How the humble beginnings of Butler’s head coach helped him grow into one of college basketball’s best leaders
INDIANAPOLIS- Chris Holtmann, current Butler University Men’s basketball coach, once had goals of becoming a psychology professor, yet now leads one of the country’s premier college basketball programs.
Much of Holtmann’s success can be tracked to his past experiences as a child, player, and coach. Holtmann, now just 45 years old, has earned a great deal of notoriety for his work with a number of college programs. Holtmann’s past positions under influential coaches have helped him grow into one of college basketball’s rising stars.
His past contributed to his leadership capability, ability to recruiting talent, and basketball intelligence.
Just A Kid from Kentucky
“It was all basketball all the time for me growing up. All the time.” Holtmann said. “It was in my blood. From the moment I could crawl, I had a ball with me all the time.”
Holtmann’s basketball career began in his hometown of Nicholasville, Kentucky where he was born and raised. Basketball was a prominent theme in his Kentucky childhood. He worked on his game consistently in his free time, developing impressive skills as a player. These skills would serve him well when he entered high school.
Holtmann attended Jessamine County High School, where he played under Hall of fame coach Julian Cunningham. His relationship with his esteemed coach was erratic.
“Julian was great. He was volatile but fun-loving” Holtmann said.
Holtmann led his team to the state tournament his senior season, while being recruited by different college coaches.
The star’s high school success landed him multiple college offers. Holtmann decided to leave his home state of Kentucky, and head to Indiana to play for the Taylor University Trojans, an NAIA division two program.
Where it all Began
At Taylor, the future Butler head coach was the starting point guard under NAIA Hall of Fame head coach, Paul Patterson. Holtmann admitted that Patterson was hard on him, but that the experience helped him grow.
“He was the most demanding guy I’ve ever played for. I almost thought about quitting a couple times because he was so hard on me” Holtmann said. “I think getting through that time was very important for me. Those years were formative for me.”
Holtmann worked hard at basketball throughout his time at Taylor despite the constant pressure from his coach. Holtmann always had an urge to get better, this drive was one admired by his teammates. Coach Paul Patterson said that “Holt” had a passion for the game.
“He was a team leader, hard worker, and he loved basketball” Patterson said. “He made an immediate impact on his teammates on and off the floor.”
In addition to his basketball game, Holtmann placed a strong emphasis on his education. He graduated from Taylor with a degree in psychology, and had thoughts about becoming a professor after graduation.
“Late in my playing career I didn’t know if that is what I wanted to do,” Holtmann said. “If it wasn’t basketball I would’ve been a professor or a teacher. Those were the two routes I was going.”
His college coach always admired the intellect and drive of the young star.
“He is an extremely intelligent young man, and very driven to succeed,” Patterson said. “Whatever he does he is going to do it well. He has strong leadership skills, and he has demonstrated that throughout his life”
Holtmann began to look into graduate programs, and planned take his education further. Until he finally found what he was meant to do. It took a year way from the game for him to realize that basketball was his future.
“I worked for a youth organization my first year out. I volunteered at Snyder high school and got the coaching bug,” Holtmann said. “One year later I was back at Taylor as a graduate assistant.”
It was his time at Taylor that solidified Holt’s love for the game, and this love is what would help him jump into the hectic, competitive, and challenging world of coaching.
This Is Pretty Tough
Coach Holt’s now impressive career, once began with a great deal of doubt and uncertainty. The now Butler University head coach got his start at his alma mater, Taylor University, as a graduate assistant under his mentor Paul Patterson.
In a statement made on October 6th 2016 at Taylor University, Coach Holtmann mentioned the influence Patterson had on his life.
“Coach Patterson has had the greatest impact on my life outside of my family,” Holtmann said. “Our relationship begins player coach, then his coaching mentor in now to be trusted friend.”
After one year in the Geneva College basketball program as an assistant, Patterson was fortunate enough to employ his star pupil to the same position. Holt spent four seasons under his advisor from 1999 until 2003, and learned a lot about the game in just a short period of time. Holtmann said that even though the work was tough, it was the impact coaches have that made him fall in love with the job.
“I learned it is a lot of work. It was very time-intensive,” Holtmann said. “Yet, I also learned you could have a tremendous impact if you really cared about the young men you were working with.”
During his years at Taylor, Holtmann began to realize his talents in coaching. Patterson delegated much of the recruitment program to Holtmann while he was on staff. Patterson said that he admired Holtmann’s passion for winning, and his approach with the players.
“When he first got involved in coaching, the number one thing I saw in him was a fierce determination to win.” Patterson said. “As an assistant he related to the players, and helped them grow. He really knew how to bring out the best in those people.”
When Holtmann finally left Taylor for Gardner-Webb University in 2003, he identified his passion, and proficiency for recruiting. Holt understood the challenge of recruitment, and that is why he said enjoys it so much.
“I enjoyed recruiting from the first time I did it,” Holtmann said. “You have to enjoy the pursuit of it, and I did. I enjoy building relationships with players and their families. I love finding the right guys, then going out and getting them.”
Recruiting has been identified as a strong suit of Coach Holt’s, and is what has led to his continued success in his college basketball career. This is also the reason why his former teammate and friend John Groce hired Holtmann to his Ohio University staff in 2008.
The assistant coach used his time at Ohio to study defensive schemes and work with wing players. These were skills that he enjoyed while at Taylor and Gardner Webb, but perfected at Ohio.
With division one experience now under his belt, Holtmann decided it was time to search for a head coaching job, and take command of a program for the first time.
Welcome to the Show
Coach Holtmann finally wanted to be the head man. He wanted to have his own program, one where he could leave his mark, and most importantly make a name for himself. This is exactly what he accomplished in his three-year tenure as head coach at Gardner- Webb University. Holtmann was hired as the head coach at GWU following his two years at Ohio.
When Holt first stepped foot in Boiling Springs, North Carolina the GWU basketball program was in complete disarray. The team had won just eight games the previous season, and had not recorded a winning record since 2006.
His closest supporters, Paul Patterson and John Groce both knew that Holtmann was the man who could turn around the failing program.
“Chris is a bright, energetic, tireless worker who has been a high achiever his entire career,” Patterson said. “His teams will be hard working, well prepared, and hard to play against every night. This is a good day for Gardner-Webb University.”
Groce added to the praise of Holtmann.
“Gardner-Webb has hired an exceptional coach but an even better person,” Groce said. “He understands what it takes to build a successful basketball program and winning culture – both on and off the court.”
Gardner-Webb was in rough shape basketball wise, but Holtmann knew exactly what the team needed in order to be successful in the future. He used his experience from his past jobs to help him succeed at the next level, and it showed. Coach Holt relied on what he knew best…
recruiting the right players.
“Our staff did a trememndous job of identifying guys who fit how we wanted to play,” Holtmann said. “We wanted to get guys who played with an edge, who had toughness to them, and guys who wanted to be competitive.”
It did not take long for the right type of players to show up on Garder-Webb’s campus. Holt’s recruitment of top notch players helped him turn around a failing program in just three seasons. After winning just 11 and 12 games in his first two season respectively, Holtmann shattered expectations by winning a school record 21 games. Coach Holt’s team finished second in the Big South conference and was invited to the 2013 CIT tournament, the first postseason tournament invitation in the school’s history.
This success launched Holtmann to new heights. His name became connected to a number of different schools after the 2013 season, with speculation he might leave GWU for a bigger program. GWU decided to lock down their promising coach, and granted Holt a contract extension through the 2018 season.
Little did they know in just a few short months, Holtmann would be packing his bags once again.
Butler Coaching Carousel
Just two months after signing a five-year contract extension with Gardner-Webb, Holtmann got a call from Brandon Miller, then Butler University head coach. Miller asked Holtmann to join his staff at Butler as an assistant head coach.
It was an odd move for a coach like Holtmann, who was at the helm of an established program on the rise, to demote himself to an assistant on another staff. To this day, Holt says it was tough decision.
“It was the hardest professional decision of my life” Holtmann said. “I talked to eight of my closest coaching friends and four said do it and four said don’t do it.”
Holtmann’s decision to leave Boiling Spring for Indianapolis came as a shock to many around the GWU community, but not Indianapolis. Just a few years earlier former Butler head coach Brad Stevens had discussed Holt coming to Butler as an assistant. When Stevens left to coach the Boston Celtics in the summer of 2013, Holtmann saw an opening and jumped on it.
“It was a really difficult decision for me, but I wanted to help Brandon [Miller],” Holtmann said. “I wanted to help him make the move to the Big East.”
After just one season as the leader of the Bulldogs, Brandon Miller shockingly took a medical leave of absence just two weeks before the 2014-15 season was set to begin. Andrew Chrabascz current Butler senior and then sophomore was startled at the news passed on from his head coach.
“It was shocking but also concerning. You don’t want to hear about a guy stepping down medically for any reason” Chrabascz said. “But we had a job to do. We knew that if we performed well we would be making him happy.”
It was shortly after the announcement that Butler appointed Chris Holtmann to become the interim head coach of the basketball team.
“I was in the right place at the right time. You never know when an opportunity will arise, and you will be asked to perform.” Holtmann said.
Holtmann’s immediate concern was towards the players who loved Coach Miller. He was put in a tough situation after being granted interim status. His goal was to help guide the team through this difficult time, and focus on playing basketball.
“When coach miller took the leave of absence, we really didn’t skip a beat when Coach Holt took over.” Chrabascz said. “We had to focus on the task at hand and Coach Holtmann really helped us focus.”
Butler stormed into the 2014-15 season red hot, starting 10-4 while racking up an upset win against highly ranked North Carolina in the Battle for Atlantis tournament. Butler climbed to number 15 in the AP poll before conference play started. His performance in the interim position helped him earn the official head coaching job on January 2nd of 2015.
When Holtmann was introduced as head coach, Butler Athletic Director Barry Collier praised Holtmann for his success in such a hard time.
“Chris has provided important leadership and coached successfully in a difficult situation. He has fully embraced the Butler Way and we are confident in the future of our basketball program with Chris at the helm,” Collier said.
How High is his Ceiling?
After back to back trips to the NCAA tournament, Holtmann’s Bulldogs were projected to finish 6th in the Big East for the 2016-17 season. Butler lost its two leading scorers, and had a number of inexperienced players on the roster heading into the season. Butler was being cast off as mid-major and a school that could never climb to the top of the Big East.
Oh, was everyone wrong.
Holtmann’s answered his critics by leading his team to a 25-9 record with wins over six nationally ranked opponents, including an upset of number one Villanova at Hinkle Fieldhouse. Holtmann chalks up much of his success to his past experiences.
“The years’ prior in my coaching career, helped prepare me for this moment.” Holtmann said. “I don’t think I would have had the confidence to do the job had I not went through what I did at Taylor, at Ohio, and at Gardner-Webb.”
Currently Chris Holtmann is one of the hottest names in college basketball. His name has been connected to many head coaching vacancies this summer, but has declined interviews to all schools. Holtmann said that the rumor mill is bothersome to him during the season.
“It annoys me, and it annoys me even more in season. I don’t want to talk about it after games, and most importantly I don’t want it to distract the players.”
Though his name continues to float around the NCAA, Holtmann says he is happy with his position at Butler, and plans to stay here for a while.
“I want to continue to coach and recruit well for Butler. I want to see what we can achieve together. I want to be able to have continued success here.”
There is no telling where Coach Holt will end up, but those around him believe the sky is the limit, including his former head coach and mentor Paul Patterson.
“I think he will be whatever he decides he wants to be. He will bring intensity, effort, and integrity wherever he goes.” Patterson said. “You can’t put ceilings on those types of people.”