Holtmann got OSU job, but Creighton coach was in running

Adam Jardy
Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann tries to get his point across during the first half against the Cincinnati. [Adam Cairns]

Long before the Ohio State and Creighton men’s basketball teams were slated to face each other on Thursday, their two coaches were inexorably linked to a crucial period in Buckeyes history.

After publicly parting ways with coach Thad Matta on June 5, 2017, Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith promised a swift search to name a replacement. Privately, he had told members of the team that they would have a new coach before the end of the work week. And when the likes of Arizona’s Sean Miller, Xavier’s Chris Mack and Butler’s Chris Holtmann had already turned him down, Smith hopped on a private plane for a flight to Omaha, Nebraska, to talk with Creighton coach Greg McDermott about the job.

It was while Smith was flying west that Holtmann had a change of heart, reached out to the consulting agency retained by Ohio State for the search and let them know of his updated position. Smith landed, met with McDermott without offering the job, sources have told The Dispatch, and flew back to Ohio with a meeting set for June 8 in Dayton with Holtmann that led to an announcement a day later.

Smith has declined to confirm any candidates other than Holtmann, and McDermott wasn’t interested in clarifying the situation last October at Big East media day at Madison Square Garden.

“That doesn’t matter,” McDermott told The Dispatch when asked whether the job was ever officially offered to him.

What does matter is that Smith got the man he has said clearly became his top candidate throughout the search. And both programs are doing well. Under McDermott, who is now in his ninth season, the Bluejays have reached the NCAA Tournament five times and won at least 20 games in all but one season. Holtmann, who was named Big Ten coach of the year in his first season with the Buckeyes, has won at least one NCAA Tournament game in the last four straight seasons and has a team receiving top-25 votes after a 2-0 start to the season.

It’s what Smith told The Dispatch at the tail end of the 2017-18 season that he envisioned once the hire was made and a press conference was delayed in order to let Holtmann meet his players.

“(Holtmann) is obviously different in how he teaches, how he runs his program, all those things,” he said. “This success and this enjoyment goes all the way back to the beginning, that the moment when I made the hire that (Thursday), we flew Chris over on Friday to meet with the team. We didn’t do the press conference that day. That two-hour session (with the players) was so important.”

Now Holtmann is settling in.

“We certainly felt the pressure as a staff to put together another really good recruiting class, so you’re never fully at rest when you feel that pressure,” Holtmann said as the season began.

“But it has been good to be around the city and spend more time here. We’ve gotten to know a few more people and certainly feel at a different place than we did last summer.”