- Mark Schlabach, ESPN Senior Writer
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OMAHA, Neb. -- When Creighton basketball coach Dana Altman greeted a visitor at his office door a couple of weeks ago, he fumbled to find his keys.
"Hey, Bruce," Altman said, after sticking his head inside athletic director Bruce Rasmussen's office. "Can I borrow your keys to get into my office?"
Altman wasn't gone long enough for Creighton to change the locks on his office door.
On April 2, Altman was introduced as Arkansas' new coach after building Creighton into one of the best mid-major programs in the country. Less than 24 hours later, however, Altman changed his mind and returned to Omaha. He has spent the past three months trying to heal the wounds caused by his abrupt about-face.
"I wasn't sure how people would be, but they've been great," Altman said. "The players were probably hurt the most. I can understand that because I spend the most time with them. They were probably the most hurt. The fans and everybody have been great, and the players have been good. I put myself in that position, so I've got to deal with it."
Altman, 49, had been offered other chances to leave Creighton during his 13 seasons at the Jesuit school. He turned down coaching offers from Arizona State, Illinois and Tennessee, according to Rasmussen, and also interviewed at Georgia, Iowa State and Minnesota, among other schools. But Altman, who was born and raised in Nebraska and coached at a junior college in the state, always had been reluctant to leave.
But the allure of rebuilding Arkansas into a national power again -- and a five-year contract worth $1.5 million annually -- got Altman's attention. Altman's salary with Creighton is reportedly close to $1 million per year.
"Everything happened so quickly," Altman said. "The money and everything just kind of turned my head."
But after Altman was introduced as the Razorbacks' coach during a raucous news conference at Bud Walton Arena, his opinions of the job began to change. Although Altman declined to identify his specific areas of concern about the Arkansas program, sources close to the situation said he learned as many as six returning players were in serious academic trouble and two others had tested positive for illegal drugs and faced suspensions. New Arkansas coach John Pelphrey, hired after Altman's change of heart, said he hasn't encountered any atypical problems at Arkansas and expects all of his players to be eligible this upcoming season.
Altman indicated he wasn't made aware of some of the problems while the Razorbacks were courting him.
"There were concerns," Altman said. "There were things that came up, but I knew going in that it was a recruiting process [with Arkansas luring him there]. I knew there would be pitfalls. There are pitfalls with every job. There were concerns, but that wasn't the reason I left. There is no job that doesn't have concerns."
After meeting with many of his new players at Arkansas, Altman contacted Razorbacks athletic director Frank Broyles, who was in Augusta, Ga., attending the Masters. Broyles and Arkansas chancellor John A. White tried to persuade Altman to stay, but his mind was made up.
Altman called Rasmussen to make sure he could return to his job at Creighton. Then Altman called his wife, Reva, to tell her he didn't want to move. Altman said family concerns were the primary reason he wanted to return to Omaha. His oldest son, Jordan, is finishing a master's degree at Wayne State College, about a two-hour drive from Omaha. Another son, Chase, works in Omaha for a construction company owned by Altman's brother-in-law. His youngest son, Spencer, is a freshman at Kansas, and his daughter, Audra, is a freshman at Millard West High School in Omaha.
Most of Altman's extended family lives near Omaha, too. A brother and sister live within 10 minutes of Altman's home, and his father and mother, who is suffering from Alzheimer's disease, also are relatively close.
"My wife and I are both from Nebraska," Altman said. "Both of our families all still live in Nebraska. I've worked for the same athletic director for 13 years, and he's been wonderful. I've worked for only two presidents. We've got a lot of great friends here. This is home."
Altman said he didn't realize how strong his ties to Creighton were until he left.
"It's not one of those things where you can put a finger on it," Altman said. "I just thought maybe I should come back. A lot of people say you should have had all that thought through before you left, but I'd never been put in that situation before. Until I was in that situation, I didn't know what my feelings were. I didn't know they'd be that strong. Once you're there, you get a different perspective, so I just changed my mind."
Rasmussen, who has worked at Creighton for 27 years and was promoted to athletic director shortly after Altman was hired in 1994, said he had no qualms about letting Altman return.
"I think he's comfortable with the decision and from our standpoint, it's as if he never left," Rasmussen said. "The one thing I've always liked about Dana was he always approached this job as a destination and not a stop. He's always approached it as if he was going to be at Creighton for a long time."
And now Altman might finish his coaching career at Creighton. He realizes his change of heart at Arkansas might prevent him from landing another job in the future. But Altman said he wants to finish his career with the Bluejays, possibly coaching another dozen years before retiring.
"I made the statement when I came back that I'd like to coach here forever," Altman said. "People have reminded me since then that the school has to want you to coach. As long as the athletic director and president want me here, I'll be here. But it has to be a two-way street. I'd like to coach another 10, 11 or 12 years, and that would be close to 25 years here. But they've got to want me to be here."
Rasmussen said he believes Altman is committed to Creighton more than ever before.
"He has turned down some great opportunities," Rasmussen said. "Arkansas wasn't the first opportunity. He feels very comfortable at Creighton, and we hope he's here for a long time. I want him here because he wants to be here. I don't want him here because he feels like he made a mistake and can't go anywhere else. I hope he's at Creighton for a long time, but I don't think anyone should assume he's going to be here for a long time."
Rasmussen said the majority of Creighton fans have welcomed Altman back to Omaha. A few have been less willing to forget the coach's original decision, though.
"I think we'd be foolish to think that there aren't some people who feel like they were betrayed by the original decision," Rasmussen said. "But 99 percent of the people in Omaha support Dana."
Altman believes the best way to win back the fans he alienated is to win games. That might not be easy this coming season. The Bluejays must replace their top three scorers -- guards Nate Funk (17.7 points per game) and Nick Porter (10.7) and center Anthony Tolliver (13.4). Last season, that trio, along with senior reserve Manny Gakou, accounted for 63.8 percent of the team's scoring, 54.4 percent of its rebounds and 56 percent of its assists.
Point guard Josh Dotzler, who'll be a junior next season, has been plagued by knee and finger injuries the past two seasons. Guard Isacc Miles, who started 27 games and averaged 6.1 points last season, transferred to Murray State. Junior forward Dane Watts, the team's only returning starter, averaged 9.9 points and 6.4 rebounds.
Altman will rebuild his roster with four players who redshirted last season, including Louisville transfer Chad Millard, and a pair of junior college guards.
"We have to replace a lot," Altman said. "We'll be as inexperienced as we've been in a long time. It will be a learning process for us. I like our talent level, and I like our young players. But they're inexperienced players."
At least their coach will be comfortable in his surroundings.
"I've been here 13 years and tried to build our program a certain way," Altman said. "I'm sure with some people, I'll have some work to do. Others, probably not quite as much. You can't change that three-day period. You just hope when you've worked at a place for 13 years, it will take care of you."
Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at email@example.com.
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