LAS VEGAS — I tried to imagine Dana Altman celebrating Thursday’s victory by running out of T-Mobile Arena, tripping over his own feet and making an exaggerated “safe” signal the way Nebraska coach Tim Miles did earlier this week.
Tried, and failed. Imagination has its limits.
By now Oregon fans know what to expect from Altman. They can expect 20 wins every year — maybe more, never less. They can expect the neat white shirt and the folksy drawl. They can expect Altman’s teams to do what Oregon did Thursday night, gutting out a 66-54 victory against Utah to advance to the semifinals of the Pac-12 tournament.
Get used to that, because Altman isn’t going anywhere.
About an hour before tip-off, Oregon announced a three-year contract extension that will keep Altman at Oregon through 2026. Then the Ducks went out and played one of their worst first halves of the season, which probably made everyone wish they’d kept that news under wraps.
The timing felt a bit odd, and not just because the announcement came on a Thursday night in the midst of the Pac-12 Tournament. The Ducks are one loss away from playing in the NIT for a second straight season, and with four years left on Altman's existing deal, there appeared no real urgency to revise his contract.
In another way, it made perfect sense. Miles has one NCAA Tournament appearance and four losing seasons in seven years at Nebraska. It’s widely believed he’s coaching for his job in the Big Ten Tournament, which might explain that exuberant celebration.
Altman is a Nebraska native who coached 16 seasons at Creighton and still has family in the area. Nebraska’s athletic director is Bill Moos, the former AD at Oregon and Washington State. It’s not crazy to think the Cornhuskers’ first call would be to Altman if they decide to make a change.
I never saw much chance Altman would leave a program he’s built to take over one that’s made a single NCAA Tournament appearance in 20 years. But you can’t dismiss the pull of home, especially if Altman felt any wavering of support after two disappointing seasons.
Maybe that’s why athletic director Rob Mullens made a point to approach Altman in the midst of a tough stretch earlier this season, just to make it clear that Altman had Oregon’s full backing.
“It was after a bad weekend,” Altman said. “He came in and said, ‘Coach, this is just a blip on the radar screen. You’re our guy. We want you to be here. We’re going to add some years to your contract.’”
Mullens said his goal was to negotiate a deal that would allow Altman to retire at Oregon. This may or may not get him there — Altman will be 67 by the time the contract expires — but in the short term, it also has the effect of quelling any offseason speculation before it starts.
“He’s a hall of fame coach and he’s on a lot of places’ short lists,” Mullens said. “We wanted to make sure he’s at Oregon for the rest of his career.”
If Altman finishes this contract, he’ll have coached 16 seasons at Oregon. That’s a long time for a guy to be in one place. But the Ducks know what to expect from him by now, and there’s not a lot of risk in adding a few years to his contract.
In stock market terms, Altman is a low-volatility investment. He’s posted a winning record in conference play in 22 of his last 23 seasons and won at least 20 games in 20 of the last 21. He has a .703 winning percentage in the second half of his nine Pac-12 seasons, which means the Ducks consistently improve as the season progresses.
Altman’s tenure at Oregon hasn’t been perfect. He’s had some off-court incidents that tarnished the program. After winning back-to-back conference titles, the Ducks have taken a step backward the past two years.
If Altman is going to coach another seven years at Oregon, the Ducks will need to get back to making regular NCAA Tournament appearances. They’ll need to evaluate their recruiting model and make sure they’re not chasing one-and-done players at the expense of building a cohesive team.
But as long as Altman is at Oregon, the Ducks will be a team to reckon with in the Pac-12. That’s been reinforced this season, even as the Ducks have fallen short of their lofty preseason expectations.
“We’ve got to continue to build,” Altman said. “We’re glad (to be) where we’re at, but we’re not satisfied.”
It looks like Altman is safe at home.