ANAHEIM, Calif. – Oklahoma Sooners coach Lon Kruger has tried to keep Dana Altman off of his team’s schedule for the past two decades. He’s not afraid to coach against Altman nor does he have some animosity towards his coaching counterpart.
Kruger didn’t want to have to deal with the inevitable heartbreak that would come with coaching against one of his first hires as a Division-I basketball coach.
But when the NCAA Tournament bracket was released, it was impossible to miss Oregon – the No. 1 seed in the West Region – and Altman, who has been with the Ducks since 2010, sitting across the bracket from the Sooners. If both teams won, and both coaches were certainly rooting for that as close colleagues, then they would inevitably meet Saturday in the Elite 8 with a ticket to the Final Four on the line.
The inevitable is here as Oklahoma and Oregon prepared for their matchup. Kruger and Altman will do the same. Having the Final Four as a prize for the winner won’t take away any of the pain for the loser – or the winner for that matter.
“It’s going to happen anyway,” said Oklahoma assistant coach Steve Henson, who was a freshman on the Kansas State staff the first year Kruger and Altman coached together. “. . . That sounds real nice to say that today, then after the game, we’ll be happy for whoever wins. Somebody will be devastated as well.”
Altman joked Friday afternoon that Kruger didn’t really hire him in 1986, when Altman didn’t have a shred of Division-I experience. Altman said that all Kruger wanted was Altman’s No. 1-ranked junior college team, which had won 69 games in two years.
Kruger wound up getting both when Altman took the job. Mitch Richmond, Charlie Bledsoe, Fred McCoy, Will Scott and Henson became the core of a team that made a run to the Elite 8, the last time Altman made it that far in the tournament as a coach and the first time for Kruger.
“Coach was unbelievable to work for, learned a lot from him,” said Altman who walked on at a junior college and had never been affiliated with a Division-I program before he came to Kansas State. “. . . He’s been a great friend and mentor for 30 years, and we’ve never played each other for a reason. We didn’t want to play.
“When the pairings came out a couple weeks ago, I talked to coach, and we just said at that time if we’re fortunate enough to get to this point, at least one of us is going to get the opportunity to go to the Final Four. If we are fortunate to win, I’m sure he’ll be happy for us, and if we lose, I know I’ll be happy for him.”
The two have been close ever since 1986. Altman even took over for Kruger when the current Oklahoma coach left Kansas State for Florida. After just three years under Kruger, Altman took the head-coaching job at Marshall for a year before returning to replace Kruger.
What caught Kruger’s eye enough to hire Altman in the first place was a common skill for understanding the feel of a game and the strategy behind it.
“Any time you watch teams play and you see the relationship that the coaches have with the players and the attention they demand without really demanding it, I think it comes very natural to Dana,” Kruger said. “He’s been outstanding.”
Kruger and Altman still talk constantly, texting at least once every two weeks to provide support after losses to congratulations after victories. They met in Hawaii in early December, when both teams were in town to honor Pearl Harbor. They didn’t play each other. Both teams left with a win.
They are even headed to Scotland together during the summer when the recruiting period ends. It’s a trip Kruger brought up last September as something he’d always wanted to do. Altman happily said yes.
Only there could be some uneasy feelings, and it has little to do with the fact that Kruger joked that he might need a few strokes from Altman on the golf course.
“We’re doing that regardless of what happens (Saturday),” Kruger said of the golf-oriented vacation. “I still plan on doing it. I hope he does too.”
The Oregon-Oklahoma connection doesn’t stop with the head coaches, whose wives are both very close as well. Henson is very familiar with Kevin McKenna from the staff’s time at Creighton, and Oklahoma assistant Chris Crutchfield played college basketball with Tony Stubblefield at Nebraska-Omaha.
Sooners’ first-year strength and conditioning coach Bryce Daub came over from the Ducks this offseason.
It’s the pair of head coaches though that as spent 30 years bouncing ideas off of each other, avoiding a match-up that became likely a couple weeks ago on Selection Sunday.
There’s no hiding from it now.
“We’re excited, but we know somebody is going to be really, really disappointed,” Henson said.