By Todd Golden
TERRE HAUTE — Whenever Indiana State and Creighton’s men’s basketball teams play, the similarities are striking.
ISU coach Kevin McKenna was on Creighton coach Dana Altman’s staff from 1994-2000 and again from 2005-07. Both share the same offensive and defensive philosophies and both coaches have a similar sideline demeanor, right down to simultaneous shouts of “simple plays!” — among other things — during the game.
Now, professional ties have intertwined with family ties.
Jordan Altman, Dana’s oldest son, is the Sycamores’ graduate assistant, taking over this season in that position. The job was a natural fit for both men, given their familiarity and long association with one another. Jordan Altman has an even longer relationship with ISU assistant coach Deryl Cunningham, who played for Altman when Dana coached at Kansas State in the early 90s.
Jordan Altman’s first memory of McKenna is one of his most vivid of all. It was at the dawn of what became a golden era for Creighton’s basketball program.
“The first time I remember meeting coach McKenna was when we were shooting family media guide posters at Creighton. That was my first real experience at Creighton, so I remember it vividly. I met his whole [McKenna] family that day. That was in October 1994 and I’ve had a solid relationship with his family ever since,” Jordan Altman said.
At the time, Jordan Altman was in fourth grade. The long association between McKenna and Dana Altman made it an easy decision to bring the junior Altman to Terre Haute when ISU’s graduate assistant job opened up this season.
“His dad told me that Jordan had an interest in coaching and we had a spot open up this year and I thought it would be a good fit for him and for us. He’s working on his Masters, he’s helping us out. He’s doing the behind-the-scenes things he kind of knew about, but is doing for the first time himself,” McKenna said.
Dana Altman is pleased his son is starting his collegiate coaching career with people he can trust.
“It’s definitely reassuring. He could have gone to a few other places, but the opportunity to work for Kevin and work with people he knows is a big plus for him. He just needs to work hard and make it work for him,” Dana Altman said.
Jordan Altman graduated from Creighton with a journalism degree in 2007, and worked as the editor of a web site for a time, but coaching has always been the vocation that has most piqued his interest. Jordan Altman said he began as a youth coach while he was in high school in suburban Omaha — Dana Altman drove him to his first coaching gigs.
“I always had some intention of it. I had some injuries in high school that ended my playing career and those winters got boring real quick. I started coaching when I coached my younger brother’s sixth grade team when I was 15,” Jordan Altman said. “After college, I realized I had been training to go into coaching for so long that it just made sense to continue on. It’s probably the skill I know best.”
The graduate assistant isn’t a visible job as far as the public is concerned, but it is a vital part of any program. Essentially, the G.A. is the program’s eyes and jack-of-all-trades.
“It’s detail things. When’s the bus leaving? Where are we eating? Film exchange with other coaches. There’s a lot of stuff that they have to constantly be thinking about, in addition to having school work. It’s a tough job with a lot of long hours,” said McKenna, who was once a restricted earnings coach himself.
Altman said his job is to stop problems before they start. He’s more comfortable with the X’s and O’s right now than he is the administrative part of his job.
“I feel comfortable on the court, but I need to get better at the office stuff and the menial paper work and takes I had never done before coming here,” said Altman, who also spent a spell at G.A. at Wayne State.
He also admitted that biting his tongue is a skill he’s had to master too.
“One of the toughest parts of my job is keeping my mouth shut at times. Just to let the coaches coach, not to project my opinion when it’s not needed,” Altman said.
Altman is mindful of the fact that his family name and his long association with McKenna makes him more visible than the garden-variety G.A.
“Coming in, I felt a little more pressure here than some of my previous jobs. I knew the members of the staff knew my father and knew who I was. There’s a level of expectation and I didn’t want to fail, I didn’t want disappoint them. I wasn’t as nervous about acclimating to their system as I was letting them down,” he said.
Altman is obviously uniquely qualified to assess the similarities and differences between McKenna and his father, two men that are perceived as being close to each other’s hip.
“Fundamentally, they’re very close. What they expect from the players, their style of basketball, it’s very, very close,” Altman said. “There’s personality differences. Kevin likes to talk with the guys, whereas my dad is more of a pusher. It’s weird for me, because this is the first time I’ve seen Kevin in this role, pushing the players. Through both of them, the one consistency is they do want their players to do better. They tell every player they’ve ever had, ‘I’m here to make you better, I do care about you.’ So that’s been interesting to see.”
As one might imagine, Jordan Altman confides in his dad regularly. Now they converse as peers.
“I always enjoy talking with him candidly more so than professionally. We don’t talk a lot about, ‘Are you going to double this guy? Or trap this?’ It’s more along the lines of talking about team chemistry, or so-and-so had a bad attitude right now and how we go about fixing that,” Jordan Altman said. “His stress level has been up this year and with my new role, my stress level has been up too, so it’s great to just have 10 minutes with him and get some things off my chest.”
Creighton comes to Hulman Center with an uncharacteristic 5-7 record. Being on ISU’s staff in a game against his dad was never going to be easy, and given that today’s game is important for both the Bluejays and Sycamores — neither wants to go to 0-2 in the MVC — it’s going to be an even more vexing day for Altman.
“I’m not sure how [today’s] game is going to be. It would be different if Creighton wasn’t struggling right now, they need a win as bad, or maybe more, than we do. But after the disappointment at Southern [ISU lost 70-52 on Tuesday], we can’t give any ground right now,” Jordan Altman said. “It’ll be hard when I see something develop on the court and I yell for our guys to stop it, potentially leading my dad’s team towards a loss, but that’s what I have to do.”
Trepidation aside, the younger Altman feels the match-up against his dad’s team is one more step in his own coaching progression.
“I enjoy being in the Missouri Valley Conference. I enjoy the fact that I can go against him two times a year, maybe three times, just to kind of test those waters and see what it’s like. Someday we may meet again as opposing head coaches or if I’m a full-time assistant,” Jordan Altman said.