KANSAS CITY, Mo. >> Dana Altman is back in his old stomping grounds for the NCAA Midwest Regional.
Until he left for Oregon in 2010, the 58-year-old Nebraska native had spent his entire childhood and all but one of his first 26 years as a head coach at schools no more than a three-hour drive from Kansas City.
“It’s always great to come back,” he said today. “A lot of friends and family are coming, so it’ll be a lot of fun.”
The third-seeded Ducks (31-5) play No. 7 seed Michigan (26-11) on Thursday night, aiming to reach the Elite Eight for a second straight year.
Altman headed west after spending 16 years at Creighton in Omaha, Nebraska. He had grown restless and was looking for a new challenge. When Oregon called, he couldn’t resist, especially with benefactor Phil Knight providing all the accoutrements a coach could want to build and sustain a successful program.
“It was a little bit of an adjustment the first couple years,” Altman said. “First eight or nine months my wife and daughter weren’t there, so it was a lot tougher. But it’s been really good. I’ve been very fortunate.”
No doubt, there have been challenges. Altman was criticized for recruiting unsavory characters after three players were accused of gang-raping a student in 2014. No charges were filed but the players were dismissed. The alleged victim sued the university, which paid her an $800,000 settlement in 2015.
There were calls for Altman’s firing, but the administration stood by him. Last week, two of the three accused players filed a lawsuit against the university, claiming their reputations were ruined by the allegations. The other accused player filed a similar lawsuit four months ago.
Altman has Oregon in the NCAA Tournament for a school-record fifth straight year, and the Ducks are one win from setting the program record for victories in a season.
He started his head coaching career with a one-year stay at Southeast Community College in Fairbury, Nebraska — not far from his tiny hometown of Wilber. From there it was on to Moberly CC, about 2 ½ hours east of Kansas City, for three seasons. He was an assistant for one year at Kansas State, took his first Division I head coaching job at Marshall, in West Virginia, and left there after one season to take over at Kansas State.
After four years he was off to Creighton, where he became the Bluejays’ career wins leader with a 327-176 record and seven NCAA appearances.
“I’ve worked at great schools that are very serious about having good basketball programs,” Altman said. “I’ve worked with (athletic directors) that have been very supportive, especially at Creighton and now at Oregon.”
Altman has been Pac-12 coach of the year three times and has won more games (185) in his first seven seasons than any coach in Oregon history. The Ducks have never won fewer than 21 games under Altman.
“It was a little bit of an adjustment early,” he said, “but now with the great support that we’re receiving, we hope to continue to build and have a consistent basketball program, one that challenges year-in and year-out for the Pac-12 and has a chance to play in the tournament.”
Altman has left the Midwest, but his roots are apparent. He speaks with a rural twang common to this area, and he cracks up his players when he regales them with stories of his background.
“We love to hear where coach is from. It’s a lot different from how we grew up,” said senior guard Dylan Ennis, who’s from Brampton, Ontario.
Ennis, laughing, said Altman admonished players on Wednesday morning when they showed up in the hotel lobby in shorts and T-shirts on a 35-degree morning.
“We’re not back on the West Coast. We’re back where I grew up,” Altman told them, according to Ennis. “It’s cold out here. Go back and put more clothes on.”