Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith should be grateful that Creighton’s Greg McDermott turned down the chance to be the Buckeyes’ next basketball coach Thursday afternoon.
Less than 24 hours later, Smith landed a coach who appears to be a better fit for the job.
Chris Holtmann will leave Butler to replace Thad Matta as Ohio State head coach, the school announced Friday morning. Holtmann signed an eight-year contract reportedly worth about $3 million per year.
While both Holtmann and McDermott have built upper-tier Big East programs at schools that once belonged to smaller conferences, only the Butler coach has a recruiting presence in the states most vital to Ohio State.
Holtmann mines Ohio and Indiana for most of his talent, no surprise considering he played at Taylor University, broke into Division I as an Ohio assistant and has spent the past four seasons at Butler. McDermott, on the other hand, has deep roots in Iowa and Nebraska and tends to specialize in finding prospects there or in neighboring Midwestern states.
Pursuing top regional talent ought to be important to Smith considering the Buckeyes’ recent recruiting woes appeared to be the impetus for his oddly timed decision to fire Matta. Smith said Monday that he felt he could wait no longer to make a change after Matta missed on a handful of high-profile recruits and grad transfers this spring on the heels of two straight seasons without reaching the NCAA tournament.
“We weren’t winning the battles in recruiting that I thought we might have a chance to win,” Smith said. “As we started talking about that on Friday, the flow of the conversation brought us to the reality. ‘Thad, maybe it is time to make a leadership change.’”
McDermott has taken Creighton to four NCAA tournaments in seven seasons, won twice as many games as he’s lost and developed a reputation as an offensive mastermind, yet in many ways Holtmann’s head coaching resume is more impressive. Whereas McDermott has never guided a team to the second weekend of the NCAA tournament in 16 years at Creighton, Iowa State and Northern Iowa, Holtmann took Butler to the Sweet 16 in just his third season last year.
After transforming Gardner-Webb from a laughingstock into a winning program, Holtmann left to join Brandon Miller’s staff as an assistant at Butler. Only one year later he replaced Miller on an interim basis at a critical juncture for the Bulldogs program.
In its first season after ultra-successful coach Brad Stevens left for the Boston Celtics, Butler lost star forward Roosevelt Jones to torn ligaments in his wrist, struggled with the transition to the Big East and finished with a losing overall record for just the second time in two decades. Under pressure to show that season was just an aberration and not the new reality for a program that reached back-to-back national title games in 2010 and 2011, Holtmann responded by leading Butler to three straight NCAA tournaments the past three years.
Butler has a stronger team returning next season than Ohio State does, yet it’s difficult to blame Holtmann for changing jobs. Ohio State is one of college basketball’s 15 best jobs, a school with a fertile recruiting base, an ample budget, strong regional brand recognition and a football-first fan base with lower expectations than nearby hoops hotbeds.
The biggest drawback for Holtmann is the peculiar timing. He’ll need to assemble a staff quickly to prepare for the July recruiting period and he’s be leaving Butler in a bind with no coach three months into the offseason.
Holtmann’s emergence as Ohio State’s primary candidate came after Smith swung and missed at a handful of higher-profile names. Pie-in-the-sky candidates like Sean Miller and Billy Donovan made it clear they weren’t interested and McDermott, Xavier’s Chris Mack and Chicago Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg all publicly removed themselves from consideration.
But even if Holtmann isn’t the first choice at Ohio State, he still is a good one.
An ill-timed, poorly planned coaching search produced an excellent hire.