Ohio State's Gene Smith fires Chris Holtmann: 'This team needed different leadership'

Gene Smith was emotional in explaining the decision to fire Chris Holtmann. His press conference was occasionally terse and combative. It was short. And through it all, there was one overwhelming sentiment that the outgoing athletic director had to say about the now-former Ohio State men’s basketball coach.

There’s talent on the roster. It’s not being realized. And it was time, with six games left in the 2023-24 season, to make a change.

“I just felt like looking at the last few games that this team needed different leadership, so I made the change,” Smith said Wednesday evening, a few hours removed from the decision to fire Holtmann amid his seventh season. “I felt like at this particular time with six regular-season games left and a Big Ten Tournament and whatever the postseason brings, a spark of energy was needed. It’s about the program in the end, and I have to set aside my personal feelings and go with what’s best for the program.”

Tuesday night, Holtmann walked across the court at the Kohl Center having just taken a 62-54 loss. It dropped the Buckeyes to 14-11 overall and 4-10 in Big Ten play while also marking the program’s 16th consecutive road loss. He flew home with the team, woke up in the morning and headed to Value City Arena to tape his appearance on the weekly coaches’ television show only to instead be directed to head to Smith’s office.

It was there that he was informed that he was being fired, less than two years after signing a four-year contract extension that kept him tied to the university through the 2027-28 season. According to the school, Holtmann is being paid the entirety of his buyout, which was announced at $12.8 million.

Holtmann had been consistently pursued by other high-major programs, from Arizona to LSU to Indiana, leading to the extension. Now, Smith said it’s a decision he regrets.

“I have many regrets in my lifetime,” Smith said. “I’ve been doing this for a long time. If I could fix all the regrets in my lifetime, I’d fix all of them. Certainly that’s one of them.”

After signing the extension, Smith and Holtmann collaborated on a plan to build the roster through the more traditional method of recruiting, developing and retaining young players. Ohio State signed a five-man freshman class in 2022 and a four-man class in 2023, managing to remain the Big Ten’s youngest team in consecutive seasons. The Buckeyes went 5-15 in the Big Ten last year and are 30-30 overall in the last two years.

In firing Holtmann now, Smith said it will give those young players more opportunity to have success.

“The young men have played hard,” he said. “They’ve given a lot, but the reality is the body of work this last year, I felt that they needed something different from a leadership point of view to give them that chance. While they’re young, there’s a lot of minutes on that floor. They still have six games and the tournament. I wanted to give them a shot. That’s what they have.”

Asked if that meant he felt the talent was not being recognized due to coaching, Smith said, “That’s right.”

For now, associate head coach Jake Diebler will finish out the season as interim coach. Making the announcement Wednesday gave Diebler the longest runway possible leading into Ohio State’s next game: a home date with No. 2 Purdue.

The search for a full-time replacement will fall to incoming athletic director Ross Bjork. He will assume Smith’s full-time responsibilities July 1, but he will join Ohio State on March 1 as senior advisor to the athletics director and will report to newly hired president Ted Carter.

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Smith said he did talk with Carter about firing Holtmann and that he kept Bjork in the loop but that this was a decision he made, and clearly it wasn’t one the athletic director woke up and made Wednesday morning. This had been in the works for several days, even if the decision took Holtmann by surprise.

“I’ve had good communications with Ross along the way about this issue and shared with him along the way the decision that had to be made,” Smith said. “I talked to him a lot, but it was my decision. I told him what I was going to do. It wasn’t, ‘What do you think?’

“(Carter) agreed. He supported, and we made the decision.”

Making an in-season move won’t have much of an impact on trying to find and hire Holtmann’s replacement, Smith said. Candidates wouldn’t be available for interviews until their seasons end, he said, and the decision will primarily fall on Bjork’s shoulders as Smith assists where needed.

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“I’m going to be all-in with Ross,” Smith said. “I’m going to be honest, forthright, authentic and genuine and tell him we have to find somebody who has the Xs and Os and those talents and skills, but they’ve got to fit our values, our cultures. I’ll be involved. It’ll be heavy.”

Heavy was an apt descriptor for Smith’s demeanor throughout the 13-minute press conference. He bristled at the notion that Ohio State men’s basketball has “died on the vine” in recent years as attendance has declined at Value City Arena while stressing that the goal for the program is to “be in the hunt, periodically win the championship and go deep into the postseason.” It’s the same viewpoint he’s expressed throughout Holtmann’s tenure as Ohio State has occasionally competed for titles but has not earned any hardware.

Ultimately, Smith said, it was time to put his personal feelings for Holtmann aside and do what he felt was best for the program. For now, that means turning to Diebler, a rising assistant and prolific recruiter whose head coaching career consists of filling in for Holtmann on two occasions when he’s been ill.

“It’s hard,” Smith said, pausing 11 seconds before continuing. “It’s really hard. When you have good people and you care about people, then it’s hard. If you don’t have a good person, you really don’t care about the person, it’s easier. When you care about someone like I do, it makes it hard.”


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This article originally appeared on The Columbus Dispatch: Gene Smith takes responsibility in firing Buckeyes coach Chris Holtmann