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The Ace Of Them All: Duke’s Amazing Donald Altman

A two-sport star, Altman has a special place in Duke history

University of Arkansas Razorbacks vs. Duke University Blue Devils
 DALLAS, TX- CIRCA 1961: Lance Alworth runningback of the University of Arkansas Razorbacks runs the ball upfield during a matchup against the Duke University Blue Devils in the 1961 Cotton Bowl at the Cotton Bowl Stadium in Dallas, Texas, circa 1961. The Razorbacks lost 7-6.
Photo by Cotton Bowl/Collegiate Images via Getty Images

Donald Altman only played varsity football at Duke for two seasons and head coach Bill Murray only used him properly for one of those. But Altman used his powerful right arm to key Duke football and baseball to some of the biggest wins in school history.

Altman came to Duke from Freeport, Pennsylvania, a small town in the southwest corner of the state.

Freshmen couldn’t play varsity ball in those days, of course, and Altman was academically ineligible in 1958, his sophomore season. He played when substitutions were limited and players went both ways, offense and defense.

In fact, Altman had four career interceptions at Duke.

Take that, Daniel Jones.

Altman began his career at a time when Murray adhered to the adage that “only three things can happen when you throw the ball and two of them are bad.”

Buddy Bass led Duke with nine receptions in 1956. On the season. George Dutrow led Duke with 10 the following season. Sonny Jurgensen threw 155 passes in three seasons at Duke, a month’s worth of passes for Jurgensen in the NFL.

Altman’s mighty right arm didn’t get much work in 1959. He threw 30 passes. But he completed 19 of those, including a 58-yard scoring strike to Tee Moorman against South Carolina. That was Altman’s first college pass.

Still, he split time at quarterback with senior George Harris, who completed 27 of 65.

Murray didn’t need to throw the ball all that much early in his Duke tenure. Duke won the ACC title in 1953, 1954 and 1955 and beat Nebraska in the 1955 Orange Bowl.

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Until it’s broke. Eventually Murray’s predictable offense began to cause problems. Duke’s 1959 season-finale against North Carolina was nationally televised.

The Tar Heels won 50-0 and Duke ended its season 4-6.


Murray could be stubborn. But he wasn’t stupid.

He and Army coach Red Blaik had been friends for years. Blaik had instituted something called “the lonesome end,” sometimes “lonely end,” in which a receiver stayed near the sidelines and didn’t enter the huddle. Lonesome end Bill Carpenter was a first-team All-America for an undefeated Army team in 1958.

Blaik decided to go out on top and retired after that 1958 season.

Murray sought him out for advice and Blaik had nothing to hide.

The result was a completely revamped Duke offense for 1960.

Moorman was Duke’s Anderson and Altman was the guy who got him the ball.

Moorman once tried to explain to me why leaving the lonesome end outside the huddle was better than having him leave the huddle and go to the exact same spot. I confess, it went over my head. But Moorman and Altman reacted to the change like the proverbial ducks to water.

Altman hit 14 of 19, for 150 yards in a season-opening win over South Carolina and 11 of 18 in a loss to Michigan.

These seem like modest stats from a modern perspective but were paradigm-changing for Duke football in 1960, indeed for the ACC. To give some frame of reference future NFL MVP Roman Gabriel threw for 1,182 yards in 10 games that same 1960 season for NC State.

Duke had resources other than Altman and Moorman. Moorman and lineman Dwight Bumgarner were All-Americans and were joined on the All-ACC first team by lineman Art Browning and back Mark Leggett. Altman was second-team, behind Gabriel.

Duke started 7-1 but lost to North Carolina (7-6) and to Billy Kilmer and UCLA to end the regular season 7-3. The UCLA loss was especially galling for Murray, a 27-6 bludgeoning that was preceded by a full run of Hollywood touring. In one staged photo-op Altman was photographed showing Elvis Presley how to throw a tight spiral.

Still, Duke finished the regular season ranked 10th in the AP poll and received an invite to play Arkansas in the Cotton Bowl. One Dallas paper compared inviting Duke to the Cotton Bowl as one of the two worst mistakes in Texas history, along with defending the Alamo.

Duke’s 1960 team had some great college players but Arkansas had one of the best football players ever, Lance Alworth, a receiver of such speed and grace that he was nicknamed “Bambi.”

Arkansas won the Southwest Conference title that season and that was during Darrell Royal’s Texas heyday.

Murray was not happy with the way the regular season ended and conducted some pretty fierce pre-bowl practices, not in Dallas but in San Antonio, the better to avoid pre-game distractions. Players on that team use words like “brutal” to describe those practices.

Back-up lineman Dick Havens says “we killed ourselves in practice. But we were prepared.”

January 1, 1961 was a Sunday and college football did not contest bowl games on Sundays in those days, so the game was held on January 2.

Murray reverted to mid-1950s form in the first half and the two teams slugged it out between the 30s.

It was scoreless late in the third when Alworth punted the ball dead at the Duke two.

Duke ran one play and then punted out of trouble.

Yes, it was a different era.

And Duke didn’t actually punt out of trouble. Alworth took the punt at the Duke 49 and sprinted into the end zone, untouched down the left side of the field.

But Dave Unser blocked the PAT and, as they say on TV, it came back to haunt Arkansas.

Trailing 6-0 late, Murray unleashed Altman and Moorman.

Walt Rappold was a sophomore in 1960, Altman’s backup. He says Murray’s message was simple. “Believe in your practice, believe in your work, just play Duke football.”

Altman and Moorman combined for six completions on one final, epic, 18-play, 73-yard drive. Altman connected on fourth down twice, once after Moorman wrestled a potential interception away from Alworth on third down.

Altman found Moorman all alone in the end zone on a trick play when Altman handed the ball to a running back, got the ball back, rolled to his right and threw the strike.

Rappold says that Duke ran that play before that season but never at the goal line.

Browning’s PAT made it 7-6. Alworth fumbled the ensuing kickoff. Duke recovered and ran out the clock. The game ended with the ball at the Arkansas one-yard line.

Altman ended the season with 80 completions, on 119 attempts.

He took a few days off and started his senior season on the diamond.

He actually had a better baseball season in 1960, when he went 8-2, with a 0.82 earned run average. But Duke finished second to North Carolina in the ACC and only one team advanced to the NCAAs; there was no ACC Tournament in those days.

Altman was voted first-team All-ACC.

The 5-11 Altman really earned his nickname “Ace” in 1961. Duke began the season 1-5 overall and was 5-3 in the ACC before running off a six-game ACC winning streak, to edge North Carolina by one game and Wake Forest by two. His best outing might have been a complete-game, five-hitter in a crucial 1-0 win over South Carolina in early May.

The NCAA Tournament was 32 teams in those days, eight four-team regionals, with the eight winners advancing to Omaha. The Southeast regional consisted of the winners of the ACC, SEC and Southern Conference, along with an independent.

The 1961 regional was played in Gastonia, North Carolina.

But there was a big difference in 1961. West Virginia was integrated and the SEC refused to send a team to play against a Black Player, leaving only three teams.

Duke won a coin toss and only had to win twice in the double-elimination tournament. Duke defeated Florida State 7-2 and West Virginia 7-3 to win the regionals.

Duke went to Omaha having won nine of its previous 10 games.

But Altman and the Blue Devils lost a 3-2 heartbreaker to Oklahoma State. Duke stayed alive in the double-elimination tournament with a 15-3 win over Colorado State but fell to Boston College 4-3 in the game that ended their season.

Altman gave minor-league baseball a try, spending three seasons in the pros, two with the Durham Bulls. But he went 4-10, with a 4.03 ERA and never got any further.

Altman worked for years in the industrial supplies business and retired to Fort Myers, Florida, where he passed away Wednesday at the age of 82. He also became a scratch golfer and won lots of club tournaments.

Rappold says the key to Altman’s success was his supreme confidence.

“He was very self-confident. It was in his nature. He relished challenges.”

Havens recalls Altman calling himself the “the ace of them all.”

And Duke was okay with that level of confidence.

“You don’t mind it if they can back it up. He could back it up. And he was fun to be around. What he did as a senior was just amazing.”

Over six decades later Don Altman remains the last Duke quarterback to win a major bowl game and the last Duke pitcher to start in the opener of the College World Series.

Still, the ace of them all.