Before becoming the men's basketball coach at Ohio State, Chris Holtmann grew up in the shadows of Lexington, Kentucky. He will face his childhood favorite school as a head coach for the first time Saturday.
The Kentucky team photos still hang in the Holtmann house, and the basketballs autographed by former players remain. After all, the homestead resides in Nicholasville, Kentucky, a town that's hardly a dozen miles from Rupp Arena, the state's mecca of college basketball and home to the Wildcats.
Born in Cincinnati but transplanted there when he was 2, Holtmann grew up in the thick of Big Blue Nation and embraced it alongside his parents, John and Patty. When his younger brother John Michael came along 12 years later, he did, too.
On Saturday afternoon in Las Vegas, the Ohio State men's basketball coach's past and present will collide at T-Mobile Arena when the No. 5 Buckeyes face the No. 6 Wildcats as part of the CBSSports Classic. Holtmann's entire family will be there, and make no mistake about it — they know who they will be cheering for.
“Obviously, we're rooting for our son,” John Holtmann told The Dispatch. “We're rooting for Ohio State. That's a given. We're 100 percent behind Chris and Ohio State.”
As a child, Chris Holtmann said basketball consumed him and that the region's fervor for Kentucky colored his formative years. He watched every game, memorized rosters, spent summers playing on the Blue Courts on Kentucky's campus and participating in the annual “Dirt Bowl,” a legendary city league that dates back decades.
It was there that he ran up against Dickey Beal, a 5-foot-9 guard who played four seasons for the Wildcats and averaged 4.1 points per game from 1981 to '84.
“I think he came home a little frustrated because Dickie Beal picked his pocket more than once, I think,” Holtmann's dad said.
Patty Holtmann recalled going into town on an errand and running into Kentucky legend Sam Bowie and bringing home an autograph for her son on something she scrounged out of her purse. Bowie was one of Holtmann's favorite players alongside Melvin Turpin and Kyle Macy, and he borrowed his temperament and his ritual of grabbing his socks before free throws from the even-keeled Macy.
The Holtmann family, like practically all households in the region, had its own basketball hoop. Just down the road lived Ronnie Lyons, who played for the Wildcats from 1972 to '74. He'd come down the street and play pickup games with Holtmann and his teenaged friends. He held dreams of playing for Kentucky but wound up playing first for in-state Brescia College before transferring to Taylor University in Indiana, where he was an NAIA All-American.
“I think early on I realized I watched every Kentucky game, I played it year-round, watched it year-round, went to camps in the summer, thought I was going to play at the University of Kentucky,” he said. “It's strong down there. There's one thing that occupies the front page of the sports page every day.”
This won't be his first shot at his childhood favorite. Holtmann was an assistant at Gardner-Webb when the Runnin' Bulldogs upset the Wildcats at Rupp Arena 84-64 in the second game of the 2007-08 season. It also helped firmly win over his brother.
“The first go-around I don't know that Chris had made me a convert yet,” said John Michael, who is a commercial real estate developer in Mississippi. “He had made everyone else. I was at that game and somewhat on the fence about who I was for, and then here he goes in and upsets Kentucky in what was an amazing upset.”
Although many friends have told the Holtmanns that this is the one game in which they're not rooting for their native son, the family is converting a few of their acquaintances. John Holtmann said their neighbors have turned into vocal Buckeyes supporters, while Patty said she got an “O-H” cheer from a woman working at her local Kroger who is a Columbus native in a workforce of Wildcats.
“She said, 'Please, get me some apparel from your son that I can wear here,' ” Holtmann's mom said. “I told her I didn't want to start a big fight, but she said, 'No, I'm not going to keep it down, I'm going to be very verbal about it.' ”
It's a unanimous opinion among Holtmann's family members that he won't put anything extra into the chance to coach against Kentucky. Even when picking favorite Wildcats as a youngster, John Michael said, his older brother was meticulous about his reasoning and analytical about his thought process.
The fun part for all three is that they won't have to approach it like any other game. Loyalties are one thing, but blood is another.
“I think it's going to be special for the whole family,” John Michael Holtmann said. “I can't tell you how many people have asked us, legitimately serious, who we're pulling for. I want to respond with, 'You do know that we're brothers right? He may have tormented me when I was a little kid and I'll have to get him back somehow, but we are brothers.' ”