COLUMBUS, Ohio — As Gene Smith will have you believe, in hiring Chris Holtmann, Ohio State got its man.
And make no mistake, the former Butler coach fits the profile of the No. 1 choice Smith insists he was when the Buckeyes athletic director set out to replace Thad Matta a week ago.
At 45 years old, Holtmann is young enough to freshen up the Ohio State men’s basketball program and has an impressive track record at both Gardner-Webb and Butler. His Midwest ties only make him more attractive, as does his recruiting resumé.
Yet a sense of uncertainty seemed to accompany what was ultimately a four-day coaching search. The end result made sense. Smith’s process in arriving there, however, didn’t seem to add up.
Between Tuesday night and Thursday morning, Fred Hoiberg’s name was rumored, Chris Jent reportedly interviewed and Greg McDermott was allegedly offered the job. Even NBA assistant Mike Brown had been linked to the Buckeyes’ opening before Holtmann’s name was first publicly associated with it late Thursday night.
Simply put, for the better part of last week, Ohio State didn’t appear to have a plan to replace its all-time winningest coach.
After officially introducing Holtmann on Monday morning, Smith attempted to clear the air. The Ohio State AD wouldn’t publicly confirm nor deny any other candidates he spoke to. He was, however, insistent, Holtmann was his first choice all along.
“My No. 1 candidate emerged. It was clear. He was my top target,” Smith said, pointing at Holtmann.
According to Smith, the Buckeyes didn’t reach out to Holtmann — or any other candidate — until after the press conference announcing Matta’s departure last Monday. Smith said Ohio State made its first offer — a seven-year deal — to Holtmann on Tuesday.
“He had trepidation,” Smith explained.
Hoping to make a quick hire, the Buckeyes began looking elsewhere. That’s likely where the other names that popped up throughout last week came into play.
None of that matters, so long as Smith is telling the truth and Holtmann was indeed his top choice. College basketball is big business. Big business can be complicated. Ohio State’s initial offer to its new coach eventually grew from a seven-year contract to an eight-year deal. At this point, it seems clear the Buckeyes had Holtmann in mind all along.
Holtmann’s history would indicate this has the potential to be a home-run hire for Ohio State. In the past three seasons, his results at Butler — both on the court and the recruiting trail — trumped the steady decline that was the end of the Matta era in Columbus. Now, Holtmann has more resources and a bigger pool of talent to recruit from. Smith is hoping that a bigger stage will amplify Holtmann’s recent success.
Anytime you fire your program’s all-time winningest coach, you’re making a gamble. Sure, one could argue that with Matta’s health complicating matters, Ohio State wouldn’t be returning to relevance anytime soon under its now-former coach. But regardless of recent results, Matta’s 337 career wins is what Holtmann will always be measured against.
In other words, the Buckeyes’ coaching change isn’t about the next 1-2 years, but rather the next 10-20.
Hiring Holtmann would seem to indicate Smith had this in mind. And as long as the results follow, it doesn’t matter how he got here.