Catching Up With Illini Legend Doug Altenberger

February 21, 2022

(Cover photo courtesy U of I Alumni Association)

Former Illini great and current Illini color commentator Doug Altenberger recently joined the IlliniGuys Sports Spectacular show for a conversation:

Larry Smith: We have a lot we want to talk about. I want to go back a few years to start off here. What do you remember about your recruitment back when you were in high school? Was there ever a possibility of you going elsewhere?

Doug Altenberger: Well, I liked the Big 10 and my sophomore year I went to Peoria Richwoods High School, the home of the Knights.  Mark Smith and Derek Holcomb were from there, they played at Illinois. My dad had played it Illinois in the 50s. So I had gone to the games, I used to go to the football games. We went to a few of the basketball games as well.  I was always playing basketball, so I didn't go to that many. My dad played football at Illinois. So, we'd go to the games and we would tailgate and then at halftime we'd see Chief Illiniwek. But back then in the 70s, we were so bad that by the third quarter, you know, my dad was back tailgating. And then by the fourth quarter, we are on I-74 going back to Peoria. So I never saw the end of the game in the 70s, because we'd always be down like, you know, 40 to 10 or 40 to nothing. My sophomore year, I got invited to go to this basketball camp in Rensselaer, Indiana, which I had no idea where that was. I thought I played horrible, but my mailbox was full of letters from all these schools. It was a real opportunity for me, you know, to play in the state tournament down in Champaign, I fell in love with U of I, but I wanted to look at other schools. So I looked at Purdue. I liked Minnesota, Iowa, and I looked at Kentucky. Bobby Knight recruited me at Indiana as well. There was an unknown guy from Duke who came into the house and he said, 'Just call me Coach K because no one can say my last name.' And so it was really fun to have all the coaches come. My mom used to make this chili, and they would come and they'd always wanted, like, try to eat the hot chili. Back then you could only get Coors west of the Mississippi, it didn't come east of there. So my dad always had, you know, a few 12 packs of course. So the coaches always come in and have a couple beers and have some chili and sit in my living room and talk about you know, all the things they were gonna you know, how I was going to help the team and all that stuff. So it was always good with my dad now who's still who's alive in my mom as well. We still laugh about those stories.

Brad Sturdy: So what was the deciding factor? So yet, you've got quite a few coaching legends who you got to talk to about your recruitment. What made you decide that University of Illinois and coach Henson was where you wanted to play?

DA: Well, you know, a lot of times the assistant coaches do a lot of the recruiting. We talked to with Jimmy Collins who recruited me, so you have a real good relationship and I had a great relationship with Dick Nagy, who just passed away not that long ago. So he was great. I liked coach Henson. They signed Bruce Douglas and Efrem Winter. They were to Parade All-Americans. I knew Bruce and I was like, 'Hey, listen, this could be pretty special.'  My dad played there, checked all the boxes. I liked Purdue a lot. So it came that basically down to Iowa, Purdue and Illinois. I waited till a little bit later, a few months after Bruce and Efrem. I said Dad, I want to go to Illinois. So we drove down to Champaign, went to coach Henson's house, and I told coach that I wanted to play for him. And, you know, the rest is history. It was a great choice. And, you know, to this day, you know, a day doesn't go by or a few days go by and, you know, someone will talk about the good old days in the 80s. I met my wife there. My mom went to school there. And my brother worked at University of Illinois for 25 years. So this school is been a big part of the Altenberger family.

Mike Cagley: So there was no question that Illinois was going to be your home. So that's good to know. You were the first person that I ever saw that can shoot from the outside. And I figure that if the three point line had been around, maybe your freshman year, you probably would be the all time leader in three points, no doubt, right?

DA: Well, we didn't shoot it as much right then. But, you know, I did shoot a lot of shots behind the three point line. I remember when we played in the East Regional against Georgia Tech, they had an NBA three point line. And we were down a bunch of points. And so I made a few few long shots, and I just kept shooting. And I remember going back and looking at the tape, and I thought, 'well, geez, you know, I'm even behind the three point line in the NBA.' So the college one was pretty short, it was you know, pretty close. My job was to throw it into the post. Back then we had like more of a two man game where you threw it inside, they kicked it back out, you know, right now, they do a lot of high ball screens and all that's a different game. But I had George Montgomery you know, Ken Norman, so you know, that was sort of our offense.  It wasn't until Rick Pitino with Providence and Billy Donovan and Delray Brooks, those guys really made it a weapon. I wish I could come out of retirement because now in the NBA, that's all they do is shoot threes and make a lot of money. My agent, who was a good friend of mine, he's like 'you were about seven, eight years too early, because now everybody should the three.  I shot 1000 jump shots in the morning before school and I thought shot 1000 jump shots after school, even after practice. So you know, the old saying, practice makes perfect. So I was always trying to figure out you know, trying to be a great shooter and I worked really hard on it.

BS:  A lot of fans today have some animosity towards Kentucky. But you have to have more animosity towards than anybody, right? I mean, going back to that, what was that like? That game in the Elite Eight?

DA: Well, we had we had won the Big 10. We had played Villanova in the first round. But then we played Maryland with Len Bias and we got a big lead on them and we able to hold on at the end. Maryland had like five or six guys in the NBA. Kentucky was completely loaded. We had played them earlier in the year. That was the famous game where we didn't we didn't have enough we didn't have any officials. So they pulled three guys from the stands and and you know, (Kentucky coach) Joe B. Hall said it was the best officiated college basketball game here has ever been involved. We lost to them on a last second shot, so we felt that we could hang with them and we could compete. What we didn't really know is, you know, we would be playing at Rupp Arena and playing against them. So it was sort of cool, because, you know, there's 20,000 fans, it was the biggest arena and court in basketball. So you know, we've had this orange and blue streak of about 2,000 fans right up in one section there. So we played great, and, you know, we, we got it down to, you know, a one point lead. And so when (referee) Hank Nichols, you know, he just made a bad call. The guy traveled or whatever it was - a jump ball, he decided to call foul on Bruce. So, but we always thought we come back to next year. We thought we had everybody coming back. And we would be able to make another run at it. It just didn't materialize our junior year, we still had a good year. But you know, we didn't win the Big 10. And we didn't get to the Final Four. And that was really our goal. That team was pretty special. I always felt like that team really put Lou on the map. He had great recruiting, we had finally won the Big 10. And then shortly after that, the young man that was shot in Chicago, Ben Wilson. We all thought Ben was going to come and play. I'll never forget when I heard the news, we were together as a team. We really had it going with that class and we had a lot of momentum. I can only imagine what happens if we had Ben on that team.

LS: I guess all of us who were a part of the Illinois prep scene involved in sports, those of you there at the university, we all remember where we were on that day in November, 1984 when it happened when Benji was shot. I have to ask before we move forward, I know that all of us as Illini fans, we make sure that people know that game in '84 Rupp Arena was the game that changed the trajectory of the NCAA tournament.  The next year the Final Four was at Rupp, that was already set. But after that they changed the rule. You could no longer play on your home court. Do you ever share that with people? When people ask you say hey, by the way, we were the team, we were the reason that you had this happens now?

DA: Someone will bring it up or whatever. And I'll say 'excuse me, we had a really good team my sophomore year. And, you know, we almost went to the Final Four. And we were so close.' The cool part of that was when we flew home, we were sort of devastated that we had lost. There was 1000s of people at the airport waiting for us. We were totally surprised. So at that, at that point, it sort of hit home, what we accomplished and what we had done. As a player, you're usually in a vacuum, you're in a routine. You don't really you don't read the newspapers, you don't listen to the radio, you don't listen to TV, you're sort of like just focused on what you need to accomplish and stuff like that. So I just remember coming home after that and we were like 'wow, this is really cool.' So it was a great year. The 80s belonged to the Illini!  Football was rolling, basketball we had things going, and it was just a fun time. Neil Stoner was ahead of his time. And he really, you know, upset the applecart with the Big 10. I look back at the 80s, going to the Rose Bowl and everything. It's just was a great time to be an Illini fan.

BS: When you take a look at this year's Illini, what do you think?  How would you describe the team? And how would you approach playing them based on your experiences?

DA: When you've got older guys, you know, you don't have to go through, I mean, they know what to expect every night, you know, they know what the effort needs to be in there. When I was a senior, I'd redshirted and I came back my senior year. So I was a team captain. So I sort of knew, I mean, I made mistakes, or knew the mistakes that we had made. So, you know, I look at like Trent Frazier, and Da'Monte (Williams) I mean to have guys like that who got their butt kicked their freshman year, you know, they, they still remember those days and don't want to go back there. So they're setting the culture and I enjoy watching those guys perform. And then I love to see how they affect the younger guys. Brad's done a tremendous job just to turn around and have the success that we've had the last two and a half years. It was rough the first two years, but you know Brad's been through some restructuring and he's been very, very fortunate, because Kofi (Cockburn)is great. And Ayo, you know, he picked the right guy, there were some other players he could have picked. And those guys really helped us turn the program around.

MC: Does this team have the potential to make that run to the Final Four?

DA: Well, I think their guard play with Trent, Da'Monte, and (Jacob Grandison), they're playing very well together. I mean, they're distributing the ball and making the extra pass cut into the basket. You have Kofi. There's just nobody like him in college. This team is got the ability because last year they didn't get to the tournament. Unless you've been to the tournament, you don't know what expectations are. This team knows what happened against Loyola.  They know, you know, what it takes to get through the Big 10. I think they they've got Elite Eight written all over them. If they're lucky, they could get back to the Final Four. You know, they've got that they've got experience now and that's huge. Like, I'll go back to the '89 guys. When they were all freshmen, I was a senior, we played Austin Peay. And I kept telling all the young kids, listen, when you get to the NCAA tournament, they're all good. You know, they're all good. So I was trying to stress that, but, you know, the guys, you know, we're just young, and they didn't know what to expect. And we got upset, unfortunately. They weren't ready to play. So I think this team has got experience and they're getting deeper, they're getting help, you know, they're healthier now.

LS: Hopefully you will come back and join us later on in the season and get more of your insights on this team.

DA: Yeah, no problem. Thanks for having me and I enjoyed it and good luck and keep it going. Go Illini!


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