Sunday, April 25, 2010

JTG 04/25/10 - Whoo, duck, quack?

“This is home. This is where I will finish my coaching career.”

That was Dana Altman in 2007, coming back after his 48 hours as head coach of the Arkansas Razorbacks. Surely you remember what has to be one of the strangest stories in the coaching carousel. Altman took the job, got to Fayetville, had his shockingly uncomfortable “Whoo Pig, Sooey” moment, and returned to Creighton.

When he got back, he told us Creighton was home. He told us that he would finish his career with the Bluejays. And Bruce Rasmussen, Creighton’s athletic director, took him back.

Both Altman and Rasmussen are decent, honorable men, and I have no doubt Rasmussen’s decision to take Altman back was due in part to the friendship between the two. But there were other reasons to take Altman back as well.

In 2007, Altman’s Bluejays had their ninth consecutive 20-win season. In that span, Creighton had been to the NCAA tournament seven of those years and had won two first round games. Ticket sales at the Qwest Center were through the roof, and it felt like Creighton was on the verge of something special.

And, maybe more importantly, Creighton fans felt like they couldn’t do any better than Altman. If Altman left, the fans felt, the program would almost assuredly collapse into mediocrity.

Since that fateful 48 hours, though, things have changed. Creighton hasn’t made the NCAA tournament since Altman’s “Whoo Pig” moment. Their 20-game winning season streak has been snapped. Their stranglehold on the Missouri Valley conference has disappeared. And the fans have noticed.

Even more disturbing is how the tenor of the team has changed. In an effort to upgrade the talent and go to the mythical “next level” that Creighton fans demanded, Altman changed his recruiting targets. Without question, the talent level increased. The question was whether Altman’s old-school style would work on his new players.

At this point, it’s impossible to avoid looking at P’Allen Stinnett as Altman’s post-Arkansas problems in microcosm. Stinnett came in shortly after Altman’s 48-hour dabble into the SEC. He wasn’t a Kyle Korver or a Nate Funk or an Anthony Tolliver. He was an athletic and talented scorer, to be certain, but one who never could be convinced to play within Altman’s system and under Altman’s tutelage.

So, there was much trepidation looking forward to next year’s Bluejay squad. Was 2009-10 just a blip? Or was it the canary in the coalmine signifying a true descent into mediocrity?

Thanks to Phil Knight and the neon yellow folks in Eugene, we’ll never know. Three years after Creighton fans felt their program was saved by Altman’s cold feet, many now feel the program has been rescued by his itchy ones.

It’s hard not to feel a little contempt and betrayal for a man who told us three years ago that he’d retire a Bluejay. But even before his trip to Arkansas, questions were asked about Altman’s ability to advance Creighton beyond where he had taken them. And it must be remembered that all of the heightened expectations were created by Altman’s teams and their remarkable run of success.

So, while Altman’s departure does feel a little slimy on his part (as duck tends to be), I think it’s ultimately good for the program. I wish him well at Oregon (and dealing with Knight looking over his shoulder), and now have some excitement for Creighton’s potential.

Remember, Creighton is still in the top fifteen nationally in attendance. For a conference like the Missouri Valley, that’s a huge advantage. Heck, for any team, that’s a huge advantage. National coverage of Altman’s departure has drawn dismissive descriptions of Creighton as a school and a fan base with ideas above their station in dreaming of being a national power.

Dismiss Creighton at your peril. Given their attendance, history, conference, and geography, the Bluejays have the potential to be a player on the national stage in men’s college basketball. But to do so, Rasmussen and the Creighton brass must think big.

At the time of writing this column, it looks like the new coach may be Greg McDermott. He is currently head coach at Iowa State, but has the dogs nipping at his heels for the Cyclones’ lack of performance. Prior to his work in Ames, McDermott was head coach at Northern Iowa, so he has a good knowledge of the conference. He would be accepted by the fan base, and could plod the Bluejays along.

But the Bluejays need to think big. I hope that, before the hire is made, that Creighton makes a run at the big time. Altman’s former employers, Kansas State, hired Bob Huggins for a year, and set the table for the Purples to be a #2 seed in last year’s tournament.

While Kansas State might be a unique situation (and one that brings some unwanted baggage that Creighton should avoid), it was important to show that Kansas State was not satisfied to settle for less in basketball. Creighton has the opportunity with this hire to plant a flag and demonstrate they are looking to be serious players on the national scene.

It’s a risk, to be certain. Oregon did the same thing and had to “settle” for Altman. But I’d rather see Creighton take that risk and demonstrate that ambition than to immediately settle for a recycled version of Altman.

After all, when Altman left the first time, Creighton fans thought they couldn’t do any better than him. Now is the time to prove that Creighton can.

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