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Posted: Wednesday April 28, 2010 3:21PM; Updated: Wednesday April 28, 2010 4:14PM
George Schroeder
George Schroeder>INSIDE COLLEGE BASKETBALL

Altman wasn't Oregon's top choice, but he may end up as the right one

Story Highlights

Former Creighton coach Dana Altman one of best at X's and O's in the nation

He took the Arkansas job three years ago, only to do a 180 about 24 hours later

Altman's many supporters say he's lacked only the big platform to achieve more

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Pat Kilkenny and Dana Altman
After a long search, Oregon booster Pat Kilkenny (left) settled on longtime Creighton coach Dana Altman.
AP

EUGENE, Ore. -- After 28 flights in 41 days the private jet filed one final flight plan Monday. Having secured a new basketball coach, Oregon super booster Pat Kilkenny attended the introductory news conference and then flew home to San Diego for some much-needed R&R.

"I've never done anything more difficult in my life," he said.

It must have been exhausting considering the number of coaches Kilkenny, the school's former athletic director, considered before finding someone willing to take the job. There's no wonder the search came to be seen as a debacle.

Dana Altman is not the big-splash, high-profile hire the Ducks went looking for when they decided to replace Ernie Kent. Hiring Creighton's coach is not what they had envisioned, and the move seems a bit strange on both ends. But as it turns out, Altman -- a straight-arrow Midwesterner who's the antithesis of flash and sizzle -- might end up being the right fit.

The original idea was that Nike connections and a new arena -- and yes, a lot of cash -- would be enough to persuade one of the sport's biggest names to move to Eugene, Ore. It's hard to separate rumor from reality, but Kilkenny talked directly with Tom Izzo, Jamie Dixon, Mark Few, Brad Stevens and Mike Anderson, and there may have been others. As the search dragged on, there were no takers, and the Ducks were forced to recalibrate.

Still, if you'd told Oregon fans they'd get the coach of a mid-major power, they might have been thrilled -- except Gonzaga's Few, whose Oregon roots run deep, remained uninterested in returning home, and then Stevens decided to stay at Butler. And Altman? In 16 years, he's built a consistent winner at a small Jesuit school in Omaha, Neb., and not so long ago, he was on every school's wish list of candidates.

But he wasn't initially on Oregon's.

Ask around college basketball, and you'll hear Altman is one of the very best at X's and O's. Most often filled with overachievers, his teams shot the three-pointer, played defense -- and played hard, opponents will tell you. His program was one of the primary catalysts for the construction of Omaha's downtown arena, the Qwest Center, which is filled on winter nights by Bluejay fans whose usual passion is Nebraska football.

Creighton led the way as the Missouri Valley Conference bucked toward something better than mid-major status, and for years Altman's name popped up whenever a job came open. But the Nebraska native kept finding reasons to stay home. Illinois almost had him a few years back, but he balked at retaining some of the previous staff. Arizona State was close, but Altman got bad vibes from the administration. And then, of course, he finally jumped, only to do a 180 about 24 hours later.

Three years ago, Arkansas called Altman and soon enough, there he was being introduced in Fayetteville, saying "I'd like to finish my career at the University of Arkansas," and uncomfortably "Calling the Hogs" along with then-athletic director Frank Broyles (if you haven't seen the video, YouTube it). But that was fluid and smooth compared to the feeling after the press conference, when Altman learned the Razorbacks' roster was riddled with trouble, including academic suspensions and failed drug tests and discovered significant dissension between Broyles and the school's chancellor.

The same day, he placed a call to Creighton athletic director Bruce Rasmussen -- also a very close friend -- asked for his job back and went home.

Altman's history makes his move to Oregon interesting, because the school's athletic department is nothing if not dysfunctional. The search had only just begun when athletic director Mike Bellotti resigned to work for ESPN, which is why Kilkenny, a former athletic director but also the Ducks' second biggest donor (behind Nike founder Phil Knight), took the lead role. A few days later we learned Bellotti had been forced out by the school's new president. State authorities are investigating his $2.3 million buyout, which was paid even though Bellotti never signed a contract (apparently, no one ever drew up any documents) and the department has come under scrutiny for its business practices. The Ducks have an interim athletic director, but there's no news on a permanent hire.

Altman admitted his concern over the unsettled situation, and there's a reason his seven-year, $12.6 million contract is guaranteed. As much as anything else, though, his taking the job is illustrative of how, since the Arkansas U-turn, his career path has taken a different direction.

Creighton hasn't been to the NCAA tournament in the last three seasons. Although the Bluejays fans seemed to forgive the coach's waffling and embraced him upon his return, critics either emerged or became more vocal. Things weren't quite the same. And at 51, Altman was no longer on the short list of every athletic director -- many of whom probably figured he would never leave Omaha.

Friends say he wants the chance to win big, and although it's uncertain what can be accomplished at Oregon, which has never been a basketball power, this might have been his last, best chance to try. At the press conference Monday, Altman extolled the attractions of coaching in the Pac-10, in a new, $227 million arena (scheduled to be completed by January), with Nike's backing and Oregon's abundant resources.

"I think this place can be special," Altman said, and maybe it can be. But it was fitting that the session took place on the gravel floor of the half-completed arena, right at center court. It also symbolized the building project Altman has just undertaken.

Most of Oregon's success, including two runs to the Elite Eight, came under Kent, the school's winningest coach. But Kent's success fueled an appetite for more consistent winning, and at a higher level. The finances of the arena, named for Knight's deceased son, Matthew, require it.

Meanwhile, for all Creighton's success, critics note Altman's Bluejays never advanced beyond the NCAA tournament's second round and won just two games. Add his unassuming personality and the immediate reaction to his hiring was surprise: This is the guy Oregon tapped to win big, the guy who will sell expensive seats in the new building? But Altman's supporters -- and there are many in college hoops -- suggest he's lacked only the big-time platform to achieve more. And he doesn't seem to mind the doubts.

"There's no more pressure than I'm gonna put on myself," Altman said. "I want to win. Expectations are high and that's great. That's what we want."

During the press conference, someone asked Altman about not being Oregon's first choice (or second, or third, or whatever). He looked over at his wife, Reva, who was sitting next to him.

"I wasn't her first choice, either," he said. "That doesn't bother me at all. ... I was fortunate enough to get the job. That's the way I look at it."

Oregon might be fortunate to get Altman, too. This might have been his last real opportunity to leave Creighton for a better gig. But given the clumsy search, he might have been the Ducks' last, best chance at a relatively big name with big-time credentials (at least without stretching for a well-worn retread or trying something wacky). It might make for a good combination.

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