In March 1980, a 29-year-old high school girls basketball coach drove to Omaha mostly out of curiosity.
Oh, sure, Bruce Rasmussen had ambitions. But Creighton’s vacant women’s basketball job wasn’t one of them.
The program — like most women’s sports at Creighton — resembled intramurals. And the salary was a huge pay cut compared with Bettendorf, Iowa, where Rasmussen’s teams (playing 6-on-6) drew 3,000-plus fans every game. The Iowa girls state tournament made national TV. Creighton couldn’t even make the local news.
But Rasmussen interviewed for the job. That night, he called his wife and said he didn’t want it. The next morning, Dan Offenburger made the offer anyway.
“I intended to say no,” Rasmussen once told me, “and yes came out.”
“When I got back to Bettendorf, I told my wife I took the job. She said why. I said I have no idea.”
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How do you explain such fate and fortune? How do you quantify the impact of a man who took over an athletic department in financial peril — Creighton’s options in the early 1990s included a demotion to Division III — and ushered the Jays to national prominence?
It’s hard to remember Creighton athletics before Bruce Rasmussen. It’s even harder imagining CU without him. Surely no Division I sports administrator the past 27 years shaped a school more than Rasmussen did. He infused the Bluejays with compassion, toughness and loyalty.
“Across the board,” men’s basketball coach Greg McDermott said, “coaches don’t leave and they don’t leave because of the person in charge.”
Rasmussen’s grandfather had a saying: “If the grass looks greener on the other side of the fence, you’re not taking very good care of your yard.”
Rasmussen improved Creighton’s lawn dramatically, building a reputation while breaking norms. How many women’s basketball coaches go on to chair the men’s NCAA tournament selection committee?
Truth is, Rasmussen could’ve done just about anything.
“The guy works his tail off, you can’t forget that,” said Connie Yori, who played and coached for Rasmussen. “He always has.”
Hard work pays off
Rasmussen grew up on the poor side of the tracks in Webster City, Iowa, half an hour north of Ames. No TV. No A/C. No indoor bathroom. Only a few of his classmates even graduated from high school.
Rasmussen’s father worked too much to bond, but Bruce picked up his intense work ethic, mowing lawns, shoveling snow, carrying newspapers.
His father’s military background produced an eye for detail. If Bruce mowed the yard and a couple of blades were out of place, he mowed it again. If Bruce washed the car and missed a spot, he washed it again.
By ninth grade, Bruce knew he wanted to teach and coach. He spent two years at junior college before graduating from Northern Iowa teachers college.
High schools initially wouldn’t hire Rasmussen because his draft number put him next in line for Vietnam. But the military call never came. Instead, he went to Murray, Iowa, and taught every math class from seventh grade to 12th. He coached assistant football, junior high football, assistant basketball, junior high boys basketball, JV basketball, boys and girls track. All for $250 a month.
His volunteer assistant track coach — Caitlyn Jenner — was a nearby Graceland College student who’d just begun training for the decathlon.
Their friendship led Rasmussen to the 1976 Olympic Track and Field Trials, where Jenner got him a job checking athletes into the dorms.
For two weeks, Rasmussen sat next to a free-spirit entrepreneur named Phil Knight, who distributed “Nike” shoes from the trunk of his car. Athletes usually discarded them in favor of Adidas and Puma.
This company will never make it, Rasmussen thought.
That’s Ras, a man with a Forrest Gump library of stories and connections. You’ve heard about his summer of 1984, right?
For almost two weeks, Rasmussen (thanks to CU men’s coach Willis Reed) sat courtside at Indiana University and watched Bob Knight train the Olympic team. Rasmussen marveled at the 21-year-old soon-to-be poster child for Nike: Michael Jordan.
When Air Jordan wasn’t jumping over Charles Barkley and Sam Perkins, he shot the breeze with Rasmussen. Just the two of them. Even then, Jordan liked to gamble.
“It was like, I’ll bet you he misses this shot,” Rasmussen said. “I’ll bet you he makes this free throw.’”
At the time, Rasmussen was nobody in the basketball world. Overwhelmed and overworked. He coached Creighton women’s basketball and men’s golf while teaching academic courses. His first two women’s teams went 16-43 combined.
Momentum changed with Connie Yori.
“I saw her as a seventh grader take two dribbles from half court, go up and grab the rim,” Rasmussen said. “Unbelievable.”
The “Lady Jays” competed with fewer scholarships than national contenders, but Rasmussen won 20 games in five different seasons. He believed CU’s ticket to success was toughness. And the only way to develop it was via ruthless practices.
In one drill, a three-player defense had to guard four offensive players. To exit the court, they had to get three consecutive stops. “We might run the same drill for an hour,” Rasmussen said.
Creighton’s old gym included batting cages at one end. Rasmussen told baseball coach Jim Hendry his hitters could use the cages during practice ... if Rasmussen could use some baseball players to scrimmage his women’s basketball team.
Yori remembers Rasmussen’s dogged drills, but also his brilliant mind and remarkable memory. He could recite famous poems or quotes, some of them quite long.
“I was always like, ‘How do you know that?’”
The last game Rasmussen ever coached was a last-second loss to Stephen F. Austin in Round 2 of the 1992 NCAA tournament.
Creighton women’s hoops was on the rise. But the athletic department, down on its luck in men’s basketball and baseball, needed a visionary. Rasmussen figured he could do more good from the A.D. chair.
“There was a real chance that we would be Division III,” he said in 2017. “I was worried what was going to happen to Creighton athletics.”
Vision becomes reality
Perhaps the most important night in CU sports history came in February 1994, when Rasmussen and Dana Altman arranged a secret meeting place halfway between Creighton and Kansas State.
103 Court St., Wilber, Nebraska.
The garage door will be open, Altman told Rasmussen. Pull your car inside and shut the door. Walk in the house and wait for me.
The public didn’t know it yet, but Creighton had already decided to fire Rick Johnson at the end of the men’s basketball season. Rasmussen’s ideal replacement was a physically skinny and socially stiff 36-year-old with a blond mustache, whom Ras had spotted 10 years earlier at a Moberly (Missouri) junior college game.
Rasmussen left Omaha after dark, pulled into Wilber and found the open garage. He didn’t know it, but this was Dana’s childhood home.
They hit it off, trading philosophies and stories until 1 or 2 a.m. When Rasmussen returned to Omaha at about 3, his wife was waiting for him.
Where were you?
“You just gotta trust me. I was talking to a candidate.”
Well, who was it?
“I can’t tell you.”
Sixteen years later, after Altman’s departure to Oregon, Rasmussen arranged another secret meeting with Greg McDermott, another critical step in Creighton’s athletic rise.
“I came to Creighton because of Bruce Rasmussen,” McDermott said. “My belief was in the person.”
What followed the past 11 years? A major-conference promotion, a national player of the year, a Big East championship and a Sweet 16. Bluejay setbacks can’t be ignored, most notably Creighton’s men’s basketball probation. But Rasmussen’s accomplishments and influence will be hard to forget.
“One of the best ever to lead an athletic department,” Villanova coach Jay Wright tweeted Monday. “Class, integrity, vision and intelligence!”
Rasmussen’s experience in the arena made him a coach’s coach. But he was just as popular with boosters and athletes. He didn’t forget names — parents or kids. And he didn’t big-time anybody.
The small-town Iowa guy who showed up 41 years ago intending to say “No” ended up changing Creighton athletics more than anyone. The best part?
“He never let the limelight change him,” Yori said. “That’s pretty rare.”