Oregon's run to 2017 Final Four has disturbing backdrop that can't be overlooked

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- The venue is different, the backdrop so much more massive, but the alarming details, there for the public to read in this police report, remain the same. Dana Altman was sitting inside University of Phoenix Stadium on Thursday afternoon but he might as well have been back in Eugene, Oregon, deflecting the indefensible -- just the way he did in 2014. 

“No, I’m comfortable with the way we handled it,” Altman said. “It was three years ago. But I think in retrospect everything was handled correctly.”

Oregon has made a fun run to the Final Four, the program’s first in 78 years. There has been plenty written about all of that -- and much more to come -- before the Ducks tip off Saturday against North Carolina. The current players have been celebrated and will continue to be. As they should.

But Altman is not in the clear and he never will be in the eyes of many. Attached to Altman’s reputation, still, is the most curious, perturbing decision of his coaching career. By making the Final Four, circumstances now make it necessary to bring this up -- to remind people of why Oregon is even here. Oregon is only here, at the Final Four, because Dana Altman is still coaching.

In May of 2014, a lot of people thought Altman should have been fired. That is the uncomfortable undercurrent in the desert, the faded backdrop to Oregon’s appearance. 

Altman is three years removed from a mishandled sexual assault allegation/situation involving three of his former players, three men who were banned from Oregon’s campus less than two months removed from a night wherein, at the very least, they were somewhere they shouldn’t have been, doing something they shouldn’t have been doing

When asked whether he had any regrets about the way he handled the extremely serious and disturbing allegations against former Ducks Dominic Artis, Damyean Dotson and Brandon Austin, Altman said he had none. Had he not held this regrettable public stance at every turn since, his words would be surprising. Instead, they were generically company-line. Who knew a man who speaks so softly could be so stubborn? When you take into account the life the alleged victim of sexual assault has likely lived since then, the comments are insensitive and, for her and her family, obviously offensive. 

Artis, Dotson and Austin were never charged with any crime regarding what was alleged on the night of March 8, 2014. As what is often the case in sexual assault allegations, a lack of physical evidence prevented any further action from law enforcement. The alleged victim had this to say in a letter she submitted to the university in 2014. Artis and Dotson filed a motion to sue Oregon in 2016. Both sides should be taken into account. 

The absolute basics of a messy case are this: Altman knew his players were involved in disturbing activity in the middle of the season, opted to not punish them publicly (the police advised this, for the record), then allowed them to play in the all-important NCAA Tournament. Only after the season was over did Altman come forward with punishments (before the school banned all three). 

Oregon athletic director Rob Mullens said in 2014: “It was very clear to us that those were individuals we didn’t want representing our organization.”

Artis was taken in at UTEP; Dotson went to Houston. Austin, who had a previous sexual assault allegation against him while at Providence, never played again in Division I.  

“Our guys did a great job, our staff did a great job,” Altman said Thursday. “We had great support from the university. So it went fairly smooth.”

Altman kept it short. Assistant coach Tony Stubblefield did not.

“Coach Altman is a very resilient man,” Stubblefield said. “The conversations he had I wasn’t totally privy to, that he had with the administrators, what those conversations were. Obviously it was hard on him as well.”

Stubblefield offered much more reflection, opinion and information. 

“It was a very stressful situation because I was very involved in recruiting those kids,” Stubblefield said inside Oregon’s open locker room. “For me, it was very personal. This was more than basketball. This was way bigger than basketball.”

Stubblefield said he still talks with Artis, Austin and Dotson. He’s exchanged text messages with them this week. 

“Those kids are like sons to me,” Stubblefield said. “It was a very hard and dark time for me to go through that with them young men.”

At the time, Altman said he did not know the specific allegations. As a coach, he didn’t pursue to discover what his players might have done. Since then, Oregon has remained in the clear. We can give credit to Altman and his assistants for that, but it doesn’t mean that we should put aside what allegedly happened three years ago. By doing that, what does it allow for? Perhaps another incident. Sexual assault remains a plague on college campuses. 

“We all weren’t privy to say anything [back then],” Stubblefield said. “I wouldn’t say a lot has changed since what happened three years ago. Obviously we hit a bump in the road when that happened. It was an unfortunate situation, but we knew we had to dig, we had to come back to work and we had to grind it out. We’ve had some guys that have stuck with us. Jordan Bell, Dillon Brooks, Tyler Dorsey, them guys came in and gave us an opportunity, and without those guys we wouldn’t be where we are right now.”

The staff encountered negative recruiting and underwent some damage control. In bypassing that, they were able to land the likes of Brooks, Bell and Dorsey. 

“It’s a cutthroat business, you’re gonna run into that,” Stubblefield said. “But thank God these kids and their families have faith in us as a coaching staff, and the University of Oregon, they saw, would be a very good situation for them. They believed in us.”

Oregon kept Altman because, ultimately, Mullens and school president Michael Gottfredson thought Altman’s decision-making and course of action didn’t warrant a drastic decision. If he wasn’t with Oregon, then Oregon wouldn’t be here. Was it worth it? Most Ducks fans would probably say yes, but what does that say about how we value serious allegations? The only criticism of Altman came from outside Oregon’s facilities. I’m not arguing Altman had to be fired. I am saying that it continues to be a shameful look that he doesn’t at least express regret. 

He’s the highest-paid coach of any here at the Final Four. He continues to thrive on the court. Altman is considered a top-20 coach. He can insist that he and the university made the right decisions, but that flies in the face of logic, particularly when you remind yourself of the timeline. Now, with the benefit of making a Final Four, the past comes back to haunt a little. I can’t help but wonder what the alleged victim thinks when she sees Altman on her television -- if she even has the stomach to turn on the game.  

CBS Sports Writer

Matt Norlander is a national award-winning writer who has been with CBS Sports since 2010. He's in his seventh season covering college basketball for CBS, and also covers the NBA Draft, the Olympics and... Full Bio

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