Commentary

It's still adjustment time for Dana Altman

Midwesterner left the comfy confines of Creighton to help bring stability to Oregon

Originally Published: August 11, 2010
By Diamond Leung | ESPN.com

More than three months into his new job at Oregon, Dana Altman remains in transition mode.

Matthew Knight Arena, that $227 million palace of a workplace, is currently a construction zone that won't open its doors to Altman until January.

Altman won't even be able to move into his own home until next month, and his temporary housing situation isn't exactly ideal given the presence of a wise-cracking, quasi-landlord.

[+] EnlargeDana Altman
Bruce Thorson/US PresswireThe still-transitioning Altman is currently camping out at the home of assistant Brian Fish (center).

"We put an eviction under his door today," joked longtime assistant coach Brian Fish, who, along with his wife, has Altman staying over as a houseguest. "Haven't gotten any rent money."

For frustrated Oregon fans, showing a certain amount of patience toward the hiring of Altman eventually paying off might be difficult, yet necessary.

Lured away from Creighton with a seven-year contract to rebuild a program that hasn't won an NCAA tournament game since going to the Elite Eight in 2007, Altman inherited a Ducks roster that saw numerous defections following a 16-16 season and the firing of then-head coach Ernie Kent.

Altman said he likes what he has seen of the team thus far, but truly won't be able to evaluate what's left of it until Thursday, when the team begins practice in preparation for a scheduled preseason tour of Italy that will double as a getting-to-know-you trip.

It won't be a quick adjustment for him off the court, either. Reva Altman, his wife of 27 years, plans to live in Omaha, Neb. until Audra, their daughter, graduates from high school in December.

Asked if he were prepared for the long-distance relationship, Altman mentioned his appreciation for what American servicemen overseas must experience.

"It's going to be tough. I'm not going to try to pretend," Altman said. "My daughter, I miss her terribly."

While Oregon -- with a state-of-the-art, 12,541-seat facility that bears the name of Nike co-founder Phil Knight's late son -- is rich proving ground for Altman, it's also unfamiliar territory for the Nebraska native who returned home in 1994 and transformed Creighton into a mid-major power.

In fact, during his late-April introductory press conference -- when words echoed inside the hollow bowl of the half-finished Matthew Knight Arena -- search committee leader Pat Kilkenny mentioned to reporters, "He was very skeptical early on about wanting to be a Duck."

"My skepticism came from the fact I had a great job at Creighton," Altman said last week. "I've been there for 16 years. I love the school. It was a very difficult situation to leave. It wasn't skepticism on Oregon's end.

"Pat was persuasive. It just felt like I was 52, and if I was going to try to make a move or coach another 10 years, it felt like the right time."

Creighton athletic director Bruce Rasmussen, who spent years as office neighbors with Altman, believes the bittersweet feeling to be the byproduct of his good friend having poured his heart and soul into the school for so many years.

"I don't think it's abnormal at all," Rasmussen said. "It's a great indication of what his character is."

Only three years ago, Rasmussen granted his golfing buddy a mulligan.

Altman had accepted the job at Arkansas, but looked uncomfortable from the moment he awkwardly joined in a Hog Call chant of "Woo Pig Sooie." Less than 24 hours later, he decided Fayetteville wasn't a fit and retreated back to Creighton once Rasmussen let him have his old job back.

During that whirlwind period, the former head coach at Marshall and Kansas State managed to tell fans that he wanted to finish his career in Arkansas and then declared upon being reintroduced in Omaha that Creighton would be his final job.

So Oregon couldn't have expected Altman to win the press conference. He wasn't Tom Izzo, Billy Donovan, Brad Stevens or any of the other big names the school might have taken stabs at during a coaching search that, for nearly six weeks, progressed at a snail's pace.

Dana Altman
AP Photo/Tom GannamAltman took Creighton to the postseason in each of his final 13 seasons in Omaha.

It was Altman's résumé that had to do the talking.

Before his success in Omaha, Altman carried K-State to the NCAA tournament and NIT Final Four. And although Creighton hasn't been back to the NCAA tournament in the three seasons since Altman's dalliance with Arkansas, before then, he took the Bluejays to the NCAAs seven times in nine seasons and staged upset wins against Louisville in 1999 and Florida in 2002.

The success helped usher the Jesuit school program into a $291 million downtown arena, and his streak of 20-win seasons ultimately reached 11. Though the Bluejays finished 18-16 and settled for a CollegeInsider.com Postseason Tournament berth this past season, the average attendance of 14,495 at Qwest Center Omaha ranked 15th in the nation.

"In his mind, he truly thought he was going to be [at Creighton] his entire career," Rasmussen said. "There are people who feel he was deceptive or dishonest because he was going to be here and wasn't. Those people are the one who wanted him gone if we didn't win 20 games."

To Altman, who after 16 seasons finished with a 327-176 record, the Arkansas situation made him appreciate Creighton even more.

So in a season when Oregon makes the move out of venerable McArthur Court, it will take time for a Midwesterner, away from most of his family and friends, to adapt to the Pacific Northwest. As Altman put it, "Eugene is just different."

Altman said he likes the community, or at least the little he's seen of it. Besides attending some Oregon spring sporting events and playing 27 holes of golf, he hasn't had much time to explore his surroundings. Before hitting the July recruiting trail, he mainly kept to his room at the Residence Inn and his office before moving out to stay with Fish, who came with Altman from Creighton.

Altman's excitement over being able to use a sparkling new basketball building to attract recruits to Eugene is clear. Fish also understands that it will take some getting used to for Altman himself to call Oregon home.

"For coach, there was probably at any given holiday 40-50 people at his house," said Fish, who is entering his 12th season working under Altman. "He's got to look those people in the eye and say, 'This is where we are now.' Creighton basketball had been their entertainment.

"After the same office, same door, same stairway every day for the last 16 years, you forget about change."

Being able to see familiar faces should help ease the transition. Rasmussen and his family recently made the long drive up to Eugene during a vacation to Northern California, and Altman left his old boss with the sense that he was feeling more comfortable by the day.

Altman's eldest son, Jordan, will serve as the team's video coordinator and for the time being is living at Fish's house as well. Audra, the youngest of his four children, plans to attend UO beginning in January to see if she likes the school. Altman is also expecting his father, Lyle, to make the trek from Wilber, Neb., to attend games.

His wife will arrive having already made a first impression on Oregon. Altman, wearing a green tie that first day, offered up Reva as the darling of his press conference, encouraging reporters to compare their looks before musing, "I wasn't her first choice, either."

Will his new neighbors -- including the one seen on YouTube earlier this year tossing his season tickets into the fireplace -- be welcoming anyway?

"I'm sure that there were a lot of people in the state that were disappointed they didn't get their first choices," Altman said. "All I can do is do the best job I can, and we'll do that. It doesn't bother me."

Diamond Leung covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at diamond83@gmail.com.

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