Within an hour after being publicly and officially named Big Ten coach of the year, Chris Holtmann found himself trying to explain what makes a good basketball coach.

Sandwiched inside an answer about recruiting the right types of players and being at a school where he is empowered to conduct business the right way, he twice used a specific phrase that gets to what he feels is the core of his career.

“I want to be at a place … where I can coach to my convictions; coach what I believe,” Holtmann said last week. “Coaching to my convictions is probably most important.”

It’s a value that has led Ohio State’s first-year men’s coach to be named coach of the year in three different conferences in a six-year span. It’s also one that was firmly planted in his upbringing, a journey of hard work and faith that took him from an inner-city school in Lexington, Kentucky, to a state tournament appearance for a rural high school and eventually into coaching.

It started in the basketball-crazed haven that is the Bluegrass State.

Local heroes

As he entered eighth grade, Holtmann had a choice to make. The budding player could go to a school in the Lexington suburbs or he could attend Lexington Junior High School, where basketball was the prime pursuit.

He chose the latter.

“I wanted to be in that environment,” Holtmann, 46, said this week. “It was a bit of a rough school. It was a great experience and one that I really enjoyed.”

It ultimately would be a one-year placement, though, as the Holtmanns moved a few miles south of Lexington to Nicholasville, where Chris would attend Jessamine County High School. Today, the district is split into two high schools, but then as now the Kentucky state basketball tournament features only one division for all teams.

As a senior on a 1990 team that featured a future Division I player, a future NAIA national champion coach and a prolific scorer who stood 6 feet 9, Holtmann helped the Colts into the Sweet 16 and an opening-round state-tournament win in Louisville before bowing out in the next round.

Back in Nicholasville, local businesses were staffed by skeleton crews for the tournament games and T-shirts featuring cartoon caricatures of the players were sold. The Colts’ run captivated the town, and Holtmann was in the center of it.

“This team was so good, you’d almost have to shut the city down because everybody was at the game,” said 70-year-old Nicholasville resident Paul M. “Sankey” Bingham, the father of Paul G. Bingham, a senior on that team. “As far as the away games, we took an insurmountable amount of people to follow them. They were well-respected throughout the state.”

Holtmann wasn’t the star of the team, but Bingham said his contributions often provided the Colts the necessary margin for victory. In the Sweet 16 win, Holtmann had 16 points, five rebounds and three assists while playing 32 minutes. He was named the game MVP, and his mother, Patty, still has a VHS copy of the postgame interview he gave on the court after Jessamine County’s 11-point win.

Such production became expected from someone who spent much of his free time cruising the area with teammate Kevin Burton, looking for pickup games.

“We would drive around Lexington looking for the best outdoor pickup game to play in,” said Burton, now the coach at Union College, located in Barbourville, Kentucky, and the reigning NAIA national champions.

“We played on summer leagues together. We looked for any 3-on-3 tournaments. We traveled all over. It meant a little bit more to us than probably most high school athletes. At the time we didn’t know that. That was just in our DNA, I guess.”

Summers involved playing on the iconic Blue Courts on the University of Kentucky’s campus and annual participation in the Dirt Bowl, a Lexington league that dates back decades.

“It’s all the best players in the city and all the guys that are playing in college come back and play in it and all the best high school players play in it,” Holtmann said. “It was a big deal to play in the Dirt Bowl. I got knocked around a lot in that thing.”

In those days, Holtmann also picked up a nickname that he’s not particularly fond of. Depending on who tells the story, it was either passed along by a Jessamine County upperclassman or the team’s coach, Julian Cunningham. And it had everything to do with the energy Holtmann displayed on the court at an early age.

They called him “Bunny.”

“It was purely on what he looked like on a shot or layup or something,” Burton said. “He never cared for it. He certainly didn’t resist it, but he would prefer people would call him Chris. The coach called him by his nickname.”

The moniker is forever memorialized in Holtmann’s senior yearbook, where a black-and-white photo of him going up for a right-handed layup in his No. 31 jersey is captioned, “Doing the Bunny Hop.”

“I hate it,” Holtmann said with a chuckle. “But somehow, it’s stuck with me with those kind of people (from my youth). It certainly did not follow me to college. I made sure of that.”

Focused on basketball

Holtmann had no problem summing up his interests as a teenager.

“I had a girlfriend and hoops and that was about it,” he said. “I don’t remember much of anything else.”

Holtmann also worked hard off the basketball court, carrying two jobs. He and his father, John, had a paper route in the morning, before John went to his job as an optician and Chris went to school. Then, as many as four nights a week, they would clean office buildings.

Holtmann was involved in one extracurricular activity outside of sports, though, and it offers some glimpse into what was meaningful during a formidable time in his life. He was a member of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.

“I can remember coming into his house and I would go downstairs to his bedroom and I can recall many, many times he was doing something related to his Christian walk at the time, whether it was read a devotional Bible or the Bible itself or watching something on television,” Burton said. “I can remember a few times being like, Let’s go, come on, there’s this, that or the other, and he never would get excited about those things.”

It left an impression on Burton, who eventually enrolled at Asbury College, a Christian liberal-arts school in Wilmore, Kentucky. It also played a role in landing Holtmann his job as an assistant at Gardner-Webb in 2003, which led to his first head coaching job when he took over the Runnin’ Bulldogs in 2010.

Chuck Burch, vice president for athletics at Gardner-Webb, said a background of faith like Holtmann possesses is necessary to coach at the private, Christian university in Boiling Springs, North Carolina. It’s a dry campus without sororities or fraternities in what Burch called a “one-stoplight” town.

“I wouldn’t hire a coach that didn’t have a faith basis to their life,” Burch said. “At a school like our school, being a head coach, that is part of their ministry from the standpoint of how they’re teaching the values and how they handle success, how they handle disappointment, how they deal with those sorts of things. Chris and his staff and (his wife) Lori, they invested their lives in the kids in the program.”

Holtmann said he’s not particularly comfortable discussing his faith at great lengths publicly. He cited his college coach, Paul Patterson at Taylor University in Upland, Indiana, as being able to effectively weave his faith into lessons while using his platform as a mentor at the evangelical Christian college to impact players.

“For me, it’s always been about more than just what gets accomplished on the floor. It ultimately is the relationships you develop and hopefully being someone who can bring some light to young people,” Holtmann said. “Partly because I am so competitive there are times I was embarrassed in how I acted with our team at halftime or in a postgame or in a practice. I don’t know that I always represented my faith in the best way because of how driven I was to try to get that thing moving in a better direction.”

Master builder

With his background of building relationships and valuing basketball above nearly everything else in his life, those who dot Holtmann’s past aren’t surprised by his success as a coach — first at Gardner-Webb (2010-13), then at Butler (2014-17) and now at Ohio State.

“He can quickly turn things around and get people to come together,” said Jay McAuley, associate men’s basketball coach at Wofford College and one of Holtmann’s first assistants at Gardner-Webb. “That’s a unique skill he has. It’s pretty special what he’s done in such a short period of time in a lot of different places.”

With Ohio State in limbo until the NCAA Tournament pairings are announced Sunday evening, Holtmann said this week finds him more antsy than normal but otherwise focused on preparing the Buckeyes for whomever they will face in their opening game.

Back home in Nicholasville, there’s talk of inducting him into the athletics hall of fame, once Holtmann’s schedule will allow him a visit.

There’s just one concern.

“We’re very proud,” said Daniel Sandlin, who played against Holtmann in high school and now works as an administrator for the Jessamine County school district. “We know who he is and where he’s at. If you talk to Chris, you tell him we’ll cheer for Ohio State — as long as they’re not playing Kentucky.”

ajardy@dispatch.com

@AdamJardy