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Oregon coach Dana Altman set for NCAA Tournament reunion against Creighton

Ducks coach built Creighton program before taking over in Eugene

By TOM WITHERS, AP Sports Writer
Published: March 22, 2024, 6:05pm
2 Photos
Oregon head coach Dana Altman calls out to his team during the first half of a college basketball game against South Carolina in the first round of the NCAA men&rsquo;s tournament Thursday, March 21, 2024, in Pittsburgh.
Oregon head coach Dana Altman calls out to his team during the first half of a college basketball game against South Carolina in the first round of the NCAA men’s tournament Thursday, March 21, 2024, in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Matt Freed) Photo Gallery

PITTSBURGH — Creighton coach Greg McDermott smirked as he surveyed his mess after clumsily toppling a cup of water onto the dais to start his news conference on Friday.

With the table and seat sufficiently sopped, McDermott smiled.

“Make sure Dana sits here,” he said with a laugh, referring to Oregon coach Dana Altman, his close friend and the man from whom he inherited one of college basketball’s most stable programs.

On Saturday in the NCAA Tournament, Altman, who built Creighton into a mid-major power over 16 seasons before leaving for Eugene in 2010 to take over the Ducks, will have a reunion with both McDermott and a school that remains close to his heart.

It’s a matchup that is more family than foes, and Altman, who is the winningest coach at both schools, knows competing against the Bluejays with so much on the line will be wrapped with emotion.

“It might be my ego or whatever, but I still feel a part of it,” he said of Creighton. “I still cheer for them. My family is all back in Nebraska. Oregon might be 1, but Creighton is 1A.”

The respect between Altman and McDermott runs deep. There’s mutual admiration when it comes to the game’s X’s and O’s, whether it’s how to play a matchup zone, press full court or how to screen for a big man.

As he became entrenched at Creighton, McDermott’s circle of friends intersected with Altman’s. Even after Altman left for Oregon, his father and brother attended monthly basketball luncheons at the school to show support.

McDermott said he and Altman text each other after big games. On Saturday, they’ll talk in person, and McDermott is certain there may be some Creighton backers hoping Oregon plays well, just not too well.

“He’ll always be beloved in our community,” McDermott said. “I know this will be a hard game for some of our fans, because they cheer for Dana absolutely every game.”

Before he got to Omaha, McDermott watched from afar as Altman laid the foundation that remains intact today.

“He recruited the right kind of guys,” said McDermott, whose, son, Doug, was one of them. “And there was a culture of family in his program then, and you can tell that because a lot of his former players, a bunch of them live in Omaha, or they’re constantly coming back to Omaha for our games or in the summertime and they’re stopping by the practice facility.”

In his typically humble manner, Altman was reluctant to discuss the lasting impact he’s made on Creighton’s community. While he always keeps one eye on how the Bluejays are doing, his loyalty is with the Ducks.

That was then, this is now.

He remains mostly revered among the Bluejays’ faithful, though there are some who hold some resentment for his dalliance with Arkansas in 2014 — a job he initially accepted before pivoting and retreating to Creighton.

Altman, though, was more than happy to talk about McDermott and what he means to his family.

“He’s been so good to my dad, my brother,” said Altman, who won 327 games from 1994-2010 at Creighton, three more than McDermott. “I think the world of he and his family, and he’s done a tremendous job. This game is not about us, it’s about our players, and they don’t care that I was there.

“They just want to win. So hopefully our guys will be ready, and we’ll play well.”

The current Bluejays players were young boys when Altman was at Creighton, but McDermott has made sure they know his legacy.

“I’ve always felt it’s important to embrace your history and make sure that our players understand the work that the people that came before us did,” he said.

Center Ryan Kalkbrenner, the Big East’s three-time Defensive Player of the Year, knows what Altman means.

“Mac does bring him up every now and then,” he said. “Coach Altman definitely laid the foundation for where the program is today. When Mac took over, he built upon what coach Altman had already done.

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“So we have a lot of respect for him as a coach and what he’s doing over there at Oregon now, too.”

Funny enough, the Altman-McDermott friendship began on a golf course.

When Creighton was recruiting his son, who went on to become an All-American, Altman and former athletic director Bruce Rasmussen invited McDermott, who was coaching at Iowa State, for a round at Omaha County Club.

Both have different recollections of a day that shaped Creighton basketball.

“He’s a cheater,” joked McDermott. “They gave a couple of phony handicaps. I ended up paying them. Usually, the dad of a recruit is probably not going to have to pay the head coach after the golf round, but that was the case.”

“I do remember he left his 6-iron in my SUV,” Altman said. “I think I did clip him that day, but I’ve seen his game since then. I mean, that was 15 years ago. And he’s a lot better player than I am. I’m awful and he’s pretty good.”