The biggest valley of Chris Holtmann’s coaching career continued to get deeper, and something had to change.
It was January 2019 and the new year had been anything but kind to the Ohio State men's basketball team. So as the Buckeyes tried to dig out of what became their longest losing streak in 21 years, their second-year coach publicly described it as “the hardest stretch of my coaching career” after a fifth straight loss.
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Privately, Holtmann was searching for something — anything — to turn around a season that had started with a 12-1 run. Holtmann did what most coaches would do in such a situation: He reached out to friends within the profession for advice. In this case, it meant calls to former Big East opponent Jay Wright at Villanova, close friend and Boston Celtics coach Brad Stevens and even former Ohio State football coach Urban Meyer.
Providence coach Ed Cooley, however, didn’t wait for a call. He rang Holtmann himself as the losses piled up because, as he watched a game on television, it was clear something was amiss with his friend.
“When you see one of your friends and you see they’re not themselves, you reach out,” Cooley said. “I say, ‘Hey man, I see you’re not yourself. You’ll be fine. Hang in there. I love you and I just wanted to tell you everything’s going to be fine.’ That’s all I said to him.”
Each coach has a different tie to Holtmann. Stevens said the two became friends when he was an assistant at Butler and Holtmann was an assistant nearby at his alma mater, Taylor University. Wright built a friendship born out of mutual core values when Holtmann joined the Big East at Butler. At the time, Cooley said, he “had no idea who the hell he was” but that he now steals ideas from Holtmann as his respect has grown.
Holtmann had been planning to pick Meyer’s brain during the summer when Holtmann was named Ohio State coach. The two talked in passing but have had more significant conversations on things such as recruiting since Meyer’s retirement.
The Buckeyes’ January struggles started with a hard-fought home loss to Michigan State on Jan. 5 that led into games at Rutgers and Iowa. A three-point loss to the Scarlet Knights led to a 10-point loss to the Hawkeyes that wasn’t as close as the score reflected, and Maryland and Purdue then came to Value City Arena for double-digit wins.
Meyer, who lost as many as three consecutive games just once during his coaching career, saw the same thing as Cooley.
“I was going to games,” Meyer said. “I could just see it was beating him up, and I wanted to be there for him. It’s a lonely world. I wanted to be there for him and show my support. Most football and basketball coaches share some of the same pressures and issues.”
Wright, who had endured a pair of two-game losing streaks earlier in the season — including surprising losses to Furman and Penn — saw some similarities with what Holtmann was going through. The two discussed a common refrain.
“How much do we make changes for the short term that might affect the long term of our culture?” Wright said. “It’s good to talk to someone that’s in your same situation because everyone around you is panicking and you know you can’t. It was very obvious talking to Chris that he wasn’t. He was just doing some soul-searching and some analyzation.”
Holtmann hadn’t lost more than two consecutive games since his second season as a head coach. During the 2011-12 season at Gardner-Webb, a member of the Big South that finished the year ranked No. 269 nationally by KenPom.com, the Runnin’ Bulldogs endured a pair of four-game losing streaks.
This time, with an NCAA Tournament at-large bid at stake, Holtmann was weighing decisions like whether to stick with upperclassmen or rely more heavily on freshmen with an eye toward the future. Cooley and Wright said such decisions are particularly tricky.
“I could sense that it was new to him,” Wright said of the losing streak. “Reaching out to some people, the questions he was asking were good questions. I felt like he was in a really good, solid frame of mind to make good decisions going forward.”
None of the coaches who either provided an ear or solicited a conversation with Holtmann said they spent much time, if any, on schemes or personnel.
“It’s good to just have people that can remind you that you’re never as bad as you think you are and you’re probably pretty close to being really good and sometimes it’s just about something good going your way,” Stevens said. “Chris is good at staying the course and keeping a good perspective. Do your job as best as you can and focus on that. Don’t get caught up in the other stuff. He’s good at that.”
The Buckeyes didn’t shake free until they stole a win in front of a sold-out Nebraska crowd and Holtmann received bear hugs from his family outside the team bus. The sense of relief was shared across the coaching landscape, from Massachusetts to Rhode Island and Pennsylvania, and most strongly back in Ohio.
More trials remained in a 20-15 season that ended with an NCAA Tournament appearance, but the losing streak was dead.
“I think that tells you how good of a coach he is if that’s the toughest thing he’s been through,” Stevens said. “Losing streaks are broken all the time. You’ve just got to do everything a little bit better and a little bit harder and more urgently, and good teams can do that and bad teams don’t.”