Plenty of factors in Altman's complicated decision

Updated: April 5, 2007, 1:06 PM ET
By Mark Kreidler | Special to ESPN.com

Based upon what we now know, Dana Altman may ultimately come to be doubted at his word. It was but a day after Altman cited "family" and "relationships" as reasons for his abruptly returning to Creighton, after all, that the spurned Arkansas Razorbacks announced some deep truths of their own: Two members of the basketball team recently tested positive for drug use, and one is under academic suspension.

Dana Altman
The lure of Omaha and his extended family weighed on Dana Altman.
Taken together, those two pieces of news could easily add another layer to the cynicism sports fans often feel about the motives of the job-switching coaches. Who believes them anymore, really? Why does no coach ever tell the truth about why he wants a new job or wants to keep his old one? Don't they mostly just say whatever is the political thing to say? They're all pretty good in a room, anyway.

It's a fair discussion. It's certainly a relevant one, what with Billy Donovan and Kentucky well into the opening movement of a verbal dance that is sure to produce staggering levels of hyperbole. The problem, when it comes to Altman, is that it's probably the wrong one.

Arkansas' issues within its men's basketball program are by now fairly well suggested. Even as Altman backed out this week, the word around Fayetteville was hardly happy: Several other coaches already had either turned down the job or the opportunity to speak about it, and there were whispers that the new coach would very quickly face some off-court challenges.

"But if he had gone there, he would have fixed those. I can tell you that," says Altman's father, Lyle Altman, from his home in Wilber, Neb., about 100 miles from the Creighton campus in Omaha. "That wouldn't have kept him from taking the job."

Instead, the elder Altman holds out a thought almost too pure to actually carry: His son meant what he said. Dana Altman said yes to a job he may not have completely coveted; he almost immediately began to doubt his decision; his family stood foursquare in favor of remaining in Omaha; and that was that.

Altman said most of those things this week, along with conveying his deep embarrassment over the incident and acknowledging the obvious: By playing it the way he has, he ensured that Creighton will be his last college basketball job. As Altman said, "This is where I will finish my coaching career. That's pretty obvious now." But for a 48-year-old man who had just publicly cut off most of his options, he looked awfully at ease back in his home state of Nebraska.

It isn't easy anymore to convince a skeptical sporting public of something like that, of the happy ending. There have been just enough cases of coach doublespeak and subterfuge to give a fan pause. You have your Rick Neuheisels, your Butch Davises -- the restless coaches who can't seem to figure out an aboveboard way to conduct a difficult negotiation or job inquiry, and who by instead choosing the low road (misdirection or outright misinformation) reinforce the worst stereotypes of the slick-talking coach/CEO model.

Even with Altman's sparkling record at Creighton -- revival of a program, NCAA appearances, high graduation rates, notable absence of scandal -- it was hard for some people to simply take him at his word. Surely he bailed on Arkansas as soon as he found out what a mosh pit the program really is?

It's the least-resistant road of thought, one that skips directly past the idea that a coach could have legitimate "family" considerations. There is something consistently fascinating about the sports world's ability to separate players and coaches from their personal lives; in fact, we often view it as a wholly unwelcome intrusion if personal considerations begin to crowd the picture. Just play. Just coach. Don't clog up the system with your stories.

"When you say 'family,' well, for [Dana] the Creighton fans had become a family. The players, too, and their families. It just gets to become like that, when you're all together and spending that kind of time."
-- Lyle Altman, Dana's father
An NBA coach, a veteran in the job, once said to me that the great untold story about his profession is the toll it takes on families, from the random talk show and message board potshots to the ongoing job speculation and hiring/firing watches. He asked for no sympathy -- it's part of the well-compensated deal -- but said it is a reality all the same.

In Altman's case, even the Arkansas chancellor, John White, acknowledged the family issues that stood in the way of the coach moving to Fayetteville. White specifically mentioned Altman's 14-year-old daughter, Audra, who White said was "very, very distressed about leaving her friends in Nebraska."

Beyond that, says Lyle Altman, "When you say 'family,' well, for [Dana] the Creighton fans had become a family. The players, too, and their families. It just gets to become like that, when you're all together and spending that kind of time."

In the release announcing his son's original decision to leave, "I didn't think he sounded like his normal self," says Lyle, who routinely travels to his son's home and road games. "He usually calls me to talk about things, and this time he called me later [in the process]. I thought he made a quicker decision than he usually does."

It was a decision that Dana Altman, after 13 mostly great years at Creighton, quickly knew to be the wrong one, and his mea culpas have been emanating throughout the college basketball fraternity ever since. The fact that only some of them are likely to be believed doesn't render them any less true.

Mark Kreidler's book "Four Days to Glory: Wrestling With the Soul of the American Heartland", published by HarperCollins, is in its third printing. A regular contributor to ESPN.com, Kreidler can be reached at mark@markkreidler.com.

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