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Dana here yet? No? OK then, we'll sing.
Dirk Altman quiets the crowd. You'll sing what I tell you to sing, he announces. Everyone laughs. They sort through lyrics sheets. They rise like a Sunday congregation at First Evangelical Lutheran back home. The music starts.
"Now who the hell is Johnny, and where did he come from? How could he steal Peaches, am I such a bum? Does she really love him, that dirty son of a gun? Now who the hell is Johnny, and where did he come from?"
They bounce off their toes and sway, balding men and mothers with wrinkles, even teenagers. The meeting room at the Courtyard by Marriott on Omaha's 10th Street is typically reserved for starched white collars and business strategy sessions. Polka, Creighton garb and the aroma of fresh kolaches mixed with Busch Light blend in here about as well as Wichita State yellow at the Qwest Center down the street. That's where this rain-soaked bunch just came from, by the way.
The music stops, if only for a moment.
"We might sing that one three times," Dirk shouts. Again, laughter.
The annual "Bohemian Night" began in 1995 after the hometown hero came back to Nebraska. A few buddies from Wilber ran into each other at the Civic Auditorium, got the idea to buy some hotel rooms and bring the families. Sometimes they gathered without the coach, who didn't feel much like talking after losses. In the early years - you could count the Bluejays' dunks for the whole season on one hand - the crowds didn't exactly incite claustrophobia.
"You had a chair for your coat, another for your beer," said Alvin Kobes, a Wilber native. "You could see your kids running around from all over the arena."
Now 15,000-plus are showing up on rainy January Saturdays. More than 50 are singing polkas in this room.
The banker tells you about senior physics and the reason Dana passed. Each day, students were assigned homework problems. Upon arrival at class, the teacher sent kids to the chalkboard to exhibit their prowess - or something like that.
Wait, back up a second. Study hall preceded physics. That's the key. That's where Dana encouraged friends to show him how to work the first problem and only the first problem in the homework. When the teacher began the festivities, Dana raised his hand to volunteer for that first problem. He went to the board and solved it. Ahhh, relief. He sat peacefully the rest of class.
Put that on ESPN, or in the newspaper columns, where the pundits have and will continue to predict Dana Altman's next coaching job (Iowa? Missouri? Timbuktu U?). In case you haven't noticed, major-conference athletic directors court him like a quarterback pursues the pretty girl in homeroom.
Altman's resume merits the hullabaloo. He's the feisty recruiter who snagged Mitch Richmond, then a Big Eight coaching job at 31. He's an ardent student of the game with a reputation for winning close games with lesser talent. He's the reason a mid-major afterthought became a relevant, perennial mainstay in the NCAA tournament.
Someday, Altman may end up atop the Big Ten or Big 12; that run of 20-win seasons at Creighton won't even headline his career. Or someday, Altman may walk off Qwest Center Omaha's floor, content to retire as the man who transformed this city into a college basketball town.
His future is fluid, ever-evolving, depending on the news cycle and whom you believe. His past? That, Dana Altman can't change. His rural, Bohemian lineage gnarls back through the years like the taproots of a bur oak in the Saline County timber. Pull him away if you can, but the roots aren't leaving.
"When you see him on TV, he looks like a million bucks," said older brother Dirk, a car salesman, like his father. "You'd never know he was from a small town. But deep inside, his mannerisms, the way he carries himself, even the way he talks, his small-town characteristics always stick out."
Dirk was the one they thought would coach. Big Brother was better with kids. He was the better athlete - he played football at Kearney State. Dana, he'd be the businessman. The two were born a year and a half apart, 1956 and '58. They were the oldest of Lyle and Barbara's four children: two boys, two girls. The boys didn't fight much, didn't battle for attention. Their bond was forged in touch football in the back yard and summer baseball and a commitment not to break any of Mom's antiques. Sometimes, they failed in that last regard.
"Boy, if Dad got steamed up, watch out," Dirk says.
Lyle misses maybe one Creighton game a year these days. Often after the plane lands following road games, he'll drive the 100 minutes from Omaha to Wilber at 1 or 2 or 3 a.m. He can trace that route back some 40 years to the slab of concrete he laid behind the house.
"At the time, I thought that was big enough for a basketball court," Lyle says.
The dimensions didn't allow for much more than a free throw, but Dana remembers spending hours pounding leather into cement. Assessing the north crosswind before his fingertips let go. Polishing a jump shot he'd one day teach.
Kids roamed freely in those days, from the park to the high school to the Main Street shops. They identified their whereabouts not by addresses or streets, but by relation to a friend's house. "That was our life down in the small towns," said Russ Rezny, a classmate of Dana's.
Dana was an Eagle Scout. He coached Little League. He sold stadium seats at Nebraska football games. He painted houses and shingled a garage and worked at the bakery.
Another banker tells you about Dana's high school painting crew, blessed to ride in one of the green Dodge pickups that Lyle Altman sold for a living. Somebody - might've been the boy, might've been Dad - got the idea that traveling from house to house in reverse kept the miles off the odometer.
The contractor remembers another story. He laughs before he begins. Dana was in elementary school, probably fifth grade, zooming down a hill on his bike. He didn't see the bump in the street until it was too late. Next thing you know, he was flying over the handlebars.
"He broke the fall with his face," says Dennis Tenopir, a '77 grad. "He's prettier now than he was that day."
It knocked out one of his front teeth. He might have a permanent replacement now.
"He can probably afford it."
If there's one theme from those days, though, it was this: The skinny, sandy-haired, polite, quick-witted storyteller didn't like to lose. The Wilber-Clatonia track coach once told Dana he couldn't run a quarter-mile in 60 seconds if his life depended on it.
He later came home and asked Dad for $20. He needed a pair of track shoes. It took several weeks, but he got the time down to 56 seconds.
"That's the way he worked," Lyle Altman said.
Rewind a few hours, before Johnny stole Peaches. The Bohemian crew has just left the pregame party at the Courtyard, jumped a few puddles and shuffled through the Qwest Center doors, just in time to find their seats before tipoff. Ten minutes later, they are wishing they had stayed at the hotel. Wichita State immediately blitzes the CU defense. The Jays look scared and inept. The lead grows to embarrassing levels, from 10 to 15 to 19.
Altman paces the sidelines. He is continuously clapping at a team that misses 18 of its first 20 shots. He doesn't snipe at an official. He doesn't scold a player. He just keeps clapping, nodding his head, even as the largest basketball crowd in state history shifts from antsy to annoyed to downright indignant.
Dirk Altman will say later that Dana didn't want to lose his team. Had he panicked, the players would have, too. Some 90 minutes after Wichita State leads 25-6, Anthony Tolliver drops a baseline jumper at the buzzer for a 57-55 Creighton victory.
"We don't scare too many people when we warm up," Dirk says. "But if they listen and do what Dana tells them, they've got a pretty good chance of winning. The track record's pretty proven."
CU is 32-17 the past five years in games decided by five points or less. Gary Bargen says there's a reason Altman wins the close ones.
Bargen, a former Nebraska assistant, coached Altman from 1976 through '78 at Southeast Junior College at Fairbury - 35 miles from Wilber. The 6-foot-4 guard was nagged by an ankle injury his senior year of high school but walked on at Fairbury. He sat the bench most of the first year. Bargen didn't have an assistant.
"I asked him to sit beside me," Bargen says. "He was another set of eyes."
Says Altman: "I think that was a nice way just to keep me occupied."
Altman continued his playing career at Eastern New Mexico. He graduated in 1980 and considered law school. He even took the LSAT. Instead, he opted for an MBA at Western State (Colo.), where he was a graduate assistant coach. Two years later he was back at Southeast Junior College, this time as a 24-year-old head coach.
One of his Fairbury pupils was the same age. But there was no disputing who was in charge. Altman had a player from D.C. that first year. The kid wanted more playing time. He wanted to score. He threatened to go home. Altman picked up the phone.
"What's your mom's number," he asked the player.
"What's your mom's phone number?"
"Somebody's got to be at the bus depot to pick you up when you get home. I'm calling her to make sure she's there waiting."
The kid didn't speak.
"You staying or not?" Altman asked.
Finally, a head nod.
"I'll see you at practice," Altman said.
Southeast hadn't been to the national tournament in 25 years when Altman took a band of overachievers to the national semifinals in 1983. They won a series of overtime games during a late-season streak, thrusting the coach into the juco spotlight.
"I told Dad then, 'I don't know when, but Dana's going to be a Division I coach someday,'" Dirk says.
Altman often uses "fortunate" to describe those early years, how coaches like Bargen and high school coach Dave Oman showed him the way, how Moberly (Mo.) Junior College, a national power, saw him at the tournament and snatched him.
He won 94 games in three years at Moberly, thanks in part to a sharp-shooter from Florida named Mitch Richmond, who went on to score 20,000 points in the NBA. During that recruiting process, Altman was battling another junior college for Richmond's services. A few weeks before school started, Altman and his wife housed Richmond, essentially hiding him from potential suitors.
Altman's recruiting skill - and the fact that he coached Richmond and Charles Bledsoe - landed him an assistant coaching job at Kansas State. Richmond and Bledsoe followed him and sparked K-State to a run to the Elite Eight in 1988. Altman spent the next season at Marshall before taking over at Kansas State in 1990. Four seasons and one NCAA tournament appearance later - friends say K-State didn't appreciate him or support him - he bolted for Omaha, where Creighton has since arrived on the national scene.
"I'm a little surprised he's gotten as far as he has with his nice demeanor," said high school friend Tenopir. "Usually the nice guy finishes last."
Dana Altman's great-grandfather left Bohemia for America in the final years of the 1800s. He settled in Wilber, one of several Bohemian villages in eastern Nebraska. He was a carpenter who wrote Czech music and played the cornet and drank beer in his spare time.
Some 30 years later, his son bought a car dealership just north of Main Street. From May 1931 to December 1999, that was Altman's garage, primarily a Dodge and Plymouth dealer. Lyle graduated in 1950, married in '55 and bought the business from his father in 1973. At that time, Czechs represented about 90 percent of the town. Czechs number about half today.
"Now you don't know who lives in the house three blocks from you," says Rezny, an Altman friend.
But walk down Main Street in Wilber and the polka music still echoes over loudspeakers between Karpisek's Meat Market - "Home of the Wilber Weiner" - and the mural on the drug store declaring Wilber the Czech Capital of the USA. Come to town six months from now for Czech Festival.
The festival started in 1962 to celebrate the traditions of Bohemian life, traditions that have linked three millennia. Ever since, as many as 50,000 people from across the country descend on Wilber the first weekend of August. Think "Bohemian Night" times 100, Dirk says. People eat and drink and sing and dance and march in parades. Everybody dresses in costume.
"I'll wear mine from Thursday night to Saturday night," says Dirk Altman, who teaches the Wilber youth Czech folk dances.
Wait, back up a second. Most dress in costume. Dana Altman prefers a lower profile. It's always been that way. He was a happy child, except when tradition called him to groove and wear a vest, even while in high school. He wanted to sit the bench.
"I've got no rhythm," Dana says. "I can't dance, so it's kind of embarrassing when you're 6-4 and can't dance."
The rule in the Altman house clearly stated: no dance, no sports. So Dana suited up. And come Czech Festival, you'll usually find him somewhere off Main Street, reminiscing with a classmate about the loss at district finals junior year.
"It's a class reunion," says the coach. "It's a family reunion. It's all that rolled up."
Back at the hotel, the clerk at the front desk is growing antsy. These Bohunks are supposed to clear the party room by 11 p.m. It's fast approaching that now. The staff has to clean this place for another event Sunday. The clerk alerts Dirk Altman, who hates to break it to the youngster, but there ain't no way they're leaving by 11.
Besides, Dana's not here yet.
So they drink some more. They dance a little more. They drink some more.
This party grows each year. There's plenty more back home, too. Old women in Wilber who listen to Bluejay games on the radio. Old men who discuss CU's postseason chances. Friends who ask the Altmans for Creighton posters.
"If anybody asked me what Nebraska's team was, I'd say Creighton," said Doug Oliva, a carpenter in Wilber who graduated with Dirk.
Wilber, about a half-hour from Lincoln, will always be Husker territory, but pockets of blue have sprouted, their roots growing deeper each year like those of the bur oak.
Just before 11, there's a murmur in the room. Dana's here. The coach, looking like he's just been on TV, looking like a million bucks, stops to visit with a few guys in the lobby, then a few more. He finally finds the gathering.
"There was always a sense of belonging there," Dana says days later. "My most loyal friends are still the guys I went to high school with."
A classmate shakes his hand. They start discussing Tolliver. A year ago, the kid had trouble catching the ball. Now he's hitting game-winning shots. Strange game. The coach thanks them for coming and moves on to another table, then another. He recites his take on the win at each stop, each hand shake. There's still beer in the cooler. Still polka in the CD player. Still kolaches on the table.
For Dana Altman, the party is just getting started.
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