COLUMBUS — Ohio State’s search for a new basketball coach began and ended with Butler’s Chris Holtmann.
Holtmann was offered the job by Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith one day after Thad Matta’s firing was announced, but didn’t accept until two days later after Smith agreed to bump the contract from seven years to eight, at about $3 million per year.
“It was clear,” Smith said at a news conference introducing Holtmann, who took Butler to the NCAA Tournament in each of his three seasons. “He was my target. He was my target from the very beginning.”
While Holtmann considered the offer, Smith looked for a Plan B as rumors swirled about possible candidates. Smith met with the Holtmanns in Dayton on Thursday morning, and the deal was sealed.
“We saw a high-intensity individual with an emphasis on academics, someone who is relentless in recruiting with great ties to the great state of Ohio and the contiguous states,” Smith said. “We found a proven winner who is a community engager and, bottom line, fits our culture.”
Expectations for the 45-year-old Holtmann are lofty: Return the Buckeyes to the national prominence enjoyed for years under Matta, and win recruiting battles for prep players who can be potential game-changers, starting in Ohio.
“One of the reasons you come to a place like this is because you understand that expectations come with it,” Holtmann said. “We’re certainly not going to shy away from that.”
Holtmann, a Nicholasville, Kentucky, native, started his coaching career as an assistant at his alma mater, Taylor University, then had stops at Geneva, Gardner-Webb and Ohio University. He was head coach at Gardner-Webb for three seasons before moving to Butler as an assistant under Brandon Miller in 2013.
He was named interim head coach in October 2014 after Miller took a medical leave of absence. The interim tag was removed in January 2015. In April, Holtmann signed a contract extension through the 2024-25 season.
He had a 70-31 record in three seasons with the Bulldogs, including a 25-9 mark in 2016-17. Butler’s 2016-17 campaign included a 14-5 regular-season record against 12 teams that made the 2017 tournament field.
Holtmann said he began calling recruits on Saturday and vowed that in-state players would be his priority.
“We’re going to work extremely hard as a staff to close the border and dominate the state of Ohio in recruiting,” he said.
However, some adversity is likely ahead for Holtmann in his first season in Columbus. Ohio State was 17-15 last season and 7-11 in the Big Ten, and missed the NCAA Tournament in 2016 and 2017. All five of Matta’s 2015 recruits have transferred or quit the program, most recently star guard JaQuan Lyle. Starting center Trevor Thompson left for the NBA.
“We have a tremendous work ahead of us,” Holtmann said, declining to put a timetable on when the Buckeyes will return to the NCAA Tournament.
Forward Keita Bates-Diop, who missed the final 18 games of last season because of a stress fracture of his left leg, said he was impressed that Holtmann flew to Columbus on Friday specifically to meet the team, as a group and then individually.
“He told all the guys, I want to come in and win now. It’s going to be a lot of work, obviously, we’ve got to build trust in each other,” Bates-Diop said. “A new staff coming in, they don’t know us, we don’t know them. It’s going to be rough for a little bit.”