Tales from the road
Holtmann, assistants' trips offer glimpse into whirlwind world of recruiting
All he wanted was a pack of donuts.
An 18-hour work day was ending, and Chris Holtmann needed something to eat. It had been roughly 10 hours since the Ohio State men's basketball coach had managed to snag a quick meal at Chick-fil-A during a break from recruiting in the July evaluation period, one the most crucial — and demanding — parts of the calendar year.
So there he was, foraging for food in a gas station after returning to his hotel around 11 p.m. The menu that night consisted of crackers, a bottle of water and, yes, a package of prepackaged donuts.
“I probably wouldn’t go near the ones that are out there in the display,” Holtmann said. “I don’t have many standards, but I’d probably stop right there.”
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That was just one glimpse into life on the road. After the most recent live evaluation period for Amateur Athletic Union basketball, which ran from July 10 to 14, Holtmann shared his schedule and notes with The Dispatch on what such a timeframe is like while recruiting.
In short, it’s a whirlwind, one that saw Holtmann take five flights in four days and stay in four hotels while coordinating his plans with his equally busy coaching staff.
In part because of the new calendar put in place last year after the FBI’s investigation into basketball recruiting, all three major shoe companies held their premier tournaments during the lone July period when coaches were allowed to attend. Nike’s Peach Jam was held in North Augusta, South Carolina; the Under Armour Finals were in Atlanta; and the Adidas Gauntlet was in Birmingham, Alabama.
As they work to fill out their upcoming recruiting classes, Holtmann and his three assistants who are allowed to be on the road recruiting — Jake Diebler, Terry Johnson and Ryan Pedon — were fanned out across the sites. Back in Columbus, director of basketball operations David Egelhoff was in charge of often rapidly changing logistics as multiple support staffers kept tabs on game results and recruit performances at each tournament.
The goal: to make sure Holtmann is most visible and in position for the players the staff has deemed their top priorities.
Time to get started
The process starts with Holtmann taking a commercial flight July 9, arriving on site the evening before the evaluation period gets underway. Throughout, the need to take charter flights vs. commercial is weighed, as Ohio State has a limit on hours allowed on private planes. When he lands on a chartered flight, the plane parks in a row of similar aircraft emblazoned with school logos: Kansas, Purdue, Ole Miss.
“To probably do it well, there has to be some anticipation about the chase that’s involved,” Holtmann said. “There’s the competitive aspect of recruiting because it’s a lot of work and you’re not just there sitting, you’re also recruiting and texting the people that you’re allowed to text around the recruits in those situations, as well. You’re kind of jockeying to get to the game at the right time and be most visible, so there is some adrenaline that goes along with it.”
Holtmann’s schedule is never set for more than eight to 10 hours at a time. Unlike coaches at low- and mid-major levels with tighter budgets, he is constantly traveling from site to site as the staff works to decide where his presence is most necessary. Time of arrival is important, too, because a visible courtside spot is coveted due to the message it sends to recruits.
Thursday begins with a 6:30 a.m. wake-up call and eventually is capped by the donuts. During the morning session, Holtmann watches three games before grabbing lunch with Diebler and getting back to the gym by 1 p.m. for a session that lasts more than nine hours. There are familiar faces, former assistants with new jobs elsewhere, bringing welcomed but abbreviated reunions to the sidelines of high-level basketball games.
Then, post-nighttime snack, his schedule for the next day is completed, and it requires a 9:15 a.m. charter flight, during which he will lose an hour hopping time zones. But three hours before departure comes a call from Pedon to ensure that he received an updated schedule. It was completed at 12:30 a.m. as Pedon and Johnson converged on a Waffle House and involves Holtmann meeting up with them.
“As an assistant, the big theme is you’re responsible for all the logistics and making life easy for your boss,” Pedon said. “It’s planned out and you have to be organized because if you’re not, you miss a game or whatever, it’s major. You’re talking through all that stuff, you plan out the day, plan out where everybody’s going to be, you grab dinner, you get some sleep, and then I’ve got to get up early and I type something up (with addresses and courts and schedules).”
The morning also allows for Holtmann to get in a half-hour workout at the hotel gym, something the coach said he considers a must during hectic periods.
“For me, the biggest thing is at least one or two of those days, can I get a workout in?” he said. “It refreshes me for a long haul. You’re better because of it. You’re better prepared; your mind is sharper.”
At one point in Birmingham, Holtmann finds himself inadvertently crashing an extended family reunion and then getting on a hotel elevator with four kids from the Jackson family in matching red T-shirts.
“There was about 200 people as a part of this family reunion and I roll in, I’m exhausted, and they’re so happy,” Holtmann said. “That was kind of refreshing and fun to see.”
As the weekend progresses, Egelhoff is in contact with the staff and with NetJets to try to keep things running smoothly. Forged during 14 years in this role, he translated his skills to family life when he was recently able to get his family through Disney’s Magic Kingdom in two days without waiting in line for more than 20 minutes.
“I enjoy that aspect of helping get our coaches where they need to be at the right time to recruit, land the kid and then it all equates to us hopefully winning basketball games and graduating kids,” he said. “Those things behind the scenes, those are kind of my wins. I’m not scoring baskets, but making sure our stage is set for our guys to do their thing is kind of how I win. I enjoy that.”
On this Friday, Holtmann is commuting from one gym to another during a 12-hour day of recruiting while working on the 2020 and '21 recruiting classes. After a 10:30 a.m. game wraps up in one gym, it’s a half-hour drive to get to the next site. In the case of the 2020 class, the Buckeyes have mostly wrapped up their evaluating and are focused on recruiting that class, which is more about being seen and having conversations than studying a player’s abilities.
The recruiting wraps up at 10:30 p.m., when Holtmann orders a pizza he can pick up on the way to his hotel and catches up with his family on the drive.
“After doing this for about the 10th year, I finally had (my wife, Lori) understand when she couldn’t get ahold of me throughout the day or we had really limited conversations because I was going from one game to the next or I was in a loud gym for 12-13 hours, she realized that it’s really: gym, occasionally coaches’ hospitality room, hotel for five or six hours,” he said. “That’s it. That’s your life.”
Thirty minutes into Saturday, the staff decides that Holtmann should return to his first city after he watches an 8 a.m. game at his current site. The good news: He’ll gain an hour this time.
“You pack light and you know that you’re probably going to be living out of your suitcase and are probably going to be pretty transient from one day to the next,” Holtmann said.
This will continue until Sunday evening.
Time to exhale — briefly
When it’s over, there’s the final flight back home to a waiting family and a sizable to-do list. When the wheels leave the ground and phones have to be briefly placed into airplane mode, it provides a moment of respite for each coach.
It doesn’t last for long. Rest is out of the question for Holtmann, who describes himself as a “really, really light sleeper” even when not on an airplane. The same isn’t true for Diebler, who passes out after his first summer recruiting weekend for the Buckeyes and is oblivious to Holtmann taking a selfie with him.
“Honestly, you just kind of want to kick back and take it easy, but at times on those things I spend the flight home texting recruits because you’d rather do it on the flight than when you get home,” Holtmann said.
For Pedon, it’s a chance to assemble his thoughts and start preparing himself for the Monday meeting that every Division I basketball coaching staff in America will have after a live evaluation recruiting weekend.
He uses a pen and paper.
“I think it’s important then to organize all that we’ve seen for when we have our staff meetings,” he said. “You have to be organized in that regard, so it’s wrapping up what you’ve seen and moving forward with it. That’s the time I usually try to write that stuff out.”
The dividends for their efforts won’t be known for some time, if ever. Regardless of what comes from this recruiting period, the Buckeyes coaches will eventually get some rest knowing they maximized their opportunities for future success.
Assuming they find some time to sleep.