New Faces, New Places: Chris Holtmann

Ohio students deliriously danced in the streets after the Bobcats mauled Goliath, and as a reward for helping put together the game plan that downed Georgetown in the first round of this year’s NCAA tournament, Chris Holtmann earned himself a sleepless night as well.

The Ohio assistant coach went back to the team hotel and did not emerge from a film-and-scouting session on second-round opponent Tennessee until about 6 a.m.

It was then that Holtmann enjoyed one fleeting moment of satisfaction.

“One of the hotel workers said, ‘Hey, you guys are in the paper’ and held up the cover of USA Today,” he recalled.

The upset win helped Holtmann further his reputation as a giant-killer and his career, as Gardner-Webb brought the 38-year-old back to campus for his first head-coaching job.

Holtmann was an associate head coach at Gardner-Webb under Rick Scruggs when in 2007 the Runnin’ Bulldogs stunned nationally ranked Kentucky. Gardner-Webb also downed Minnesota in 2005, but taking down the Wildcats at Rupp Arena is the one that still resonates.

“I don’t know if there’s any way to repeat the magnitude of exposure the program received that night,” said Holtmann, an old point guard from Nicholasville, Ky.

But recently, Gardner-Webb has experienced more lows than highs. Scruggs was fired after his 15th season at the helm ended with an 8-21 record and without a Big South tournament appearance. This preseason, the Bulldogs were picked by the conference’s coaches and media to finish last.

Holtmann, who coached for five seasons under Scruggs from 2003-08, hopes to re-energize a sagging program. He had bought his dream house in Ohio and planned to stay there until the opportunity to oversee a turnaround at Gardner-Webb presented itself.

Two years ago, it was Holtmann who did an about-face after deciding to leave Gardner-Webb. He accepted an assistant coaching position at Lipscomb, but returned to to the Bulldogs after about three weeks on the job, citing family issues.

Holtmann called the situation “awkward, embarrassing,” but it ended up working out for him because two months later, Ohio came calling with a job that offered him a substantial raise he couldn’t refuse.

“It was a whirlwind of a few months,” Holtmann said.

At Ohio, he teamed up with head coach John Groce to make history. The Bobcats entered the Mid-American Conference tournament seeded ninth and won four games to capture an NCAA tournament berth. The 14-seed then used some hot outside shooting and a defense that forced 18 turnovers to beat Georgetown 97-83 for the program’s first NCAA win in 27 years.

“We felt like our guys were playing at a high level at the end of the season,” Holtmann said. “They really do feel like when they’re playing well that they can beat anybody.

“It was a great moment. We were extremely well-prepared.”

Bringing back that winning feeling to Gardner-Webb is now Holtmann’s goal, and it’s something he’s already experienced at the small Baptist school in Boiling Springs, N.C.

The Bulldogs captured the regular-season Atlantic Sun title under Scruggs in 2005, during a time when the program was in its early days in Division I and also on NCAA probation for a grade-tampering scandal from years earlier.

The team received a postseason ban in 2004 along with scholarship reductions, but Holtmann was still able to recruit the players who pulled off a 16-point win against Kentucky.

In Holtmann’s first year at Gardner-Webb, he arrives with some assurances the program is on its way back despite inherent financial limitations. Assistant coaching salaries have been increased, and Holtmann has been able to hire a director of basketball operations.

“It’s a statement our administration has made,” said Holtmann, who also hopes to limit the number of guarantee games his team will have to play.

This season will be tough for the Bulldogs, who have 10 straight games away from home before beginning conference play. Former walk-on Jonathan Moore is the only returning player who scored more than five points per game last season on a team that won only five games against Division I opponents.

Moore is also the only player who was around when Holtmann last coached at Gardner-Webb. Holtmann had other job references, of course.

Butler coach Brad Stevens was one of them. He spoke with Gardner-Webb about Holtmann, as the two became friends back when Holtmann was an assistant at Taylor University, his alma mater.

And when Holtmann received a contract from Gardner-Webb, it was Stevens’ wife, Tracy, who as a labor and employment attorney read through the paperwork before the deal was sealed.

“It’s always been a dream to be a Division I head coach,” Holtmann said.” I’ve been fortunate to have been around good head coaches and successful programs on different levels. I’ve washed socks and jocks breaking into the profession. I’ve seen it from the grassroots up. It’s been a fun ride.”