Las Vegas – In the late winter of 2005, I was given the chance to move my life and radio career to a medium sized, midwestern city that I had never dreamed of calling home.
The only thing I knew about Omaha was that the band 311 was from there and they had a song called “Omaha Stylee” that I used on my dorm room answering machine at UMass Amherst during my freshman year. The Counting Crows also had a song called “Omaha” that I loved in high school but I didn’t know anything else about the place.
I had no idea that moving to Omaha would change my entire life in so many wonderful ways.
“Big Sports 590” was the format idea of Steve Wexler and Tom Land, the leaders of Journal Broadcast Group, who were looking for a new way to add to Journal’s radio dominance of the male demographic in Omaha. The company had already been the play-by-play home of Creighton Men’s Basketball for several years, so a format flip to sports talk made a lot of sense. The company also wanted to use the massive 7 state reach of 590 AM’s signal to expand the reach of “Todd-N-Tyler”, the highly successful morning show that originated from Z92.
I flew to Omaha for my interview and was picked up by Tom Land at the airport. I had never met the man but he immediately took me on 2 hour driving tour of the market, complete with a lunch stop at his favorite dive. During the drive, he taught me a life lesson that I have used for years now. While driving past the concrete pillars that eventually became an express way from downtown to the western part of the city, Tom told me “whenever you go to a new radio market, look for construction. Construction means growth. Growth means jobs. And jobs means advertising for radio stations.”
I knew I was taking the job before I even saw the actual radio station.
We lost Tom Land to cancer in 2011 but starting from that drive in 2005, I learned so much about radio, life, family and how good people treat one another from Tom. I miss his laugh and his smiling face. I miss how he would sit and talk to me about how he grew up and ask me about why I loved doing radio. Bosses like that don’t come around very often.
One summer day with Tom during my first year in Omaha still stands out to me as myself and Brian Delehant, my producer who turned out to be one of my life long friends, were all sitting around a long table inside the radio station’s rather bland conference room, talking about how we would cover the upcoming Creighton Basketball season.
I asked “why aren’t you guys already doing a pre and post game show for Bluejays basketball?” Tom didn’t have answer besides; “Do you want to do one?”
I had come to Omaha from Huntsville, Alabama where I had been the voice of the NBADL’s Huntsville Flight and hosted mornings on WUMP “The UMP” for 5 years. The station had done a pre and post game show for the Arena 2 Football team there and I thought for sure a Division I college basketball team with thousands of fans filling the (then called) Qwest Center deserved a pre and post game show around their games. I absolutely wanted to be the one to do it and I wanted my afternoon show to be the home for Creighton basketball fans as well.
I decided during that conversation that Omaha deserved a radio station that loved Creighton University as much as the fans did. For the next four years, I devoted more air time to covering Creighton basketball than anyone had ever done before and I loved every minute of it.
However, in the beginning, the idea of growing our Creighton basketball coverage wasn’t universally loved by the sales staff of the fledgeling radio station. Some said that Creighton fans didn’t listen to the radio like Nebraska Football fans and wouldn’t tune in to hear Bluejay basketball talk. Some said that advertisers weren’t interested in supporting such a pre game or post game show. Some thought it was a good idea but it would be hard to convince anyone to buy ads that didn’t air inside the play-by-play broadcast of the games.
I wasn’t buying it and decided to push forward with the idea. I knew I needed the support of the program for this idea to work and I knew that I needed to build a relationship with the head coach. His name was Dana Altman and my relationship with him while I covered the Jays and the entire Creighton family changed the way I covered sports for the rest of my career.
For nearly 5 years, I built my radio program around Bluejay basketball and showed that there was a die-hard fanbase that wanted to talk about their team daily. Then, with the creation of a Creighton basketball subscription website on the Rivals.com network, I got to work with the Jays for another 5 years. From winter of 2005 until April of 2014, Bluejays basketball was a major part of my professional life.
Even after all this time, I don’t know if Dana Altman ever really liked me or he just liked what I did for his program. To be honest, I really never cared to find out. I never took a picture with him even when we were together out of Omaha in places like Las Vegas and St. Louis.
Bruce Rasmussen, the amazing Athletics Director for Creighton University, would thank me countless times for the hours I dedicated to Bluejay sports but Coach Altman rarely did. I didn’t need him to like me or thank me. I just needed him to allow me to be around his program and to soak up information that nobody else had.
As a basketball junkie, I was thrilled that I had a unique relationship with an amazingly talented basketball mind and loved to watch him work. I could text him any time I wanted to ask him a question about a game, a player, or for him to make an appearance on my show. He would always respond. I had access that felt exclusive, even if it really wasn’t.
On the air, he was unlike any coach I had ever interviewed. “Oh Matt, Jeez, I don’t know” was his favorite way to start to answer a question on a topic he didn’t want to talk about. His Wilbur, Nebraska roots and Czech ancestry kept him humble and always respectful, even when you could tell he didn’t like the line of inquiry. He never bragged. He never boasted but he was always confident that his team could get the job done.
Dana Altman’s record at Creighton was incredible. He is the all-time wins leader at Creighton with a 327-176 record and he led the Bluejays to seven NCAA Tournament appearances. The Missouri Valley Tournament in St. Louis, nicknamed “Arch Madness”, was often called the “Creighton Invitational” by Jays fans because Coach won the thing an amazing six times. Although the Jays never made it to the Sweet 16, Altman’s teams would consistently put fear into the hearts of their higher seeded opponents in the NCAA Tournament.
From 1998 to 2009, Creighton basketball won at least 20 regular games every season under Altman’s direction. The Bluejays won just 21 regular season games in Coach Altman’s first 2 season in Omaha but then everything changed. When you combine the run of 20 win seasons with his current tenure at Oregon, a Dana Altman coached team has won at least 20 games for 21 straight seasons. 21!
So tonight, Coach Altman will inducted into the Creighton Sports Hall of Fame. He will go in along side the most famous Bluejay basketball player to date in Kyle Korver. I can’t think of a more fitting player to join Coach on the stage for this historic event. Kyle Korver helped to put Creighton basketball on the map and continues to be an amazing representative for the program in the NBA. He is one of the nicest athletes I’ve covered and I am honored to say that I have known him for over a decade now.
I thought it might be fun to relive MY top 5 favorite moments in Coach Dana Altman’s career as the head coach of the Bluejays. Remember, I didn’t move to Omaha until late February of 2005, so I know there were some great moments before I arrived.
5. Jimmy Motz goes crazy at Arch Madness
I moved to Omaha right as the 2004-2005 season was ending and didn’t know crap about the team. The Jays would win the MVC Tournament that year and advance back to the NCAAs but I wasn’t really covering them yet. But I sure heard about the games in St. Louis. Jimmy Motz, a man who would become a close friend of mine while I lived in Omaha and huge source of Creighton knowledge for me, became of living legend for the 3 games at Arch Madness that year. Motz would hit 4 huge 3’s in the Final against Missouri State as the Jays won for the tourney for 5th time in 7 years. Here’s a great recap of what Creighton did in the MVC Tournament under Coach Altman:
4. Booker Woodfox hits a game winner for the ages
During my time in Omaha, Mitch Holthus became a great friend. “The Voice of The Valley” was a regular guest and smiling face when I would see him before a game. He and I would often trade horror stories about the head coach of Wichita State Gregg Marshall. My run-ins with “Triple G” as I called him (before the boxer came onto the scene) became famous because we really didn’t like each other. It started when I blasted him on my show for doing a radio interview with me on a speaker phone. His wife even came after me one year in St. Louis for the things I said about him on air. So, nothing was sweeter for me than for Mitch to call the game-winner in 2009 Quarterfinals to send Triple G packing from the tourney. I was sitting court-side inside the Scott-Trade Center, literally feet from Booker Woodfox as he rose up for that game winning jumper. I nearly fell out of my chair when he made it. Make sure you listen to middle part of the video below where Nick Bahe, the former Jay who did color on the radio for that game, screams into the mic. That drop became a staple on my show for years.
3. Dana Leaves for Oregon
When it finally happened, everyone was ready for Dana Altman to take a bigger job. When we learned it was Oregon, it was a no-brainer. We had all lived through the Arkansas debacle (more on that in a second), so it wasn’t like we hadn’t seen Coach wearing another team’s colors before. Yet Oregon was the perfect fit for Coach Altman and we knew it. All he has done in Eugene so far is take the Ducks to the Final 4 and been a No. 1 seed in the dance. It’s amazing to see the success he has had at Oregon. Still, on this day, watching Coach Altman leave Omaha for good, it was shocking none-the-less.
2. HE CAME BACK!
For years, after the moment happened live on air, Creighton fans would walk up to me and say “I was listening that day when Dana came back from Arkansas. I still remember you screaming while reading the Jeff Goodman text that Dana was coming back.” I screamed “HE’S COMING BACK!” on air that day, in a fit of pure joy. The fact of the matter was that I wasn’t ready to see Coach Altman leave Omaha for Arkansas. It didn’t feel right. It didn’t look right. An SEC school? No. That’s not where Coach was supposed to go and the news of his change of heart was radio magic and it happened on my birthday. You can’t script days like that. It’s just turn the mic on and let it all fly. I will always remember standing outside the Creighton practice facility waiting to hear Coach explain why he came back later that night. He just walked past us in the media with nothing to say. He didn’t need to say anything in my mind. He was back home where he belonged.
1. WOOO PIIIIGGG SOOIIIIEEE!
In August of 2007, following the return of Dana Altman from his 1 day Arkansas tenure, Kyle Korver held his annual charity golf tournament in Omaha. It was a big deal to me that I was invited to do my radio show from the event. The guys were all on the course all day and then they held a banquet after. You have to remember that I was only 30 years old in 2007 and I didn’t really know much about being an adult still. I didn’t know golf tournament dinners were a casual affair. I was told to bring a date and have her dress up for the country club setting. That was a massive mistake. I ended up with my date dressed to the 9s, in a knock out dress, and every male eye in the place locked onto the two of us for most of the event. I was mortified and embarrassed that I had subjected her to that. But then Kyle Korver got up and started to speak about his coach. Kyle decided it was time to give it to his mentor good for leaving Omaha for a day. Coach Altman famously and awkwardly had done the Arkansas pig chant during his intro press conference in Fayetteville and everyone in Omaha who watched cringed for him. So, Kyle, mop top and all, took that moment to rub it in to Coach in amazing fashion. As Kyle and Coach go into the Creighton Hall of Fame together, what better way than to watch this video and laugh. I’m so glad I was in the room for this:
In closing, I wanted to say thank you to Coach Altman and Kyle Korver for all the time they have given me over the years and congrats on this well deserved honor. The Creighton Sports Hall of Fame is gaining its most deserving members. Creighton basketball is still in my blood and will always be there thanks to people like Coach Altman and Korver.
As Coach and Kyle are honored tonight, I hope everyone has a tremendous walk down memory lane. I’m sorry I won’t be there but I have one more request for Creighton before I wrap this blog up. I really hope that Creighton will consider naming their court after Dana Altman. I know this is something that will have to happen after he retires but when he does, I hope they do it. I know Coach McDermott and Altman had their rivalry over the years but I think even Coach Mac would understand if the Jays did it.
I leave with a picture of those pre and post game parties I hosted all those years. Go Jays!