Where The Heart Is

By - April 04, 2007

I have to confess that my heart dropped just a little bit when I took my courtside seat for the national championship game Monday about a half hour prior to tip off, logged onto CSTV.com and saw that Creighton coach Dana Altman had taken the Arkansas job. This was a little strange because I really shouldn't care.

Met Altman just once at a Valley media day and have no ties with the impressive program that the coach has built in Omaha. Creighton is probably the most prominent team in college basketball that I've never once covered in person. While I think it's great that schools from conferences like the Missouri Valley and Colonial Athletic Association have raised their profiles over the past decade, I'm hardly a champion of the non-BCS schools at any expense of the Big Six.

But I'll always have an admiration for men who put their affinity for a school and a community above their personal aspirations and Altman had always struck me as one of those guys. And that's why I was happy to see the Wednesday development that Altman not only reconsidered the move but will finish his career guiding the Blue Jays at the sacrifice of those personal aspirations -- or "ego and money" as the Wilber, Neb., native called them.

Altman has led Creighton to nine consecutive 20-win seasons, a streak which just Kent State can match among non-BCS schools. The only two schools in Division I that have collected more victories over that span without a Final Four appearance are Gonzaga, Utah State and Cincinnati. The Blue Jays play their home games at Qwest Center Omaha, a sparkling $291 million arena which ensures there will be nothing mid-major about the school's attendance figures in the foreseeable future. This year's Valley tournament champs averaged 13,901 fans during the '05-06 season -- better than Florida, Texas, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Pittsburgh to name a few -- have won 27 out of their last 30 home games. (The NCAA has yet to release this year's official attendance figures.)

Altman joins a long line of guys who have embraced life as the patriarch of a program that might not have the facilities, fan bases and fringe benefits of a higher-profile job but affords a set of rewards and unique sense of community that few if any BCS jobs can offer. Phil Martelli could have made a jump after Saint Joseph's ascended to No. 1 in the national rankings and ran the table during the regular season in '03-04. George Mason coach Jim Larranaga could have done the same on the momentum of last season's Final Four appearance. Bob McKillop and Stew Morrill have had their opportunities to move up from Davidson and Utah State. Last season, Winthrop's Gregg Marshall pulled an Altman in taking the College of Charleston job before changing his mind just 24 hours later and returning to Winthrop. (And we all know how that turned out.)

My initial thought Monday was that Altman was leaving before ever taking Creighton on that signature NCAA Tournament run -- and that was a shame. That's really the only thing that's eluded the coach during his 13 seasons on the sidelines in Omaha. But the Blue Jays, who have won a disappointing two of nine tourney games during Altman's tenure, have been so consistent during that period that a March breakthrough seems more a matter of time than anything else.

Without Altman, Creighton (to me) would have become just another perennial Valley contender. With their coach and face in the program still in place, the Blue Jays are a bona fide Cinderella-in-waiting.

Posted by at 04:49 PM on April 04, 2007

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