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McDermott, Altman Set to Square Off With Sweet 16 Berth at Stake

by Mar 23, 2024Creighton Baseball

McDermott, Altman Set to Square Off With Sweet 16 Berth at Stake
Photo Credit: Eric Francis

The two winningest coaches in Creighton men’s basketball history will meet on Saturday night with a spot in the Sweet 16 on the line.

It will be Greg McDermott’s Bluejays against Dana Altman’s Oregon Ducks in Pittsburgh in the final game of the day.

The NCAA Tournament Selection Committee apparently has a sense of humor. Saturday’s winner will move on to face the winner between Rick Barnes’ Tennessee Volunteers and the Texas Longhorns, Barnes’ previous program coached by his former assistant, Rodney Terry.

The sidelines at PPG Paints Arena on Saturday night will feature 30 years and 651 wins’ worth of Creighton history. Altman manned the helm for 16 years, lifting the Creighton program from some of its darkest days to the top of the Missouri Valley Conference. McDermott built upon the foundation that Altman established in Omaha and has continued to raise the standard over his 14 years on the job.

“Very high level of respect for the job that he did,” McDermott said. “When you take over a program, 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. And certainly, Dana’s era of him as a coach and the guys that played for him laid the groundwork for me to happen and Doug to happen and the Big East to happen. That’s a pipe dream without Dana Altman. So he’ll always be beloved in our community.

“I know this will be a hard game for some of our fans tomorrow, because they cheer for Dana absolutely every game. So it’s interesting that we ended up in the same bracket, but the good news is one of us is going to go on and I guess the bad news is one of us is going to have to go home.”

Unlike Barnes and Terry on the other side of the bracket, McDermott and Altman never coached together. Even so, their shared history goes back a long way. Altman was already at Creighton when McDermott took over as head coach at Wayne State, the Division II school just a couple hours outside of Omaha, in 1994. McDermott said he watched Altman build up the Creighton program over those years, then he had to compete against him when he became the head coach at another Missouri Valley program, Northern Iowa, in 2001. Altman usually got the better end of those battles.

After McDermott took the Iowa State job, he said Altman recruited his son, Doug. Former Creighton athletic director Bruce Rasmussen set up a golf outing during the McDermotts’ visit to Omaha, which Greg said he enjoyed despite it not going well for his wallet. Doug obviously ended up at Creighton, but that’s because Greg did too after Altman left that offseason for Oregon.

“Since my time in Omaha, now a lot of my very close personal friends are also people that were very close personal friends of Dana when he was in town,” McDermott said. “And you learn a lot about someone by talking to their friends and how he treated people. Dana’s family is still very close to our program. His father, Lyle, until his health deteriorated a little, and his brother, Dirk, would come to our monthly basketball luncheons with their Creighton gear on and support us through everything. And I said hi to Dirk yesterday, actually, walking off the floor. So I think we’ve developed a friendship as a result of that. And I’ll get a text from him after a big game. He’ll get one from me once in a while.”

Oregon has won at least 20 games in each of Altman’s 14 games and has made it to the NCAA Tournament eight times, including runs to the Final Four and Elite Eight. Meanwhile, Creighton has hit the 20-win mark in 13 of McDermott’s 14 seasons with nine tournament appearances including the program’s first Elite Eight berth one year ago. Altman said he’s kept a close eye on his former program over the years and has admired what McDermott has done in Omaha.

“He’s a really good guy, really good basketball coach, and a lot better golfer than I am,” Altman said. “I love the job he’s done at Creighton. It’s so good to watch from afar, and it might be my ego or whatever, but I still feel a part of it. I still cheer for them. My family is all back in Nebraska. And Oregon might be 1, but Creighton is 1A. And he’s been so good to my dad, my brother. So I think the world of he and his family, and he’s done a tremendous job.”

McDermott credited the kind of players Altman recruited and the familial culture he established at Creighton for his ability to hit the ground running in Omaha, and he’s worked to keep that same culture throughout his tenure.

“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,” McDermott said. “The former players don’t do that unless they enjoyed their experience, unless they were treated the right way. And obviously they had success, and that certainly helps. But Dana did it with team after team. He’d lose guys, but Kyle Korver and Anthony Tolliver, the two most recent guys from Dana’s tenure that played in the NBA, what better representatives of an institution and of a program than Kyle Korver and Anthony Tolliver? And I think that gives you a snapshot into the type of people Dana brought into Omaha into the Creighton program.”

This won’t be the first meeting between the Bluejays and Ducks since Altman left for Eugene. Creighton and Oregon played in the finals of the CBI postseason tournament in 2011, McDermott’s first season in Omaha and Altman’s first in Eugene. The Ducks won the three-game series 2-1 in large part because of the infamous over-and-back call on Antoine Young, aided by Oregon’s invisible halfcourt line.

“It was a fricking nightmare is what it was, to be honest,” McDermott said. “That’s the last thing you want to do as the new coach who’s replacing a guy who’s beloved by everybody and has unprecedented success is we’re going to go to this tournament that neither one of us want to go to, and you look at the bracket and you’re on opposite ends and of course we win all of our games and they win all of their games and the next thing you know we’re in the three-game series with Oregon … It was an interesting way to end that first year. But you could see at that time already that Dana was instilling in the Oregon program the way he wanted things done.”

Nostalgia has hit the Creighton fan base hard, and many will be at least a little bit conflicted on Saturday night. That likely goes double for Rasmussen, who retired from his athletic director position at Creighton in 2021 but is still close to the school and its athletic programs. He made the trip to Pittsburgh to follow the Jays, and McDermott spoke to his relationship with his former boss.

“Bruce Rasmussen means everything to me, and I’m sure Dana would speak about Bruce in a very similar way,” McDermott said. “Besides being our boss and the guy that gave us an opportunity, he was a mentor to me and became a great friend, and still a great friend today and a mentor today. And I think you become, as you go through this journey of life, I think you become a lot of what the people around you are like and what you learn from them. And I think you can see a lot of what’s happening in Oregon’s program and our program and the way that people are treated is probably a direct result of Dana’s relationship and my relationship with Bruce because of what we learned from him and his ability to have absolutely no agenda for himself. It’s always about somebody else …

“It’ll be bittersweet for him tomorrow. He assured me last night, though, that this is Bluejays all the way. So I haven’t seen him face to face, but he made it clear in a late-night text because neither of us sleep after a game, so he just wanted to make sure I’m supposed to kick Oregon’s ass, as he said.”

Altman did indeed share similar thoughts on Rasmussen before re-centering the conversation on the present and the task at hand.

“Bruce and I have known each other for 30 years,” Altman said. “We helped raise each other’s kids. We traveled together, played a lot of golf together. Creighton wouldn’t be what Creighton is today without Bruce. All the buildings that were built, all the things that have happened for Creighton athletics, I feel Bruce had the biggest part of that. He built that, and did a great job … But tomorrow, all I care about is my players now. It’s tough to play Creighton. I wish the committee wouldn’t have done that. There are other 3s we could have played. But they did and so we’ll have to play a game.”

Once the whistle sounds, the 30 years of shared history between McDermott and Altman will wash away and the basketball will consume their thoughts. We’ll see two great coaches going head-to-head looking to lead their team to the second weekend. With the way both teams have been playing recently, it should be a heck of a show.

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