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
"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.
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
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
The same day, he placed a call to Creighton athletic director
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
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,
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:
"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,
"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.