Nearly as shocking as the dismissal of Thad Matta as Ohio State’s coach Monday was a promise made that day to the players.
With the college basketball world whirling and the Buckeyes coming to grips with the end of Matta’s 13-season tenure nearly three months after the season, the man who decided to make a change told the players that they would have a new coach by the end of the weekend.
At the time, it sounded optimistic at best. But by lunchtime Friday, it was done.
After taking Butler to the NCAA Tournament in all three seasons as head coach, Chris Holtmann was named the 14th men’s basketball coach in Ohio State history.
“Chris is focused on academics, is a high-integrity person, a relentless recruiter with Midwestern ties and a proven winner,” athletic director Gene Smith said in a statement.
The sides were close to completing a deal late Thursday, and The Dispatch was the first to report early Friday that the deal was done. Ohio State issued a news release at 11 a.m. confirming the hire and announcing that an introductory news conference will take place at 11 a.m. Monday at Value City Arena.
After having signed an extension in April with Butler through 2025, Holtmann now has an eight-year contract with Ohio State worth around $3 million annually. A source told The Dispatch that he had a $2 million buyout at Butler.
“Chris is a tremendous basketball coach, but more importantly, he is a great man who has led our program well and embodied The Butler Way during his time with us,” Butler athletic director Barry Collier said in a statement.
Two other candidates are known to have been interviewed by Smith: Ohio State assistant coach Chris Jent and Creighton head coach Greg McDermott. Smith flew to Omaha, Nebraska, on Wednesday to meet with McDermott but did not officially offer him the job. Earlier that day, Jent made his pitch.
The Buckeyes also were linked with Chicago Bulls head coach Fred Hoiberg, Golden State Warriors assistant coach Mike Brown and Virginia Tech head coach Buzz Williams. West Virginia coach Bob Huggins had privately expressed interest in the job, but it is unclear if Ohio State returned it.
“Leaving Butler has been one of the hardest decisions of my life,” Holtmann said in a message posted to Twitter. “We all know that at Butler, despite change, those special and amazing moments will only continue. I’m certain of that. It’s Butler.”
In building a six-member recruiting class that was the highest-rated in Butler history, Holtmann beat out Ohio State for Massillon Jackson small forward Kyle Young, whom ESPN ranked the No. 2 overall prospect in Ohio and No. 86 nationally. Young is examining his options and may follow Holtmann to Ohio State, a source close to the situation told The Dispatch.
Smith said Monday that Matta’s replacement would be expected to successfully recruit Ohio. The Buckeyes have lost two in-state commitments from the Class of 2018 since the close of the season, but a source said small forwards Darius Bazley from Cincinnati Princeton and Justin Ahrens from Versailles would both be back in play with the Holtmann hiring.
According to a current player who asked not to be identified, the members of the Ohio State roster were predominantly excited about the news. With summer workouts underway, the players were given a day off to process Monday’s news and returned for workouts Wednesday morning with the focus on camaraderie and friendly competition. They learned of the Holtmann hire through word of mouth and social media.
The nine players on scholarship will now play for a coach known for his attention to detail and competitive drive.
“He’s going to demand that it’s just done right in practice,” said Gardner-Webb coach Tim Craft, who was an assistant under Holtmann there for three seasons. “Then he’s just a really competitive guy. We played lunchtime basketball and he’s ready to fight you to win the game.”
It is unclear what sort of coaching staff Holtmann might assemble at Ohio State. Among his current assistants is Bexley native Ryan Pedon, who played at Wooster and has spent time in various roles at Miami University, Kent State, Toledo and Illinois.
In a twist of fate, Ohio State and Butler could meet this season. Both teams will participate in the PK-80 tournament in Portland, which will start on Thanksgiving and features 16 teams split into two brackets. The Buckeyes and Bulldogs are in the same bracket and would face each other if both teams win or lose their first two games.
Dispatch Reporter Bill Rabinowitz contributed to this story.