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End of an Era

The spring of 1994 was an awkward time for two people* — Dana Altman, and myself.

I was saying farewell to grade school and preparing for my prep career. Enough said.

But Altman, on the other hand, found himself leaving Kansas State after a relatively successful four-year stint in the Little Apple (68-54, 1 NCAA Tournament, 2 NITs). He beat rival Kansas when the Jayhawks were #1. He was the Big 8 Coach of the Year in 1993. Why was his stay in Manhattan so fleeting?

One week after Askia Jones dropped 62 points for the Wildcats in the NIT Quarters, Altman (and his moustache) greeted the Omaha media during his introductory presser on the Hilltop. More than 15 years have passed since that day, and I successfully secured both a high school and college diploma. Altman shaved his ‘stache and etched his name into the Creighton and Missouri Valley Conference record books.

The banners his teams earned winning conference titles and securing trips to postseason tournaments hang from the rafters in an old gym that’s seen many a Creighton coach (Vinardi Center), an old barn where most Bluejays fans grew up watching CU play (the Civic), and a brand new arena he helped fill night after frigid Midwestern winter night.

So whether you’re a Creighton fan who can’t believe Altman is leaving, a Bluejay backer who wants a clean break, or an Oregon fan who wants to know more about your future hoops coach, let’s take a quick (OK, maybe not so quick … 16 years is a long time!) look back at the Dana Altman Era at Creighton.

  • 94-98: Growing Pains
  • 98-03: “The Best Five Years of my Life”
  • 03-07: Injury Bug Infestation
  • 07-10: Post-“Pig Sooey”

1994-1998: Growing Pains (Altman’s record = 54-59)

Dana Altman won his first game as the Bluejays’ head coach. By forfeit. Tad Ackerman (19 points), Randall Crutcher (15), Nate King (11), and Marcus Lockett each scored in double figures and led the Bluejays to an 80-80 tie with the Dutch National Team during a preseason exhibition game. Actually, it would have gone into a second overtime, had the Dutch players come back to the court. They called it quits instead, giving Altman his first (albeit, unofficial) win as the head man on the Hilltop.

A few weeks later, though, Altman earned his real first win for Creighton, a season-opening road victory against Oral Roberts. It would be one of only three road wins for Altman and the Jays that season, as the 94-95 team finished just 7-19. In the 2009-2010 Creighton Basketball Media Guide, it says Altman slightly improved on the previous year’s team’s record. But both squads — Rick Johnson’s last and Altman’s first — won just 7 games.

Altman’s sophomore season at CU (95-96) found the coach relying heavily on true freshman Rodney Buford, who led the team in scoring (14.5 ppg) as a frosh. Buford dazzled a fanbase that was slowly coming back to Creighton hoops following the disaster that was the Rick Johnson “era,” posting a litany of 20 point-plus scoring performances (including a deft 35-point effort in a home loss to Illinois State). Altman’s team doubled its win total (14) from the previous season (7), and with Buford on board there was a slight hint of optimism at the Civic.

The 96-97 team finished with an almost identical record (15-15) to the previous season’s squad (14-15), but Buford made a .500 record seem magical at times. The sophomore led the team in the scoring, averaging 19.5 points per game and posting the highest single-season point total for an underclassman in Creighton history (589).

And while his team’s record didn’t improve from years two to three, Altman’s 96-97 squad was critical for his future success. He welcomed first-year players Matt West, Justin Haynes, and Dan Kolder to campus, a core group of tough, energetic, and willing basketball players who played the way Altman wanted his team to compete.

And in 97-98, Altman welcomed a few more important pieces to the personnel puzzle, players who would help Altman maneuver Creighton toward becoming a mid-major power. Freshmen (and 2010 CU hall of fame inductees) Ben Walker and Ryan Sears, along with role players John Klein and Al Huss, joined junior college transfers Corie Brandon, Donnie Johnson, and Doug Swenson as part of Altman’s most important recruiting class.

Buford had established himself as one of the top players in the Valley, if not the Midwest, but he needed help. And it was clear during the Bluejays’ fifth game of the season that help had arrived. That’s the night Ryan Sears, Altman’s first freshman starter at point guard, lit up Wyoming for 29 points (9-12 from the field, 7-10 from 3-point range). Buford again topped 18 points per game for the season to lead the Jays, but Swenson (11.3) and Sears (10.5) helped ease Buford’s burden.

The Jays improved to 18-10, beating in-state “rival” Nebraska for the first time since 1989 and winning 9 straight from January 21 to February 20, en route to an NIT berth. Buford returned to his home town of Milwaukee and scored 24 points against Marquette, but the Bluejays lost in the first round.

1998-2003: “The Best Five Years of Your Life” (Altman’s record = 121-41)

A lot of people go to school for five years, right? Many hold graduate degrees (I do not). Not many can say their favorite basketball team advanced to the NCAA Tournament in all five years they were in school (I can).

On Thanksgiving Eve (one of my favorite nights of the year to party) 1998, Buford (24 points, 11 rebounds, 7 assists) and Sears (11 points, 4 assists, 5 steals) lead a vicious Creighton comeback on the road against Iowa. One month later, Buford and Creighton gave Jays fans an early Christmas present in the form of a 66-60 win against Oklahoma State (CU’s first home win against a ranked opponent since 1973).

After a loss on Valentine’s Day, the Bluejays stood 15-8 overall and 8-7 in Valley play. They wouldn’t lose again until the second round of the NCAA Tournament. Altman led CU on a remarkable run through the Arch Madness postseason tournament in St. Louis, winning the title and taking Creighton back to the Big Dance where the Jays would beat Louisville (one of the legendary two NCAA Tournament wins Altman owns at CU) before falling to Maryland.

It marked Buford’s last season at Creighton, capping a career that saw the swingman become the school’s all-time leading scorer (2,116 points) and three-time All-Valley honoree. But Altman’s 1999-2000 team didn’t miss a beat, thanks in part to the all-conference play of Sears and Walker and the introduction of freshmen phenoms Kyle Korver and Terrell Taylor. The Bluejays again put together their best stretch of basketball in late February and early March, winning three games in St. Louis to secure back-to-back Arch Madness championships and another trip to the NCAA Tournament. Receiving the favorable draw of playing in Minneapolis couldn’t help the Jays work through their shooting woes, and Altman’s team lost a nail-biter to Auburn in the first round.

Altman’s 2000-2001 squad would become his first and only team to secure an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament. The Bluejays won the Valley’s regular season title behind the leadership and superb play of seniors Sears (11 ppg, 4.2 apg) and Walker (12.3 ppg, 6.3 rpg) and sophomore sensations Korver (team-high 14.5 ppg, 5.8 rpg) and Taylor (10.4 ppg). After falling to Indiana State in a semifinal upset in St. Louis, the Bluejays drew the familiar Iowa Hawkeyes as a first round foe in the Big Dance. Korver (2-13 from the floor) couldn’t hit a shot, Sears went cold (3-11), and Dean Oliver got the last laugh as the Hawkeyes ended a promising CU season.

But just as Buford had passed the torch to Sears and Walker, Korver and Taylor seemed poised to take Altman’s program to heights it had yet to reach. As the 2001-2002 season started, the buzz about Bluejays basketball was growing. Korver was a fan favorite and the season’s Valley Most Outstanding Player, Taylor a flashy and athletic scoring guard the likes of which Altman hadn’t brought to CU yet. Add to the mix solid system-first role players Mike Lindeman, Mike Grimes, and Joe Dabbert, plus transfers Brody Deren, DeAnthony Bowden, and Larry House, and the senior-less Bluejays were ready for a wild season.

The season started in earnest Thanksgiving Week, when the Bluejays welcomed Chris Marcus and Western Kentucky to the Civic. A full 50 minutes later, Altman’s Jays had knocked off a top 20 team and another NCAA Tournament season was in full swing. Creighton once again captured the Valley tournament title (plus a share of the regular season crown), knocking off new rival Southern Illinois to advance to the Big Dance.

It was during the 2002 NCAA Tournament when perhaps the single most memorable moment during Altman’s Creighton career occurred.

Taylor scored 28 points in the second half and in overtime, including the game-winning 3-pointer, as Creighton defeated Florida in double OT in the tournament’s first round. The Bluejays would lose to virtual home team Illinois in the second round (the games took place in Chicago’s United Center), but Altman had his second (and last) NCAA Tournament win at Creighton.

A few months after his amazing performance in Chicago, Taylor was no longer part of the Creighton program. Whether it was a case of addition by subtraction isn’t clear, but even without Taylor Altman orchestrated what will always be considered his finest season at CU.

With a starting lineup of sophomore point guard Tyler McKinney, senior shooting guard Larry House, forwards Korver (MVC POY) and Lindeman, and center Deren, the 02-03 Bluejays entered the national rankings by mid-December and reached as high as #10 in the polls. Korver received national attention for his shooting prowess, Altman for his gritty approach that seemed to translate to his team’s efforts. Still, the winningest team in Creighton history (29 Ws) didn’t even win the Valley regular season crown: that went to rival Southern Illinois.

Altman and the Bluejays trumped the Salukis in one of my favorite games of my 25-plus years as a CU hoops fan. Korver and House led Creighton to an 80-56 bludgeoning of SIU in the Arch Madness title game, giving Altman his fourth tourney trophy in five seasons. Altman’s team secured a #6 seed in the NCAA Tournament, but with visions of Duke Blue Devils perhaps blinding their focus, the Bluejays fell to Central Michigan 79-73 in the first round of the Big Dance. The Dream Season, and Altman’s magical run of five straight NCAA Tournaments, was over.

03-07: Injury Bug Infestation (Altman’s record = 85-41)

Altman hardly had a rebuilding job ahead of him following the departure of Korver and House and Bowden. Behind the foundation of McKinney, Deren, Dabbert, Lindeman, and Grimes, Altman’s team raced out to a 12-0 start and a return to the national polls. But 9 games into the season, Altman’s point guard McKinney started experiencing eye problems. His last start of the season would be a late December win at Wyoming; he came off the bench for a few more wins, before shutting his season down with an eye infection that almost cost him his sight. With newcomer Johnny Mathies running the point and the rest of the Valley smelling blood in the water, Altman’s Jays lost 6 of their last 7 games en route to missing the NCAA Tournament for the first time in half a decade.

McKinney miraculously fought off his injury and returned for the 04-05 season. With an experienced point guard back in the fold and two proven scorers in Mathies (11.8 ppg) and junior sensation Nate Funk (17.8 ppg), Altman and the Bluejays found themselves back in the Big Dance following yet another three-game run through Arch Madness. Underclassmen Anthony Tolliver and Dane Watts tried to fill the void left in the paint by the departures of Deren, Grimes, and Dabbert, but in the end it was the aforementioned trio of guards that led Altman to within a few seconds of his third NCAA Tournament win. Instead, West Virginia escaped a classic first round matchup with the Bluejays, leaving Altman with yet another Big Dance misstep.

The injury bug found its way back to campus a few times in 05-06. First, in Chicago, Funk hurt his shoulder against DePaul and was effectively gone for the rest of his senior season. He’d get a redshirt after trying to come back a few weeks later but ultimately shutting his season down. In his absence, Tolliver blossomed into a force in the Valley. And freshman point guard Josh Dotzler took the torch from McKinney as the inevitable next great point guard in Altman’s system.

With the A-Train rolling and Dotzler playing like an upperclassmen, the Bluejays went 10-2 following the DePaul mess and a resulting loss at Chattanooga. Altman and the Jays welcomed Southern Illinois to town for a mid-February clash of the Valley’s best teams, a game that would cost Creighton its season. Dotzler and SIU’s Bryan Mullins collided at mid-court, and Dotzler suffered what would become the first (and most serious) of many injuries during his CU career.

Without his point guard and his all-Valley scorer, Altman’s team wilted down the stretch. The fade culminated with Altman’s fiery tirade following a complete traveshamockery in the NIT against Miami.

Altman was no doubt feeling a bit better at the start of the 06-07 campaign. With all-Valley guard Funk back in the fold and all-Valley big man Tolliver coming into his own, the Jays could work Dotzler back from his knee injury and prepare for a run through the Valley conference schedule. The Jays at times played like a tournament-caliber club, but a lack of depth posed a problem for Altman’s club. As did the Salukis, who were busy beating opponents senseless with aggressive defense and rebounding efforts.

After losing against SIU twice by close margins in the regular season, the Jays finally broke through. Funk, Tolliver, Dane Watts, and Nick Porter led Altman’s team on a three-game whirlwind in St. Louis, beating SIU in the tournament title game for an automatic bid to the Big Dance. There, the Jays would draw a tough Nevada team and lose another postseason heartbreaker, this time in OT.

07-10: Post-“Pig Sooey” (Altman’s record = 67-35)

Spring 2007 marked the last time the Creighton Bluejays played in the NCAA Tournament. It also marked the Altman’s brief yet widely publicized coaching career at the University of Arkansas. He jumped on a plane to Fayetteville to take over a once-proud program. He had second thoughts. He jumped on a plane back to Omaha. He asked his players to forgive him, to trust him again. And then he tried to replace two of the better players in recent Creighton history.

Surely I’m giving less credence to Altman’s two-day flirtation with the Razorbacks than needs to happen, especially after his split from CU for his new job in Eugene. But just as quickly as he was gone from Creighton Altman was back, pledging to Bluejays fans he would “finish his coaching career at Creighton.”

And the next three seasons would be the end of his CU career, one that moved him further away from the NCAA Tournament. Gone from the 06-07 team were Funk, Tolliver, Porter, Manny Gakou, Brice Nengsu, Isacc Miles, and brief visitors Ty Morrison and D’Angelo Jackson. In were redshirt freshmen and current Jays Casey Harriman and Kenny Lawson, along with a crop of newcomers that would offer CU fans both the highest of highs and lowest of lows during Dana’s last three seasons at Creighton.

Freshmen P’Allen Stinnett (top 100 recruit), Kaleb Korver (brother of Kyle), Kenton Walker (west coast big man), sophomore transfers Chad Millard (from Louisville) and Cavel Witter (from junior college), and junior Booker Woodfox (future Valley POY) gave the Jays a brand new look. Dotzler, Watts, Nick Bahe, and Pierce Hibma remained from the NCAA Tournament team, but Altman allowed the younger guys to establish the group as the immediate future of CU hoops.

As expected, the team full of freshmen and transfers struggled in 07-08. Watts willed the team to a 22-11 record and another postseason appearance (NIT), but Stinnett was the suddenly shooting star of the program. It was his team to take control of in 08-09, but immaturity and some nagging injuries limited what he could do on a consistent basis.

But not to worry. Woodfox quickly picked up the slack, knocking down a career’s worth of big shots in a mere year and a half. The Valley’s POY in 08-09, Woodfox helped the Bluejays post a 27-8 record, one that many thought was good enough to earn Altman his second at-large bid at CU. Alas, it was not, and the Bluejays lost to Kentucky in the second round of the NIT.

But what looked to be a recreation of the transformation of the 97-98 team into the 98-99 squad fell flat on its face in 09-10. Stinnett’s immaturity ravaged his abilities, with Altman having to ultimately suspend him indefinitely following a home win against Missouri State during which Stinnett picked up a technical foul from “Quick Draw” Curtis Shaw. Walker transferred before the season, Witter left but came back, and Lawson developed into an all-MVC caliber big man. But with Woodfox’s big-shot ability gone and a carousel of JUCO transfers being asked to play out of position and with little D-I experience, Altman’s last Creighton squad suffered a frustrating and ultimately disappointing season.

Altman’s reward for an 18-16 record? A new job at the University of Oregon. He brings to the beautiful city of Eugene plenty of career wins (410 D-I Ws), the type of competitive spirit that makes the wins feel adequate and the loses excruciating, and a knack for hangin’ banners.

For better or for worse, Altman brought trophies and titles back to the Vinardi Center. For that, the Creighton community thanks him.

* I’m sure plenty of people could claim ’94 as awkward. I mean, Lisa Marie Presley married Michael Jackson, for chrissake.

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