and Wichita State. Have to say, I don’t miss Gregg Marshall, but I miss playing the Shockers. Not the same playing Loyola.”
At that point, Bill passed out. But as he hit the ground, he woke up and screamed.
He was home. He had just fallen out of bed. He scrambled up and looked at his dresser. There they were, the two tickets for Saturday night’s Creighton Athletic Hall of Fame Dinner.
Welcome home, Dana.
* * *
Saturday night, Altman goes into the CU Athletics Hall of Fame. He goes in with arguably his best player, Kyle Korver. The event will take place across the street from the CenturyLink Center, the arena that Altman built. It will happen inside the new Marriott, the hotel that Altman built.
Sure, there were countless civic leaders and donors and big money folks in Omaha who made all that happen, the unstoppable combo of the CHI Health Center and the convention center. It’s one of the great arena/downtown setups in the country.
But I’m here to tell you that if Altman hadn’t come to Creighton, and the Jays weren’t winning at a high clip, and making the NCAA tournament every year, and drawing big crowds with stars like Korver, that arena doesn’t happen.
Think about everything we’ve had in that wonderful arena. What kind of city do we have then?
Go back to 2000. Our city was changing, growing up, but not so quickly that a new arena was a slam dunk. That $216 million bond issue was a tough sell. Especially if you had no full-time tenant paying rent.
Creighton took that leap. School officials were worried about leaving the safe existence in the Civic to the unknown, a giant 16,000-seat bowl that needed to be filled. Would 16,000 come watch Creighton basketball against Missouri Valley teams?
Altman and Rasmussen bet on it. They helped sell it. Altman’s credibility was huge there.
Now, let’s go back a few years. Say Altman doesn’t come to Creighton. Rasmussen has the golden touch with hiring, right? He finds another magic man, right?
Maybe. But probably not. In 1994, Creighton was coming off three losing seasons and drawing crowds of less than 2,000 in the Civic. This wasn’t a dream job.
Add the fact that CU was struggling to meet new NCAA Division I requirements. Sports would have to be added, basketball upgraded, money raised and spent. As Rasmussen remembered, there was debate on campus as to whether Creighton should remain Division I.
Rasmussen could have hired a good coach. But as good of a coach as Altman, still one of the best in the country? As good a fit for Omaha as the product of Wilber, Nebraska, who still makes frequent trips back to see friends and family?
Altman’s blue-collar style, along with a full-court pressing tempo, turned on a city. They slowly became Omaha’s team.
Could any other coach have done that? I say it’s a long shot at best. Frankly, I doubt it.
He and Rasmussen became the best of friends. They were a force in the community. Had that never occurred, and Rasmussen’s hire not developed, Rasmussen said he easily could have seen himself taking another job.
Try to wrap your arms around Creighton without Rasmussen, it doesn’t work. No arena. No McDermotts. No Big East. Maybe no Division I.
Rasmussen said it’s no stretch to think that all of the great things that happened at Creighton happened because of Altman. And they don’t happen if he’s not here.
He’s the Oregon coach now, been out west since 2010. But he’ll always have a place here. Creighton and Omaha have Altman’s fingerprints all over them. What a beautiful sight.
They’ll honor him Saturday night, but it won’t be the 327 wins, the Valley titles or the great players and moments, the blue Creighton shirts all over town, the friends and fans he made. It all falls under the heading of impact. The man had tremendous impact.
Thanks for the ride, Dana. It was like a dream.