Quarantine gave Chris Holtmann, other college basketball coaches a rare chance to recharge

Adam Jardy
Buckeye Xtra
Illinois men's basketball coach Brad Underwood said he used free time during the pandemic to improve his diet and fitness.

Only the daughter of a coach could speak this kind of truth to her father.

Illinois had just finished its regular season with a two-point home win against Iowa and coach Brad Underwood, clad in a collared shirt and tie, was doing a midcourt interview with Big Ten Network sideline reporter Olivia Dekker. Underwood’s daughter, Katie, a junior at Illinois with an eye on following in Dekker’s shoes as a reporter, noticed something that she felt compelled to share with her dad.

“She informed me that I had more than two chins and that we needed to do something about that,” Underwood told The Dispatch. “It always means a little more when it comes from your kids, I guess. It was a great opportunity.”

The opportunity was the lone bright spot in what has been a tumultuous number of months for Underwood and his colleagues. Against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic, college basketball coaches accustomed to living on a mostly fixed, year-round grind of recruiting, roster retention, practicing and actually playing games suddenly found themselves with something they haven’t had for, in some cases, decades: free time to work on themselves.

In Underwood’s case, that meant deciding to both improve his diet and conduct as much business as possible via phone while walking as many as 12 miles a day.

He doesn't walk the same path every day, and out of an abundance of caution for social distancing Underwood said he hasn’t posed for photos with fans who notice him. Some days literally stink – when he spoke with The Dispatch, Underwood said he had the school’s intramural fields flanking him on one side and a horse barn on the other.

“I’ve got the great smell of horse manure,” he said with a laugh.

That temporary unpleasantness aside, Underwood underwent knee replacement surgery about two years ago that has limited his ability to work out. As he added pounds while plowing through his job demands, Underwood said he didn’t feel great and wasn’t sleeping well while watching his weight climb to as high as 268 pounds.

Now, he’s dropped nearly 40 pounds with a goal of getting down to 220.

“Your drug becomes feeling good, and you’re doing it the way you want to do it and with the right attitude,” he said. “I feel the best I’ve felt in years. I’m not saying I won’t have days (during the season) where I won’t get 12 miles of walking in, but I think I’ve had a very healthy lifestyle change in terms of diet and the exercise and I’m not going back on that. I feel too good to want to do that.”

That feeling has been shared throughout the coaching profession, even if it has manifested itself in different ways. Now the coach at Akron, Underwood’s predecessor, John Groce, said he committed himself to the 60-day Insanity Workout and is in the best shape of his life. Purdue coach Matt Painter said he took the opposite approach of his Big Ten counterpart, bought a couple of meat smokers and put on a few pounds.

“We all find our happiness in different ways,” Painter said with a smile.

For Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann, that meant an alarm clock going off as early as 5:40 a.m. so he could get a workout in and either utilize the makeshift weight room he created in his spare garage or run four miles through his neighborhood. Like Underwood, Holtmann added long walks to his work days.

“When we couldn’t go into the office I was doing almost all of my recruiting on 5- to 8-mile walks,” he said. “I got to see some neighbor kids shooting (hoops). You got a few double takes and then after you walk that same path for about the 15th time they just kind of wave at you.”

For Holtmann, it wasn’t the workouts that changed as much as the demands. The pandemic has paused in-person recruiting and evaluation until at least the end of the calendar year, and it wiped out what are the two busiest months for college coaches: April and September. The former is busy on the recruiting trail for both high school prospects as well as the exploding transfer market and roster retention, while the latter often features 20-hour days as the Buckeyes start preparing for the season while also hosting official visitors on campus often for home football games.

Those months can prove even more consuming than the season.

“The dynamic that changed completely was just the travel,” Holtmann said. “The amount of time after the season that I was on the phone or working or conducting business was actually more. It’s been over 25 years since I’ve experienced consecutive months where I’ve not been gone for 15-20 nights out of a month.”

Before much longer, though, it will be back to the grind for college coaches everywhere. Official sanctioned team workouts are ramping up in advance of a season slated to start Nov. 25 that, while it will be unprecedented, will still feature the usual levels of stress and time demands.

Holtmann, Underwood, Groce and Painter all said they feel as energized to start a season as they have in years, if ever. That could change once practices begin Oct. 14.

“One of the things I’ve got to figure out is, what is that new routine?” Underwood said. “I vowed if that means I have to get up an hour earlier to go work out or to go walk, I’m going to find when that time is.”

As the pandemic and quarantine have shown, there’s no better time than now to make a positive change.