Proud dad Keith Diebler watches son Jake fill in as Ohio State basketball head coach

Adam Jardy
The Columbus Dispatch

Keith Diebler had the ninth day of January all planned out.

The longtime Ohio high school basketball coach, now in his third season at Lakeside-Marblehead Danbury, was absolutely going to enjoy his last allowable day of deer muzzleloader season before beginning another week of teaching when a phone call from one of his sons changed everything. It went something like this:

Dad, you should really come to the Ohio State game.

Jake, I love you, but it’s my last day of deer season. I’ll follow along and be at another one soon.

No, dad, you should really be at the game. Here’s why.

Jake Diebler watches from the sideline during Thursday's game.

Then, the elder Diebler kept one of the hardest secrets of his life through a sleepless night and into Sunday when Ohio State then announced that coach Chris Holtmann and assistant Ryan Pedon would be unavailable against Northwestern due to health and safety protocols. Their positive COVID-19 tests meant that, for the first time in his career at any level, assistant Jake Diebler would be acting head coach.

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There are moments you can’t miss as a parent. This was absolutely one of them.

“I had more goose bumps when he walked out on the floor than I think I had when we won the state tournament as a group,” Keith Diebler said.

Dieblers share an Ohio State championship along journey

That championship takes the Diebler family back a few years. While at Upper Sandusky, Keith coached the Rams to the 2005 Division II state title with Jake as a senior and youngest brother Jon a sophomore. It was one of seven high schools he has coached during a career that has amassed more than 300 wins while building what he considers a basketball family that now stretches across the state for generations.

That obviously includes the 35-year-old Jake, now in his third year as an assistant at Ohio State after spending the three prior seasons in the same position at Vanderbilt.  

“I can remember him crawling in the gym,” his dad said. “He would always go with dad to the gym. He had to be there.”

Nearing his 70th birthday, Keith said he has subscribed to a belief throughout his career: if you’re not nervous anymore, you don’t want to do it. As his name was announced at Value City Arena just prior to tip, Jake did his best to contain the nerves he would later admit were coursing through his veins. During those final seconds, he wrung his hands and looked around before giving the Buckeyes final bits of instruction.

Keith Diebler has coached at seven high schools and has more than 300 wins.

From his seat in the family section, his dad said he looked the part. After the game, Jake spoke on the challenge of filling in for Holtmann and the logistics of the experience and expressed his hope that he’d be back to his assistant role Thursday at Wisconsin. But the one point where he got emotional was while trying to describe what the opportunity personally meant to him.

“This game has been so good to me, how important this game has been for my family,” he said. “There’s a deep-rooted love and passion for this game, so there are always nerves before every game for me. There were certainly a few more before this game.”

Driving back north after the game, Keith was listening to the press conference and fighting back emotions at that point.

“It brought tears to my eyes,” he said. “A lot of tears. The fact that you always worry as a parent if you’ve done things the right way, (Sunday) night was full circle. It was emotional for me when I heard him say those things.”

Sunday brought a barrage of text messages from former players dating back decades. Monday morning at school was full of well-wishes from the Danbury community.

Keith Diebler has coached at seven high schools and has more than 300 wins.

“I always talk to all the basketball teams I’ve ever coached about being a family, and if anything good happens within that family it’s a tribute to all the hard work that the kids have put in to this basketball family that goes back a long time,” Keith said. “It was so humbling, and, to say the least, I am so proud of him.”

Keith has tried to retire before. When Jon entered his senior season at Ohio State, his dad stepped away to fully be a dad for a year, but retirement didn’t stick. This time, he said, he will retire some day when Jake is a full-time head coach somewhere.

Until then, they’ll always have Jan. 9 — the Dieblers, and the entire basketball family they’ve built.

“I thank God I got to see it,” Keith said. “There’s a lot of times you don’t see what you’ve tried to get across to your child. I’m just very thankful that I got the opportunity. It’s one of those moments in my life that I will cherish for the rest of my life.”


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