Holtmann's demeanor can belie his intensity

Staff Writer
Buckeye Xtra
Michigan State coach Tom Izzo can get rather volatile during games. [Kiichiro Sato/The Associated Press]

TULSA, Okla. — Coach Chris Holtmann wants Ohio State to be No. 1, but he has no interest in being ranked anywhere close to a 1 himself.

In light of the controversy surrounding Tom Izzo’s tirade against one of his players in the Big Ten tournament final last week — the Michigan State coach ripped into freshman Aaron Henry during a timeout — I wondered what Holtmann thought of it and where he thinks he ranks on a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 being mellow and 5 being hellfire.

“I’m not sure what our players would say … but I don’t think they would put me at a 1,” Holtmann said Saturday before the Buckeyes practiced for an NCAA Tournament second-round game Sunday against Houston. “Nor would I want to be a 1, for that matter.”

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The meek shall inherit the earth, but they seldom receive their reward come tournament time. Holtmann, who attended a Christian college and keeps his profanity to a minimum, believes that blessed are the peacemakers. But he also abides by the notion of speaking the truth in love, which is why he defends Izzo’s intent despite the negative optics.

“There is no other way to coach kids. I think up-front, brutal, candid conversations build trust,” Holtmann said. “They are paramount to having growth happen individually and with your team. Let’s be honest, sometimes it’s easier to not be honest, and I think that choice at the end of the day doesn’t help either party.”

Holtmann is a strong game strategist. Give him time to prepare for an opponent and Ohio State fans can be assured the coaching staff will come up with an intelligent plan, even if the players don’t always sufficiently execute it. (Is one day enough for Holtmann to devise a winning strategy against Houston? Stay tuned.)

Less discussed is Holtmann’s skill at getting through to his players. His methods are something of a fooler, if only because during games he disguises his disgust by delivering heated comments through a cupped hand.

Or with “The Look.”

“When you turn the ball over or do exactly what he said not to do, then you’ll see the little look in his eyes,” freshman guard Duane Washington Jr. said. “It tells you, ‘We’re going to have a talk here soon.’ ”

And the talk will sting, probably not the way an Izzo dagger separates sinew from bone, but Holtmann gets his message across without mincing words.

“He’s eerily similar to coach (Thad) Matta, where if you do something wrong he’ll get on you, like any coach should and does,” senior Joey Lane said. “But he’s always encouraging and positive and fairly mellow, for the most part.”

Don’t tell Holtmann about the mellow part, although Washington agreed with Lane that Holtmann has a softer side.

“It’s both a 5 and a 1,” Washington said of where Holtmann belongs on the mellow-to-madman scale. “There’s two different coach Holtmanns, depending what you’re doing, if it’s good or bad.”

Holtmann constantly checks with his assistants to make sure he is operating in the sweet spot of a 3 or 4.

“I’ll ask our staff, ‘What do you hear me saying? How did I just communicate’ — and it can be a brutal, direct conversation with a player — ‘How did that come off?’ ” he said.

Ultimately, how it comes off is less important than the attempt to tell it like it is.

Houston coach Kelvin Sampson, who leans toward the 5 side of the scale, explained that any form of face-to-face fury is better than nothing.

“The most difficult thing for coaches is confrontation, because a lot of coaches are passive-aggressive people,” Sampson said. “They’re afraid to confront, and most people don’t succeed because of that one thing.”

Remember that the next time Izzo — or Holtmann — speaks the truth in tough love. Or shouts it.


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