Rob Oller: The 'Other Diebler' delivers from the bench as Ohio State defeats Northwestern

Rob Oller
The Columbus Dispatch

Jake Diebler spent his entire adult life wearing a whistle, but the 35-year-old Ohio State men’s basketball assistant coach had never been the guy in charge until Sunday.

Well, at least not technically. 

“I thought I was a head coach when I played, probably to the dismay of some of my teammates. I acted like it a little too much,” Diebler said, smiling after the Buckeyes defeated Northwestern 95-87 at Value City Arena. 

This time, Diebler was the actual acting head coach, called upon to run the show after Chris Holtmann and top assistant Ryan Pedon were ruled out for the game due to COVID-19 health and safety protocols. Holtmann told his staff and players Saturday via Zoom that he tested positive twice and that he and Pedon would miss the game. Diebler would need to step in against Northwestern, supported by assistant coaches Tony Skinn and Mike Netti. 

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“It required all of us to do more,” Diebler said. “Mike and Tony deserve a ton of credit. They should be sitting up here, too.”

Holtmann, meanwhile, was sitting at home, or rather “standing and yelling at the TV,” as junior E.J. Liddell said likely was the case, and his hunch later was confirmed when a Twitter video appeared of Holtmann rocking back and forth on his feet while watching the game on multiple large-screen TVs and pulling for his players like a sports dad sitting in the stands.

What did the actual head coach think of his temporary replacement’s performance? 

“They all did an excellent job today,” Holtmann texted. “More importantly, the (preparation) was really good. Proud of Jake and happy for him.”

For his part, Diebler learned more in 40 minutes than he ever expected. When to substitute. When to call timeouts. How to judge the overall flow of the game, not just specific plays and players. And how to work the refs, even if they mostly ignored him. As ESPN analyst Jay Bilas texted before the game when I asked what advice he would give Diebler — Bilas once assisted Mike Krzyzewski at Duke — “The officials won’t listen to an assistant, so there’s no need to waste your breath.”

With head coach Chris Holtmann and top assistant Ryan Pedon out with COVID, Jake Diebler was acting head coach for Sunday's win over Northwestern.

Mostly, Diebler came to realize that the few inches separating the head coach’s chair from the assistants’ feels more like a half-court heave in terms of job description, responsibility and voice box wear and tear. 

“You have to talk a lot more than you do as an assistant, so forgive my (raspy) voice,” he said, smiling again.

Diebler smiled a lot during his postgame presser. It helped that the Buckeyes won. If Ohio State had lost, and up until the final five minutes it appeared that might be the case, you can bet the “the other Diebler,” as he often gets described — younger and more famous brother Jon was a lethal 3-point shooter for Ohio State from 2007-2011 — would not have been quite so buoyant.

With head coach Chris Holtmann and top assistant Ryan Pedon out with COVID, Jake Diebler was acting head coach for Sunday's win over Northwestern.

But losing also would not have turned Diebler into a tyrant. When you’ve grown up watching your father, longtime Ohio high school coach Keith Diebler, handle losses with class and you’ve worked for coaches in Thad Matta, Homer and Bryce Drew and Holtmann who display dignity in defeat, it tends to rub off. 

Diebler played for his father at Fostoria and Upper Sandusky High Schools and for Homer Drew at Valparaiso. He witnessed intensity in action, but also picked up from them a profound truth: it’s not the end of the world even when the end of the game delivers a disappointing outcome.

With head coach Chris Holtmann and top assistant Ryan Pedon out with COVID, Jake Diebler was acting head coach for Sunday's win over Northwestern.

Fortunately, the Buckeyes brought home a winner for their first-time head coach. Nervous as always before tipoff, Diebler was able to exhale early when Liddell scored 17 points in the first five minutes. Nothing to this coaching gig, right? But palms got sweaty when the Wildcats made a game of it in the second half, until finally the Buckeyes sealed the deal with 11 free throws in the final three minutes.

“It felt like the game was never going to end,” Diebler said.

Or maybe he didn’t want it to? 

“It was fun,” he said, deflecting credit to the players. “First and foremost, give our upperclassmen a ton of credit. We talked about it … the message was that they were going to have to be the guys who led this.”

And they did. On the floor. But someone had to call the shots from the bench and keep everything glued together. That someone was Diebler, who on this night was not the “other” one.


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