Degrees help guide Big Ten coaches

Adam Jardy
Ohio State's Chris Holtmann is one of six Big Ten coaches to have earned a master's degree. [Adam Cairns]

His future all planned out, Chris Holtmann knew where the coaching profession was going to take him. After playing Division III basketball at Taylor University, Holtmann was going to follow in the footsteps of his impactful coach, Paul Patterson, and eventually help carry on his legacy by leading the Taylor program.

It’s why, six years after he graduated from Taylor with a bachelor’s degree in psychology, Holtmann earned his master’s in athletic administration from Ball State in 2000.

“I was going to be a small-college head coach,” Holtmann said. “That was my plan, so you had to have a master’s (to coach at that level), so I went and got the quickest, easiest master’s at Ball State. It’s not like physics that I got a master’s in.”

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Entering the 2018-19 season, Holtmann was one of six Big Ten coaches to have earned two degrees. The league’s 14 coaches have a wide selection of bachelor’s degrees, ranging from parks, recreation and tourism (Indiana’s Archie Miller, earned at N.C. State) to radio and TV communications (Illinois’ Brad Underwood, earned at Kansas State) to marketing (Penn State’s Patrick Chambers, earned at Philadelphia University).

The wide range of degrees, and the thoughts each coach had on attaining them, show there is no singular path toward becoming a Division I men’s basketball coach.

“Back when I was younger, they thought you had to go get a master’s to be a coach,” Maryland coach Mark Turgeon said. “That really isn’t the case. Really what it’s about is getting with the right guy, and I was lucky enough to be with Larry Brown and Roy Williams. That’s the reason I’m here today.”

Some, like Nebraska’s Tim Miles, earned their degree with the thought of eventually becoming a head coach.

“I think every coach should go through classroom management, the psychology of education, learning styles, because it matters so much,” said Miles, who earned his bachelor’s in physical education from University of Mary in North Dakota. “How people learn, how to manage the whole thing you’re going through in a team. I know that I always lean on those things I learned at the University of Mary a long time ago.”

The need to better relate to players was cited by nearly every coach as being a key attribute for success in today’s world. Purdue’s Matt Painter, who has a bachelor’s in sociology from Purdue and a master’s in athletics administration from Eastern Illinois, said if he had to do it over again, he would get a degree in psychology and do as much work as possible from a counseling standpoint.

On the other side, Northwestern’s Chris Collins earned his bachelor’s in sociology from Duke because the university didn’t have a business school. Iowa’s Fran McCaffery said he switched majors, going from a liberal arts curriculum to business, because the business college at the University of Pennsylvania was regarded among the nation’s best.

“I saw the value of graduating with a degree from that college within our university,” McCaffery said. “You talk to your friends and you’re all going to go work on Wall Street, and I was always a math guy as opposed to a writer or a reader, so it was a good fit for me.”

Michigan’s John Beilein and Minnesota’s Richard Pitino both earned a bachelor’s in history, and Beilein went on to earn a master’s in education from Niagara University.

“The history of what happened yesterday is going to help you today,” Beilein said. “That’s how wars are averted. That’s why social change happens is because of history. That’s something that the history of running the wrong play at the wrong time, or not teaching the right fundamental costing you later on or helping you later on, is the same thing.”

Among other things, Miller said his degree, earned because it was the closest thing N.C. State offered to a sports management program, taught him how to avoid being sued while running a basketball camp.

“There are so many different ways,” he said. “I walk into a camp in the middle of the day and see a trash can that’s a little too close to the court (and I think), ‘We’ve got to get that trash can out of here. Somebody might run into that.’ ”

The wide degree of degrees shows how many different roles coaches have to fulfill. Chambers said his marketing degree has helped him in attempting to grow the Nittany Lions’ fan base. Wisconsin’s Greg Gard, who has a bachelor’s in physical and health education and a master’s in counselor education from UW Platteville, said he would change some focuses if he could do it over again.

“The actual coaching on the floor is a growing less percentage of what your job really is and what you do on a day-to-day basis,” he said. “(I would have) more of a background in psychology. More of a background even in business. Those areas, I can see, have become more and more prominent as time has gone on.”

The opportunity for learning isn’t over for all coaches, either. When he first came to Michigan State as a graduate assistant from Northern Michigan in 1983, Tom Izzo was taking courses toward a master’s degree when he got promoted to a full-time assistant. It left no time for him to continue his education.

“I’m going to try to finish it because I don’t have that much to go and I thought that would be one of my bucket list things,” Izzo said. “In the next year or two I might try to take a couple classes here, and instead of taking them online I might go to them. It’s strictly a bucket list thing.

“My mother is 92, and if I walked across the stage with my master’s I think that would fulfill her life.”