Saturday, Aug 18, 2018
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David Briggs

With grand slam hire, Ohio State basketball is back

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    Ohio State head coach Chris Holtmann reacts during a game against Iowa Jan. 4, 2018, in Iowa City, Iowa. Ohio State won 92-81.

    ASSOCIATED PRESS

  • Michigan-St-Ohio-St-Basketball-10

    Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann reacts to a play during the Buckeyes' win against Michigan State.

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BRIGGS-MirrorsOnSport-12

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It is not true that Ohio State’s search for a new basketball coach took as long to complete as Rome.

The four-day pursuit that landed Chris Holtmann last spring reportedly took longer.

“People acted like it was years,” Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith said. “It was funny watching the reports of where I was at, who I was talking to, who I offered the job to. It was just hilarious. ... Chris was my guy from the beginning.”

And in the end? Look who is enjoying the final laugh.

As it happens, Smith knows a little something about hiring hoops coaches, his latest selection in a career of good ones emerging as perhaps the biggest fence clearer yet.

Not to mention our early favorite for national coach of the year.

If you are just tuning in, Ohio State basketball — on the lam the past two years — is back, breathing life again into that strange interval between football and spring football. In other states, they call it winter.

To say the 22nd-ranked Buckeyes (15-4, 6-0) have come out of nowhere would be misleading. They have come from a suburb of nowhere, a team picked to finish 11th in the Big Ten that returned just six scholarship players fearlessly taking names all the way to the top of the league.

“It’s exciting,” Smith said. “None of us, including me, expected to be here.”

Still, he could be forgiven for saying, “Told you so.” Smith has endured more criticism than he deserves over the years, and the know-it-alls — myself included — came out in full during his courtship of Holtmann, the school’s top attainable choice to replace fired all-time wins leader Thad Matta. But after an initial rejection briefly sent the search off the rails, Smith doubled back to the Butler coach, tripled his salary, and landed his belle.

We shouldn’t have been surprised. In three-plus decades as an athletic director, Smith had previously hired three men’s basketball coaches: Ben Braun at Eastern Michigan in 1986 and Tim Floyd and Larry Eustachy at Iowa State in 1994 and ’98, respectively. All three guided teams to the second weekend of the NCAA tournament on his watch.

And that’s not to mention the hire I tell him is the best of them all. In 1995, Smith nabbed the rising 38-year-old women’s basketball coach at Toledo. All Bill Fennelly has done since is lead Iowa State to the big dance 17 times.

“I tend to look for as best I can people who are good teachers, who share my philosophy on how to treat kids,” Smith told me. “I don’t believe in yelling and berating kids on the sidelines. Bill had my same philosophy. I’ve only stepped outside that box a couple times, and it was challenging for me. Bill was just a good teacher. You saw his teams at Toledo. Holy smokes, great spacing, got the best out of his athletes.”

The outside-the-box guys were Floyd and Eustachy, who Smith politely describes as “yellers.” (Eustachy was later fired for alcohol-related issues.) With the 46-year-old Holtmann — a big-time recruiter who has this Buckeyes team playing hard and together — he is back inside of it.

And the Buckeyes are back in national contention. The solid hire is so far proving the star one.

Never a doubt, right?

Contact David Briggs at dbriggs@theblade.com419-724-6084, or on Twitter @DBriggsBlade.

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