Behind the scenes with Ohio State's Chris Holtmann for emotional PK80 experience
An inside look at how Holtmann handled his much publicized, unexpected reunion with Butler in Portland
PORTLAND, Ore. — Guttural, instinctive noises burp from Chris Holtmann. As do one-sentence reactions.
"Oh my gosh!"
"Wait -- no. GUYS!"
It's Friday, Nov. 24, and Holtmann is preparing for the sixth game of his Ohio State career. In a few hours, he's got Stanford. Holtmann is not oh-my-gosh-ing about his Buckeyes in this moment, though.
He's sitting in a multi-room suite that overlooks much of the scenic contrast of Portland's distinct landscape: chic urban streets clash with neo-hipster culture and an abundance of food trucks; hilly, high-forest vistas are backdrop to greater Portland's topography. The Willamette River splits the city into east and west. It's a sensational sight from the 22nd floor of the Hilton Portland Downtown.
Holtmann and his team finished film review earlier, followed by walkthroughs of their offensive sets in a bottom-floor ballroom at the hotel. The first-year Buckeyes coach allowed CBS Sports total access during the PK80 Invitational, college basketball's biggest early-season event over Thanksgiving weekend. But now the 46-year-old Holtmann has brought me up to his suite while he does some more game prep.
As we talk, Holtmann occasionally stops mid-sentence and chirps at the 65-inch television.
Those who still wear scorn on their skin have taken to calling him "Boltmann."
Holtmann is lampooned by some Butler fans after he left in the middle of June for one of the best jobs in the sport. Talk truthfully to other college basketball coaches, and you'll find there are few who wouldn't have done what Holtmann did if they were in his position. His Ohio State contract is for eight years and hovers in the range of $3 million annually. But in this era of social media, for a program that had lost four other coaches to higher profile jobs in the 2000s, those numbers don't take away the sting.
The backlash has bothered Holtmann in the months since he left. He tries to avoid checking his Twitter mentions. Someone sent a piercing piece of snail mail, shipping him an envelope with a $1 bill inside. As Holtmann peeks at his folder with prep for Stanford, he keeps an eye on Butler's game. He's downing Riesens while watching the Bulldogs play a close one vs. Portland State.
"I identified with the place so strongly. I think that I'll always, even though I left, I'll be reminded that it fit really well." Chris Holtmann on leaving Butler to coach Ohio State
"I think I needed to understand that this, you know, Brad (Stevens) did an incredible things there -- Brad also didn't take a college job," Holtmann said. "Brad took an NBA job. There's not going to be hard feelings for him, nor should there be. I probably need to have thicker skin with some of it, too. I probably just need to, like, why would I be upset that we've got a clown that's calling me 'scumbag'?"
On a personal level, Holtmann's tenure at Butler was defined by tragedy just as much as it was success. Holtmann took Butler to three consecutive NCAA Tournaments, but the program was also struck by death and cancer. Former Bulldog Andrew Smith died at 25 in early 2016. Another former Butler player, Joel Cornette, unexpectedly died in August of 2016. Butler assistant Emerson Kampen lost his six-month-old in the middle of last season. Butler players and recruits had parents diagnosed with cancer. It's been an exhausting, horrific stretch for the program over the past two years.
"I identified with the place so strongly. I think that I'll always, even though I left, I'll be reminded that it fit really well," Holtmann said. "Because Butler's so small, the relationships are -- it's not as corporate as some places. The relationships can tie you together on top of all the really significant stuff we went through. ... I'm beyond blessed to have the opportunity to be where I'm at and to have been at Butler in the first place. You're talking about a guy whose dream job was Taylor University. For whatever reason, I was given that responsibility out of a really sad, tragic. Hopefully was a good steward with it. It was hard, man. The thing I hate about something like this is you're forced to make a life-changing decision like this in 36 hours."
At one point in the second half Butler sophomore Sean McDermott twists an ankle. Holtmann notes his mom had a cancer scare last season.
"I believe she's in remission," Holtmann says. "That's Tyler Wideman, that kid patting him. He's an awesome kid."
Bulldogs sophomore Joey Brunk had a father battling brain cancer at the time of his commitment to BU. Holtmann vowed to Joe Brunk that he'd coach Joey for his entire college career. Brunk's dad didn't want Joey to sign a National Letter of Intent, which most recruits do but stalls their option to transfer out even if their coach leaves. Brunk signed. His father died this past April. Less than two months later, Holtmann was in Columbus.
"My god, what a brutal conversation that was," Holtmann said. "We were both crying. I said, 'Joey, I've got something really hard I want to say to you.' I had trouble getting it out. And he said, 'Coach, I don't want you to think I'm mad at you.' He started crying, I started crying."
Though Holtmann will wind up coaching against his former team less than 48 hours from the moment he recalls that story, he doesn't know it for sure yet. It's time to address the inevitable. By inherently pushing for Butler, he is reluctantly rooting for the scenario he wants no part of.
CBS Sports: "So, do I have this right? If your outcome and Butler's outcome match today, you'll face each other?"
Holtmann (four seconds of pause): " … Yeah. Yep. Yep."
CBS Sports: Are you already stressing about that?
Holtmann (immediately, with Riesens in mouth): "Yeah."
At 1:38 p.m. local time, Ohio State's team is back in the ballroom and working on more video reviews and defensive walkthroughs for the Stanford game. Assistant Terry Johnson leads the Buckeyes through defensive assignments. Players who are capable 3-point shooters are called "Redicks," while those who are not deep threats are "Rondos."
At 2:05 p.m. Butler barely hangs on to beat Portland State, 71-69. Twenty-two floors up, Holtmann's phone buzzes in an empty hotel suite.
Thad Matta, the most successful coach in Buckeyes men's basketball history, was fired because OSU athletic director Gene Smith was not comfortable with the trajectory of the program. The biggest reason an unconventional dismissal was made in June: recruiting wasn't on an uptick. Holtmann came on with immense pressure to win on the trail.
Keep in mind, Butler is not Ohio State. He'd never been tasked with something like this.
"It literally overwhelmed us those first couple months," he said.
From personal journals to practice plans, Holtmann' kept all of his documents from his Gardner-Webb and Butler days. But there is no written set of goals, no scribbled out plan for this week, next month, year and beyond. Before and after taking the job Holtmann's consulted with Stevens, Matta (who also coached at Butler), Virginia's Tony Bennett, Akron's John Groce and Virginia Tech's Buzz Williams. Gonzaga's Mark Few, who has shunned huge offers, and Texas' Shaka Smart, who was only wooed away from VCU by Texas, also got calls. Holtmann wanted dissenting views before deciding.
He's picked Urban Meyer's brain a bit as well. Professional stress is unrelenting in the first year a coach takes over a top-40 program, especially when it's a rebuild. In late November, with recruiting season at a slow, Holtmann found himself trying to tread water at the PK80, which preempted more games vs. power conference competition heading into December. OSU is in the process of playing six high-major programs in 12 days: Gonzaga, Stanford, Butler, Clemson, Wisconsin, Michigan. Heading into PK80, the Buckeyes were ranked lower than every one of those teams at KenPom.com.
Things got started with a blasting. Gonzaga blitzed the Buckeyes 86-59 in the quarterfinals.
"It was an emotional game because it was an emotional environment," Holtmann said, referring to Gonzaga's heavy fan contingent.
Emotion would become the theme of the weekend for Ohio State. The team got back to the hotel at 12:15 a.m. and had a meal together. Then the players were sent to their rooms while the coaches took to film. Holtmann watched the Gonzaga ugliness and put an edit together with his video coordinators. He wouldn't hit the pillow until about 2:30, the alarm set for 7.
At this point, Butler had lost to Texas in its quarterfinal. Before the Stanford game is played, win or lose, Ohio State assistants Ryan Pedon and Johnson, who both were on Holtmann's Butler staff, are already thinking the Bulldogs are in their future.
"With this tournament, when we knew there was a chance we could play, we just knew it was going to happen," Johnson said. "Like, it's fate. It was going to happen. So just prepare yourself. That's just how life is. That's how it works. It's a great thing for the media, a great deal for fans on one side of it, but it's part of life, part of the business."
Pedon interviewed for the Butler job after Holtmann left. Of course there's a competitive nature to what Sunday could bring.
"Try to suppress that though, right?" Pedon said. "I do think this: We can't let it as professionals be part of our thought process. I don't think that's healthy for us or would be fair to our guys right now. That's always been our way of doing things. … Now, it's in there, it's in there of course."
Holtmann's trying to keep focused on the Cardinal, which is a vastly different team from a prep standpoint vs. what Gonzaga offered.
"I thought the likelihood of [playing Butler] was pretty minimal going into this," Holtmann said. "I was confident they would beat Texas, that's part of the reason. I didn't know how we'd play against Gonzaga. I thought 'Gonzaga's really good,' but we need to play better. I do not want that."
"I do not want that," Holtmann repeats, his eyes on Butler vs. Portland State.
After a slow start vs. Stanford, Ohio State gets some big buckets by Keita Bates-Diop late in the first half. In the coaches' room inside the locker room, Pedon says to Holtmann: "Keep stressing, Coach, this is an opportunity. They jumped on this thing. I think our spirit can come out here. This is a revealing half for us."
Holtmann speaks to the players: "It's not your night? You should be the loudest ones cheering. That's what you can bring to the team right there. If you're inward right now and you're struggling, get outside yourself. Find a way to get outside yourself. Find a way to help your team play well. That's maturity, that's what good players do. That's what teammates do."
The Buckeyes never trail in the second half and win it 79-71. With 1:09 remaining, Butler's assistants leave their seats, walk up the steps opposite Ohio State's bench, and exit the Moda Center. Pedon notices as they go.
With the win vs. Stanford in hand, the locker room bursts to life once everyone gets back there.
"As fate would have it!" one Ohio State staffer yelled upon entering the coaches' room.
"Now we got them Bulldogs!" another one says. "Tomorrow's a little special."
"Holt! Go to sleep. Go to sleep. Just go to sleep!" Johnson teases Holtmann the second he walks in.
After some other good-natured expletives and quick exchanges on what just transpired, Holtmann blurts to no one in particular, "I cannot believe this scenario, man" as he heads to his press conference. While sitting at the dais, Holtmann says the phrase "it's not ideal" five or six times. He also emphasizes how much he wants Sunday to be about the players competing.
"I really don't think our players are going to do anything differently because I coached at Butler last year," he said.
That night, Holtmann downs two swigs of Nyquil and induces himself into four hours of unconsciousness.
Go to sleep, Holt.
Coaches can go years without facing their former school -- if they ever do at all. Most don't want to do it. Few ever have to face the guys they recruited. Holtmann's unwanted reunion might have set the record for the shortest break in men's Division I history. The unusual timing of his hiring only gave him a 170-day gap in between officially leaving Butler and having to coach vs. the Bulldogs.
"Honestly, my first thought getting up was what we were going to run on our opening set," Holtmann says Sunday.
Shortly after noon, as he exits the locker room at Veterans Memorial Coliseum, a few Butler board members greet him with smiles. Some in the stands won't repeat such generosity. Pregame verbal jabs come quick, and they're lobbed out sporadically over the next two hours. Lori Holtmann, clad in her husband's new scarlet and gray, hears much of the heckling. Their 7-year-old daughter winds up crying before the game begins.
"Hey, Chris, nice spray tan! Holtmann, did you take a page out of Tom Crean's book?"
"Holtmann, you want a dollar back?"
"Holtmann, Team 120. Team 120, Holtmann."
At one point, a fan goes after Ohio State guard Andrew Dakich, son of ESPN announcer Dan Dakich. In the second half, one fan sitting to Holtmann's right starts yelling to Butler players on the floor, two of them freshmen who Holtmann recruited.
"Hey, (Aaron) Thompson! Holtmann didn't believe in you! Hey, (Henry) Baddley, Holtmann didn't believe in you! Hey, David, Holtmann didn't care about you!"
Then, the surreal unfolds. Ohio State was on its way to a comfortable win. Then Butler went Butler. The Buckeyes, after controlling much of the game, puke it away. For Holtmann, it's a bizarre stench of déjà vu. He's experienced the better side of Butler's finger-bending comebacks a bunch of times. Now he's the one feeling the pain -- and it's about to be the biggest collapse of his coaching career. The Buckeyes blow a 15-point lead with 3:40 to go. Kamar Baldwin buries a 3-pointer with eight seconds remaining to send it to overtime.
"Obviously it was an emotional game, they have a lot of fans here, and the obvious things along with the comeback elevated the energy in the room."Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann after losing to Butler
Butler's overwhelming fan support more than 2,000 miles from Indianapolis brings an energy that's hitting Ohio State's players hard and its coaches hardest.
"It's, uh, i'm at a loss for words for how to explain it," Holtmann would say after the game. "Obviously it was an emotional game, they have a lot of fans here, and the obvious things along with the comeback elevated the energy in the room."
In overtime, Butler assistant Emerson Kampen, a former Butler player who was video coordinator under Holtmann at BU, recognizes the set. From the end of the floor he calls out Holtmann's inbounds play. Butler's Kelan Martin steals it. Holtmann looks visibly uncomfortable during overtime, like the karma's coming for him.
"With the guys one of the things he did a great job was keeping an edge, a chip on their shoulder," Butler coach LaVall Jordan told me after the game. "I'm seeing it in the locker room. You can see a lot of the carryover with that with the guys."
Flashback to Holtmann's suite two days prior. He's mid-quote on the differences between when he left Gardner-Webb for Butler vs. leaving Butler for OSU. Then Kelan Martin, on TV, caused Holtmann to stop mid-sentence.
"I think the (Gardner-Webb) president was frustrated with me for leaving. I know he was angry with me," Holtmann said. "Outside of that, my AD, who I loved, was disappointed but fully supportive. I ended there -- like, I'm still really connected there. The reality is, I need to understand: If I was going to take another college job, you're not going to have that same relationship with Butler because Butler's in the Big East and in a lot of ways it could be a destination job. So I think, I think I needed to understand that the reality is the way it's going -- what a terrible, no, hang on! Hang on, Key! Oh, oh my gosh. Oh my gosh. I love that kid. I love that kid, but that was a bonehead play. You should have the last shot."
Martin would get his last shot -- vs. Ohio State. His driving, left-handed layup with 3.8 seconds left in overtime gave the game its final score: Butler 67, Ohio State 66. In the handshake line, Holtmann told Martin and the Butler players he was proud of them, still loved them. They said the same. But as that was happening, one fan in the stands continued to let Holtmann have it. He couldn't hold back any longer.
A demoralizing loss complete, Holtmann fired back.
"I lost it one time on one guy," he said. "There was another guy in the [handshake] line, and I'm just trying to tell the guys, 'Hey, good job, I love ya.' He would not shut up. I lost it."
Holtmann kept his phone off most of the following 48 hours after the Butler game. He tried to keep his focus on his team and family, not allow himself to wallow by checking voicemails or scrolling through the flood of text messages that came in.
On Tuesday night, Holtmann called on his ride home from work in Columbus, Ohio, and opted to reflect just once more.
"That deal was so much harder than I thought it was going to be," he said. "You do this for a variety of reasons. Most guys, they love the competitive part of this, a lot of this stuff. But the reason I got into this is the relationships. You love the competitive juices, but it's really about the relationships you develop. It's about being a part of a team being a part of a community.
"I knew there was going to be some vitriol, and that wasn't necessarily the hardest part, but ... I was really attached to the Butler community. Sunday in a lot of ways signaled the final separation that takes place. It was way harder than I expected, and the fact that we did a lot of really good things in the game but played so poorly down the stretch, I ... even when we were up 15, I don't know. I felt completely different than any game I've ever been up 15."
Closure came calling with a hammer. Butler fans found theirs in a victory. Holtmann got his with a humbling, newfound form of defeat. In the 40-hour buildup to Butler-Ohio State, Holtmann wanted the game to be about his players and Butler's players as much as possible. Eventually, it was. Ohio State's undeniably in rebuild mode, so Holtmann was severely reminded of how good a team he left behind. Holtmann vs. Butler became the story, but the players made Sunday's game unforgettable on both sides. For Holtmann and Butler, this is finally the sever.
They'll always have Portland.
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