While a senior at NAIA Taylor University in Upland, Ind., Chris Holtmann endured the wrath of his Hall of Fame coach, Paul Patterson, during a game. Soon after, Holtmann disappeared from the locker room and no one could find him. It turned out that he drove 15 miles to Marion, Ind., and spent the night alone in a hotel. Patterson chucked while recalling the incident by telephone on Friday morning, offering a window into Holtmann’s relentless competitiveness. “It was that serious for him,” said Patterson, who won 734 games at Taylor. “I don’t remember if we won or not. But I’ve slept since then. I don’t know if he has.”
On Monday morning, Ohio State announced that Holtmann, 45, would leave his job at Butler University to become the next Buckeyes basketball coach. He agreed to an eight-year deal worth nearly $3 million per season, a remarkable pinnacle for a grinder who didn’t break into Division I coaching until he got hired as an assistant at Gardner-Webb in 2003. Since then, Holtmann has rocketed up the coaching ladder, his ascent marked by a quiet intensity, understated manner and uncanny ability to connect with players.
Holtmann went 70-31 in his three seasons at Butler, reaching the NCAA tournament each year. He deftly steadied a program that navigated the loss of coach Brandon Miller to health issues and the quantum leap to the Big East from the Horizon League in a two-year span from 2011 to 2013. “I think it’s a spectacular hire,” said Providence coach Ed Cooley. “Ohio State is fortunate to have him.”
The ultimate takeaway from Holtmann’s hire in Columbus is that this is a win for the Buckeyes. The Buckeyes actually liked Holtmann more than Creighton’s Greg McDermott, and circled back to him once McDermott pulled out of the running earlier this week. The hiring of Holtmann can’t be considered a complete home run, as there’s still an unknown element of whether he can recruit at the absolute highest level needed to compete in the Big Ten. But Buckeye fans should be giddy at landing a coach with his accomplishments, sideline acumen and impeccable reputation.
Holtmann’s path to a Top 20 college basketball job came through the sport’s backwaters. After playing at Taylor, he served as an assistant coach there, and also worked Geneva College, Gardner-Webb and Ohio University. Not exactly the coaching path of a former Duke guard. Along the way, coaches say that Holtmann’s best skill was connecting with players, motivating them and keeping them engaged. Holtmann served as the head coach at Gardner-Webb from 2010-13, stumbling through two 20-loss seasons before improving to a 21-13 mark in his third year. (His buddies from his Gardner-Webb tease him this YouTube compilation of his sideline dancing). “His biggest strength was the relationships he built with our players,” said former Gardner-Webb assistant Mike Netti, now at East Carolina. “He was always about the players. He’d say, ‘Keep a pulse on this guy, take him to lunch.’ If something was going on with a player, he’d have us bring him over to his house.
“To Chris, family and relationships trumped everything.”
That ability to connect resonated with Cooley in competing against and scouting Holtmann. He’d listen to his huddles on TV games and hear him on the sideline. “I think Chris’s best attribute is he gives confidence to his kids when they’re on the floor,” Cooley said. “He’s got a great way to get his kids to play ultra-tough.”
Being the basketball coach at Ohio State necessitates an inherent self-awareness that you are never going trump King Football. For basketball at Ohio State, even with its national championship pedigree, fertile recruiting ground and recent Final Four trips, will always toil in the shadows. Ohio State basketball is not a job for a coach who doubles as showman or self-promoter or carries a bloated ego. It’s a job where big expectations come with dimmer lights than regional competitors like Indiana, Michigan State and Louisville. And for that, Holtmann’s ego, demeanor and personality are perfect. (Much in the way former coach Thad Matta was perfect for this part of the job). “Chris is not going to step up to the podium and pound his chest and say, ‘Look at me,’” said Michael Lewis, a former Holtmann assistant at Butler who is now at Nebraska.
The problems that ultimately undid the tenure of Matta, 49, came down to two simple factors—his health and recruiting. They tied into each other in an unfortunate reality of the recruiting trail, as opposing coaches used Matta’s physical issues to discourage players to go there. (A botched back surgery left Matta with “drop foot,” a permanent disability in his right foot that caused things like putting on his shoes and pants to be a struggle).
After years of rosters loaded with NBA draft picks and All-Big Ten players, the Buckeyes didn’t have the talent to compete in the conference every night. And they won’t have the players next year, as a flurry of transfers, poor recruiting and whiffing on the transfer wire has left Ohio State in the rare position of being a have-not in the Big Ten.
College basketball is a year-to-year business now, like no other sport on the American landscape. Every season is a shake of the Yahtzee dice, with draft departures, transfers and fifth years making one year nearly unrecognizable to the next. It has turned college basketball into a sport of acquisition as much as development. The higher the level, the higher the stakes. Managing that turnover ultimately determines winning and losing.
Holtmann’s biggest adjustment at Ohio State is going to be navigating the recruiting waters of the Top 50 players he’ll need to compete with Michigan State, Indiana and Michigan consistently in the Big Ten.
Holtmann will be given a pass in his first season. There’s a clear reason that athletic director Gene Smith woke up one day in mid-June and decided that Matta, the school’s all-time winningest coach, shouldn’t be coaching anymore. It was recruiting. Matta didn’t start losing to teams like Texas-Arlington, Louisiana Tech and Florida Atlantic at home because of the way the Buckeyes hedged ball screens. They didn’t have the players.
For Holtmann to win at the high standard Matta set during his decorated 13 seasons, he’s going to need the next generation of Greg Oden, Mike Conley, Evan Turner and Jared Sullinger. Part of acquiring players of that caliber is relationships and evaluation. The other is navigating the agent scene, which controls a majority of the top players. The advantage Holtmann brings is experience in that recruiting radius from his time at Ohio and Butler, as his relationships are already deep rooted. “His recruiting ground isn’t going to change,” Lewis said. “He’s not switching backyards. He’s got a lot of connections and feel for that area of the country. He’s well respected in those circles and will figure it out. Knowing him, he’ll figure it out quickly.”
Hotlmann’s path from NAIA star to blue blood coach shows an ability to navigate new terrain. He’s a long way from his midnight run to Marion, and his new challenge may mean a few sleepless nights before Ohio State turns things around.