BOISE, Idaho — As one coach worked late into the night Monday preparing for his school’s NCAA Tournament opener, another coach was kicking back with a cold one.
In Columbus, Ohio State men’s basketball coach Chris Holtmann was meeting with his staff, game-planning for the Buckeyes’ first-round game Thursday against South Dakota State.
No time to rest when working to get a tripped-up program back on its feet.
On the other side of the country, Gonzaga coach Mark Few was relaxing with a frosty beverage, enjoying the majestic view from his home in Spokane, Washington. The Bulldogs were scheduled to play UNC-Greensboro on Thursday, right before the Buckeyes played SDSU.
Plenty of time to rest when your program is working for you.
At about 10 p.m., Holtmann signaled timeout in the midst of strategizing. An idea emerged. "Let’s call Few to find out what we can about South Dakota State, since the Zags played the Jackrabbits last year in the tournament.”
Ring, ring, ring.
“Mark, this is Chris Holtmann. Do you have a minute?”
A minute? Few had all night.
Holtmann chuckles when recalling the conversation.
“I said, ‘Mark, what’s going on?' He says, ‘Aw, I’m just drinking a beer, looking at the mountains.’ I said, ‘Mark, I’m here in the office with (assistant coach Ryan Pedon) putting in the game plan. Somehow, something is not right here.’ ”
Holtmann was envious. Who wouldn’t be? Few has taken Gonzaga to the top, including playing for the national championship last season. He has built a perpetual top-10 program, compiling a 534-117 record in 19 seasons. And with an NCAA Tournament opener three days away he was sipping an IPA instead of studying X’s and O’s.
“Don’t get me wrong, he works his fanny off,” Holtmann said. “But he has gotten his program to the point now where it’s rolling. It’s a credit to him and his staff.”
The Buckeyes are not quite rolling, but neither are they reeling. Holtmann inherited a program in early decay and in his first season has cauterized the wound. Next season could be challenging, but No. 5 seed Ohio State is on the right track, which makes Saturday’s second-round game against No. 4 Gonzaga a study in how to improve vs. how to maintain.
The Zags are where the Buckeyes want to be, but Few cautioned to be careful what you wish for. Not that he wants to return to when Gonzaga was a Cinderella, but success has its own struggles.
“I’d say it’s a lot harder to maintain a high level of success. That’s why I have so much respect for Coach Cal (Kentucky's John Calipari) and Duke and North Carolina,” Few said. “Just to be able to stay at that level, because it’s a constant pecking away at you, in every way, shape and form.”
Hard, yes. But harder? Was that just one beer, coach?
Holtmann’s experience of retooling a program is more recent, having improved things at Gardner-Webb and then keeping a good thing going at Butler.
“I think it can get away from you really quick,” Holtmann said of maintaining excellence. “But the climb is exceptionally hard, too, because you’re trying to convince kids, recruits and their families to jump on board when they haven’t quite seen it yet. I don’t know what’s harder. Both are extremely difficult, which is why I have great respect for Gonzaga.”
The feeling is mutual. Few raved about Holtmann as both a coach and person, saying the future of Ohio State hoops is in good hands.
“He’s at the highest level of respect I can give a man and a father and a coach,” Few said. “He’s the real deal.”
Defeat the Zags and the real deal will deserve a frothy draft of his own.