It wasn’t just an overnight evolution in thinking that led Chris Holtmann to say what he said.
Through the last five years of his coaching career, the Ohio State men’s basketball coach said he’s had more players come through his office in search of mental-health help than in his first 15 years combined. It was firsthand evidence of a changing of the times, and it had informed Holtmann’s perspective when D.J. Carton left the program to address his own mental-health issues last January.
So when Holtmann chose his words for his first news conference following Carton’s departure, he didn’t hold back. In the same breath, Holtmann thanked those who had supported the freshman and then sharply dismissed those who were critical for their “antiquated thinking.”
His comments came during his opening statement following a Feb. 1 win against Indiana, the first game the Buckeyes played without Carton, who ultimately never returned to the team and has since transferred to Marquette.
“There is nothing, nothing, more important in our program than our players’ physical, mental health and overall growth. Nothing,” Holtmann said. Then, after a pause, he added, “And that will always be the case.”
As soon as he heard the comments, Jamie Houle sent Holtmann a message of thanks, both for what he said about Carton and for mentioning that he also goes to therapy. As Ohio State’s lead sports psychologist, Houle recognized what such a message from a person in Holtmann’s position could do.
“It just shows support for what’s really important,” Houle said. “What are we trying to do here? How are we trying to help the student-athletes? It paves the way for this is what our program is about. We’re about holistic treatment of the athlete, not just seen as a basketball player or football player.
“It’s a game-changer. It’s tremendous.”
It’s also a message that Houle said resonates with the next generation of athletes who would be considering picking a school.
Both Holtmann and Houle credited Ohio State director of athletics Gene Smith for his leadership in this field. Holtmann said his first call upon learning of Carton’s decision was to Smith, and Houle said Smith’s voice has resonated throughout the athletic department.
“My point was just to support D.J. in the fact that there’s nothing wrong with a young man stepping away in a moment where he needs help,” the coach said.
Holtmann said his own shift on the topic of mental health began roughly a decade ago. Before then, he said, the thought of having mental-health professionals at practice or in the team’s locker room would have been unthinkable.
Now, Houle and Ohio State’s staff, which was increased from 1½ full-time members to four last August, is a regular presence around the team.
“We have an unbelievable staff and they are comprehensive in their approach, and we have a number of athletes that I don’t even know about that have been touched throughout the year by our mental-health staff,” Holtmann said. “I think it’s a tremendous asset to have for whole-person development for our athletes.”