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Men’s Basketball: Intense on the sidelines, Chris Holtmann made his biggest impact off the court

Creighton head coach Greg McDermott embraces his son and tournament Most Outstanding Player after their Missouri Valley Conference championship game against Illinois State on March 4, 2012, in St. Louis, Missouri. Credit: Courtesy of TNS

Most of the team wasn’t on campus when then-Gardner-Webb men’s basketball head coach, and recently-hired Ohio State coach, Chris Holtmann called his team together to tell them he was leaving to take an assistant coaching position at Butler. But those who remained in Boiling Springs, North Carolina, in July 2013 couldn’t contain their emotions.

“Most guys cried, broke down,” then-Gardner-Webb freshman forward Jerome Hill said. “That’s how much he meant to us.”

Holtmann had called a meeting a couple weeks prior to tell the Runnin’ Bulldogs that he would be back for a fourth season at the helm, said then-Gardner-Webb sophomore point guard Tyler Strange. Strange said Holtmann called each player individually to inform them of his decision.

“There’s no question, it hurt us. It was something that guys really took to heart,” Strange said. “Me personally, I sat on the phone with him for maybe 30, 40 minutes and just cried to him and expressed how thankful I was for him and how happy I was for him to be taking, you know, to a new spot.”

Though Hill said some of the older players on the team thought Holtmann might leave, he didn’t think it was possible. He eventually understood why his former coach moved on, but it was hard to grasp at the time.

“Everybody was hurt when he told us at the end of the season that he was leaving because we felt like we could’ve dominated the Big South,” Hill said. “That guy, man, he’s different. He’s different.”

Holtmann spent three years leading Gardner-Webb after the school handed the first-year coach the reins in 2010. The Runnin’ Bulldogs finished an unimpressive 11-21 in his first season and 12-20 in year two. But in the 2012-13 season, Gardner-Webb drastically improved, finishing 21-13, and Holtmann was named Big South Coach of the Year.

Less than four months after the Runnin’ Bulldogs’ season concluded, Holtmann took the Butler assistant job. In Indianapolis, Holtmann spent one season as an assistant, then took over as interim coach in 2014. He was named head coach on Jan. 2, 2015. He led the Bulldogs to three straight 20-win seasons and NCAA Tournament appearances.

Friday morning, OSU named Holtmann as its successor to Thad Matta, the winningest coach in program history, who was fired on Monday, June 5.

Prior to his stint as head coach at Gardner-Webb, Holtmann was an assistant there from 2003-2008. Even then, he stood out to Gardner-Webb Vice President for Athletics Chuck Burch. So when the school began looking for a new head coach in 2010, he was atop the list of candidates. After going through the interviewing process, Burch sat down with Frank Bonner, the university’s president, who told Burch to take out a piece of paper.

“He said, ‘You write down a name and I’ll write down a name.’ He said, ‘When we open it up …  hopefully we’ll put down the same name. If not, we’ll have to figure out what we’re going to do,’” Burch said. “We put our names down, opened our papers up and we both put Holtmann.”

Burch wasn’t surprised Holtmann decided to leave Gardner-Webb for Butler after three years. Burch said Holtmann’s aspiration was always to coach at the highest level possible. The previous summer, the duo had a conversation about Holtmann potentially taking a job elsewhere, but he decided to stay because the coach didn’t think the opportunity or timing was right.

But no one imagined just how quick his four-year rise would be from coaching in the Big South to leading OSU.

“I’ve heard other coaches rave about him — hard work ethic and stuff like that,” then-sophomore guard Max Landis said. “I didn’t think, if you’d have told me he was going to be the head coach at Ohio State in four years, I’d tell you you were crazy.”

Everyone The Lantern spoke with for this story used the same word to describe Holtmann: intense.

Holtmann isn’t afraid to get in his players’ faces during games. Hill remembered Holtmann challenging him during Gardner-Webb’s matchup against Campbell in the 2013 conference tournament quarterfinals.

“It was a time I was playing bad,” Hill said. “He got me face-to-face and was like, ‘Hey, you’re supposed to be my junkyard dog. Junkyard dogs don’t play like this.’ He kind of like pushed me to another level.”

Landis said the defense-oriented Holtmann ran the toughest conditioning drills he’s experienced in his basketball career. The work didn’t just take place in the offseason; It carried into the season.

A week after dropping a game against Iowa in mid-November 2012, Gardner-Webb headed north to take on Illinois — its second Big Ten opponent of the season. The team arrived at the hotel in Champaign, Illinois, at about 8 p.m. and Holtmann scheduled a practice that night for 9 p.m.

After the long day of travel, the team expected to go through a shootaround or a light practice.

“But no, this is the kind of guy where we have practice for three hours before we played Illinois the next day,” Strange said. “We practiced hard, and we practiced balls to the wall and sweat dripping down our face, guys hitting each other.”

The Illini came back in the final minute to beat Gardner-Webb, 63-62, relying on a 3-pointer with five seconds remaining to avoid the upset.

That relentless energy and effort has the potential to grind on players and yield resentment toward a coach. Though his former players said they hated the hard work in the moment, Strange said he and his teammates saw the positive results. They kept up the same intensity in practice all season and saw drastic results in conference play.

His former players also truly believed Holtmann cared for them as people first and basketball players a distant second.

When Landis missed all 10 3-pointers he attempted against UNC-Asheville on Dec. 1, 2011, Holtmann called the self-described shooter after the game to comfort him.

“He called me right after the game and thought I was real upset and so far away from home,” Landis, a freshman at the time, said. “He called and talked to me for 35 or 40 minutes, said ‘Everything’s going to be OK. I want you to shoot every open shot you get next game.’”

Landis, an Indianapolis native, played two seasons under Holtmann before he decided to transfer closer to home. Landis and his former coach stayed in contact, though, even after Holtmann left for Butler. When Landis’s grandfather, a Butler fan, was nearing the end of his life, Holtmann called him and gave him a hat.

“I wasn’t even playing for him at the time. If you play for him, he cares about you for the rest of your life,” Landis said.

Every pitch from Holtmann to potential recruits differed. On Christmas in 2011, Hill received his first piece of mail from Gardner-Webb. It said, “Santa better bring me Jerome.” By the time Hill made it on campus for a visit, Holtmann and his staff knew of Hill’s sweet tooth.

“They knew I was a candy guy. They had my bed, my room like covered, my whole bed, like covered in candy like all over my bed,” Hill said.

Hill enjoyed the surprise, but it didn’t sell him on the program. However, Hill said Holtmann’s personality was what locked in his committment. Hill wasn’t alone. Landis said he could tell Holtmann cared about his players and Strange echoed the sentiments.

“I went on my visit to Gardner-Webb, and basically from the moment I got there, he preaches a family atmosphere,” Strange said. “It’s bigger than basketball with him. It’s more of a family-first (environment) and basketball comes with it.”

Strange, a native of Massachusetts, said Holtmann took him in as if he was one of his own. Strange went to church on Sunday’s with Holtmann’s family – Chris, his wife Lori and their daughter Nora Jane. He said he sees Lori as a mother figure in his life.

Holtmann invited his team over to his house for barbeques and to swim. Hill said they were mandatory in order for the team to become a cohesive unit and to ensure the players can build a rapport. The team watched the Final Four together at his home, and he brought the team over to have Christmas dinner.

“I have a lot of friends who played at big-time programs, Duke and all these schools, and you don’t have that atmosphere. You don’t have that kind of collectiveness that you get with what Holtmann’s going to bring (to OSU),” Strange said. “Something that Holtmann’s going to bring is a family atmosphere that guys are going to be able to get along.”

Even after he left Gardner-Webb, Holtmann stayed in contact with his former players. Hill and Strange said they talk to him about every other week.

“He’s always called me,” Landis said. “When I had a couple of good games at IPFW (Indiana University – Purdue University Fort Wayne)  my senior year, he would text me, ‘Hey, good game last night.’”

So, what did the players who played for Holtmann just four years ago think when he was announced as OSU’s head coach Friday?

“Let me tell you this, $3 million a year?” Strange said, laughing. “That’s all that needs to be said. When you go from making 115, 120, 130 thousand dollars at Gardner-Webb to $3 million at Ohio State, that shows how, not just excited or shocked, but how happy we are for his family and how much he deserves it.”

Despite his unprecedentedly rapid rise from Gardner-Webb to OSU, he hasn’t changed, according to one former player.

“I can’t tell a difference,” Hill said. “He’s just the same old Chris Holtmann to me.”

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