Columbus, Ohio is one of the most passionate sports towns in America. I’ve gathered as much from my six years in central Ohio. No MLB, NBA, or NFL teams call Columbus home, yet those who reside here exhibit a fierceness and obsession with their teams that you very rarely see. Columbus has the Crew and the Blue Jackets — and boy do the people love the Crew and the Blue Jackets. But more importantly, they have the Buckeyes — and BOY, do people love their Buckeyes.
Ohio State University and the city of Columbus are entwined to a point where it sometimes is hard to tell where one ends and the other begins. Campus is a five-minute drive, ten-minute bus ride, or a 25-minute walk from downtown Columbus. Ohio State is a national brand, sure. But the people who live in Columbus cling to Ohio State sports like their lives depend on it. Because aside from the Crew and CBJ, that’s what we have. The people of this city aren’t just fans, they’re fanatics — they are consumed with anything that has to do with the Buckeyes.
And four years into his tenure as Ohio State’s men’s basketball coach, it looks like Chris Holtmann has a pretty good grasp on that.
Ohio State is a football school, there’s no debating that. Four appearances in the College Football Playoff in the past seven years, including two national championship appearances and one national championship. Four consecutive Big Ten Championships, and five in the past seven years.
The basketball Buckeyes, on the other hand, have not won a conference title in nine years, a conference tournament title in eight years, or won multiple games in the same NCAA Tournament in eight years. They became the ninth team ever to lose in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament to a 15-seed this past season when they lost to Oral Roberts in the first round, 75-72.
However, Ohio State has made the AP Top 25 poll their home over the past four seasons, rarely dipping out of the top 25 and often times creeping into the top-10 for weeks — or months — in a row. They’ve finished top-six in the Big Ten Conference three of the four seasons since Holtmann arrived, and historically, Ohio State is 29th in total victories with 1,733. Ohio State may not be a “blue blood,” but it is certainly a top-20 program right now and historically.
All things considered, the Buckeyes have been solid — and at times elite — under Holtmann. He does not seem bothered by the fact that many of Ohio State’s basketball fans are simply football defectors when Ryan Day’s team stops playing — usually in January. He’s embraced his role as the basketball coach at a school that goes bonkers for football, but it still unbelievably enthusiastic about their basketball Buckeyes.
And when he had other options on the table in 2017, he chose Ohio State. He chose Columbus. He chose to step into a very unique situation as the head coach of a team that has high expectations, partially because of the standard another sport sets months before his team starts playing. And for the most part, he’s thrived in that role.
During an interview with LGHL this week, we asked him what he loves about Columbus. Why take on the challenge of being Ohio State’s basketball coach, and what about the city has grown on you since you started calling it home in 2017?
He told us:
“Well as you guys know, it’s a great city. It really is a great city. Indianapolis was a great city (too). And you know, full disclosure, my last year (at Butler) I was offered a couple jobs before this one that we’re in some great conferences — high level conferences, really good programs, too. But you know, when you’re raising a young child and you’ve moved your wife and family a few times, location matters. It doesn’t matter more than the quality of the job and the ability to win and win consistently...but it matters.
For me, the idea of being in Columbus was really attractive, and I don’t think I really understood at the time how great the city was — the entertainment, professional teams, the restaurants are great, the schools are tremendous for my daughter. So we’ve really enjoyed it. My wife and daughter have really enjoyed our time here.
And the community has been outstanding. I can’t tell you how many times — I was just out to lunch today and a guy and his young son came up and said really kind things (to me). Lord knows I get beat up enough during the season, so it’s nice when that happens, and it really does happen a lot face to face, and I really do appreciate that from the community.”
Holtmann is entering the fourth year of an eight-year contract he signed in June 2017. He still has a few years left before the two could potentially part ways, but I think that Gene Smith and Ohio State should make a move well before then to lock up Holtmann long term — if he decides to call Columbus home for a little longer.
He’s engrained himself here, spending more time at Ohio State than he has at any of his previous stops (three years each at Gardner-Webb and Butler). On student move-in day in August, Holtmann and his coaching staff hand out donuts to underclassmen moving into their dorms.
He has made it a tradition each fall to head over to Raising Cane’s on High Street to serve — and pay for — students’ chicken finger lunches for an hour or two. Holtmann swipes for every student that walks in — whether they know who he is or not — and hands them their meal. That is how you connect with the community, and how you get students at a “football school” excited about basketball season. It’s not so much about the money, but that he cared enough to stop and connect with kids on an individual level.
Students: Let’s have lunch today. On me! Swing by the @Raising_Canes on campus between 12:15-1pm (if you don’t have class).— Chris Holtmann (@ChrisHoltmann) October 16, 2018
Being the head basketball coach at Ohio State is a unique job. There may not be another school in the nation that combines football and basketball success quite like the Buckeyes do, but Chris Holtmann has grabbed onto the task with both hands and done a fine job. Some coaches may shy away from that challenge, but it appears Holtmann is in it for the long haul.
We may be a few years away from contract negotiations re-surfacing, but why wait? If Ohio State has found someone up to the task of putting down roots as the head ball coach, they should lock him up for the long haul. And don’t forget, Ohio State currently has the top recruiting class in the country in the 2022 cycle — things are still trending upward.
Columbus is a great city, and a proud city. Ohio State has found itself a coach who seems to understand that, and has fully committed himself to connecting with the people in central Ohio. People in central Ohio notice that, and their support has rarely wavered. Hopefully the university notices, and does the right thing in the next year or two and extend Chris Holtmann.