At the end of a 14-hour day scouting prospects at a grassroots tournament in Augusta, Ga., a friend of Chris Holtmann blindsided him with a question he hadn't expected.
Newly hired Butler coach Brandon Miller invited Holtmann to a late-night meal that night in July 2013 to gauge his interest in leaving his head coaching job at Gardner-Webb for an assistant coaching position with the Bulldogs.
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The job offer immediately left Holtman torn. He had formed great friendships the past three years while transforming Gardner-Webb from a laughingstock into a winning program, but the reigning Big South coach of the year didn't view his current position as a destination job. Therefore his choice came down to whether the better springboard to a higher-profile head coaching position was helping tradition-rich Butler make a successful transition to the Big East or trying to parlay sustained success at Gardner-Webb into an attention-grabbing NCAA tournament run.
"Hardest professional decision of my life, and it's not even close," Holtmann said. "What made it difficult to leave Gardner-Webb was the people I worked around, the people I worked for and certainly our players. But Butler is Butler. It's a program on a national stage. Ultimately, I just felt like Butler was an opportunity that would give me a chance to be a head coach again, and that's why I took it."
Choosing to leave Gardner-Webb for Butler last year indeed set Holtmann on a course to land the high-profile head coaching job he craved — just not how he ever would have wanted or expected. When Miller took a leave of absence for undisclosed medical reasons earlier this month, Butler athletic director Barry Collier asked Holtmann to serve as the interim replacement.
It's unclear how long Holtmann's new role will last, but nobody at Butler is behaving as though they expect Miller back on the bench anytime soon. Last week, Holtmann filled his former position by promoting graduate assistant Emerson Kampen to assistant coach and plucked another former Butler player, Brandon Crone, from Division II Nova Southeastern to serve as director of basketball operations.
Holtmann's bittersweet promotion comes at a critical time for the Butler program. In its first season after ultra-successful coach Brad Stevens left for the Boston Celtics, Butler lost star forward Roosevelt Jones to torn ligaments in his wrist in August, struggled with the transition to the Big East and finished with a losing overall record for just the second time in two decades. Now there's pressure on Holtmann and his team to show that last season's woes were an aberration and not the new reality for a program that reached back-to-back national title games in 2010 and 2011.
"I think what I feel most is a great sense of responsibility to be a really good steward in whatever days I have in this role," Holtmann said. "I feel that responsibility because I've followed Butler and I know the amount of work it took to get this program where it is and the amount of quality people that have played and coached in this program. Certainly 4-14 in the Big East and 14-17 overall is not what any of us want, but we knew there would be some difficult moments during this transition and we expect to make progress going forward."
If Butler fans are worried about entrusting such an important season to a new coach, those who have previously worked with Holtmann say they shouldn't be.
Illinois coach John Groce played with Holtmann at NAIA Taylor University in the early 1990s and hired him as an assistant at Ohio University in 2008. Groce has mixed emotions about the situation at Butler because he has also coached alongside Miller at three previous jobs, but he is confident Holtmann will excel even under difficult circumstances.
"Anytime you're an interim coach there are challenges, but the one thing about Chris is he's competitive enough, sharp enough and tough enough to handle it," Groce said. "When Chris and I played together in college, he was a great competitor, a hard worker and he had a great understanding and feel for the game. A lot of those attributes and characteristics he had then as a player, he has those same things now as a coach."
Holtmann's passion for basketball is a product of growing up in Nicholasville, Ky., a rapidly growing town on the outskirts of hoops-crazed Lexington. As a kid, basketball was the only sport he played, the only sport he followed and the only sport he cared about.
That laser focus on basketball helped Holtmann earn All-American honors as a senior at Taylor after leading the Indiana school to a 29-5 record, a No. 1 national ranking and a spot in the NAIA National Tournament. Holtmann intended to use his psychology degree to become a high school teacher and part-time coach after he graduated, but one year away from the college game made him quickly reconsider.
"Boy did I miss it," Holtmann said."My college coach used to say, 'If you're not doing something that grabs your guts, that jumps you of bed in the morning, then you should find a different profession.' For me, as soon as I started coaching, it was that. It grabs my guts. It encompasses everything about who I am and who I want to be. I can't wait to roll out of bed and get started with this job. It can be a maddening job, but it's really fulfilling too."
Holtmann gradually ascended in the coaching industry after deciding to pursue it full time, rising from graduate assistant at his alma mater, to assistant coaching jobs first at the NAIA level and later at Gardner-Webb and Ohio. He was so confident he'd remain at Ohio for a long time under Groce that he and his wife bought a house in Athens, but that abruptly changed when Gardner-Webb athletic director Chuck Burch asked him to interview for the school's head coaching position in 2010.
Though Burch was already familiar with Holtmann from his first stint at Gardner-Webb as an assistant, the coach still found a way to separate himself from the three other candidates during his interview. Holtmann brought with him the scouting report he had prepared on Georgetown just a few weeks earlier when Ohio upset the third-seeded Hoyas in the opening round of the NCAA tournament.
"He popped that in front of everyone in the room and he showed how he would prepare for an opponent," Burch said. "It made an impression on everyone in that room. They saw what they would get if they gave him the job — a guy that would have his teams thoroughly prepared and ready to go."
If detailed scouting reports were Holtmann's hallmarks as an assistant coach, he showed he was a well-rounded leader during his three-year stint at Gardner Webb.
He developed a strong bond with players by having them over for cookouts and by displaying excellent communication skills in the locker room. He brought increased intensity to practices and offseason workouts and got his players to invest at a level they hadn't previously. He showed shrewd talent evaluation and a tireless work ethic on the recruiting trail as he sought to replenish a threadbare roster. And he used his trademark enthusiasm to garner enough support from students and alumni that they even started a group in his honor called the "Holtmaniacs."
That combination of traits helped Holtmann rejuvenate a cash-strapped Gardner-Webb program that had won just eight games the year before he arrived. By his third season, Gardner-Webb went 21-13, finished second in the Big South and made an appearance in the CIT tournament, by far the school's most successful season since it joined Division I in 2002.
Between the relationships he built at Gardner-Webb and the numerous players due back from that 21-win team, it's no wonder Holtmann agonized over the decision to leave for Butler last year. Saying goodbye to Burch was difficult, but informing his Gardner-Webb players was so difficult that Holtmann could hardly get the words out.
"I think he stood in front of them for four minutes and didn't say a word," Burch said. "It was very emotional for him. It was very hard for him to do that, but I think at the end of the day he felt like it was going to prepare him professionally to get to that next level. It's a calculated risk, but I understood why he made that move. I knew Chris wasn't going to retire at Gardner-Webb. I knew he had aspirations to coach at a higher level."
The opportunity to be a head coach at that higher level has arrived, albeit in a way Holtmann never anticipated. For the past few weeks, he has done his best to ease the transition for his players and to quell the fears of Butler fans while being as respectful to Miller as possible.
Holtmann says the opportunity to serve as Butler's interim coach doesn't validate his decision to leave Gardner-Webb, nor has he really had time to reflect on what a successful year could do for his career. Having taken over the program on the eve of the first practice of the season, there simply hasn't been time for that.
"The biggest feeling I have is concern for a friend and hoping and praying he gets healthy," Holtmann said. "Beyond that, I don't know if I'm certain yet on my feelings on all this. I've slept less. I already had a lot gray hairs and now I have more gray. But in terms of processing what it all means or how I feel about it, it has been such a whirlwind that I think it hasn't allowed me to think a whole lot."
For Holtmann, time to reflect will come later. Right now, it's all about making sure the Butler program stays afloat during this period of transition.
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