Today’s Possible Savior: Chris Holtmann, the 45 year-old native of the Bluegrass State is in his third year at the helm of the Butler Bulldogs. Holtmann has amassed a 110-82 record over 6 years as a head coach. Fun fact: he was a teammate of John Groce (current Illinois Head Coach and former Herb protégé) at Taylor University (a NAIA powerhouse, apparently).
Important Questions, In Rough Order Of Importance:
1. Has he coached teams that have won a national title, made multiple deep NCAA tournament runs, and/or consistently been highly ranked?
Negative. Holtmann was the head man at Gardner-Webb for three years, and did not make the tournament there (more on that tenure below). Since taking over Butler in 2014, the Bulldogs have made the Big Dance both years (and are on track to make the tournament again this year currently sitting at 21-6 (10-5 in the Big East). Butler has been bounced the past two years in the Round of 32; last year a as 9-seed by Virginia, and in 2015 as a 6-seed by 3-seed Notre Dame in overtime. Butler has been in-and-out of the Top 25 during the last three years, and is currently ranked 24th.
2. Has he built a program from the ground up?
Yes-ish and no? His tenure at Gardner-Webb saw the Bulldogs (who play in the Big South, for those that didn’t know even though they are in NC) improve from 11-wins in 2011 to a 21-13 record and a CIT bid in his third year. This was the first postseason appearance for Gardner-Webb since making the jump to Division 1 in 2008. Holtmann then left Gardner-Webb to become an assistant at Butler for Brandon Miller in 2013. He was tabbed as the interim head coach in October 2014 when Brandon Miller (who helmed the Bulldogs for one season after Stevens left and had a 14-17 record, a major step-back from where Stevens took the program to), and then made head coach January 2015.
3. Has he substantially improved the program from when he took over?
With Gardner-Webb, this is a "yes". The Bulldogs have posted winning seasons in each of the three years since Holtmann departed, making the CBI in 2015. With Butler, not so much. Todd Lickliter (predecessor to Stevens) and Thad Matta (predecessor to Lickliter) both had the Bulldogs performing solidly before Stevens put it into overdrive with the two national title appearances and multiple conference titles. However, the one season under Miller showed that Butler’s success was not guaranteed and Holtmann successfully has brought Butler back closer to where Stevens had them. Important to note too: Stevens was head coach of Butler when they were still in the Horizon league, followed by one year in the A-10. The Bulldogs joined the Big East the year after Stevens left – saying all that to say that Holtmann has faced increased regular season competition in his time at Butler over the Matta/Lickliter/Stevens eras.
4. Has he succeeded at more than one head coaching job?
5. Does he have significant high-major experience as either a head coach or an assistant?
Depends on how you view the Big East. Holtmann has worked with coaches who had success at some level (Stevens and John Groce when he was at Ohio) but was not an assistant for them at a high-major (keeping in mind that Butler was still in the A-10 when Holtmann came on board).
6. Is his team one of the best in its conference right now?
Yep. Butler is currently in second in the Big East, a half-game ahead of #20 Creighton and three games back from league-leading #2 Villanova. The Bulldogs appear to be on track for their third straight year in the top 4 of the league.
7. Do his teams actually play, what is this thing called, "defense"?
Yes. Butler currently sits at 48th in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency rankings. This is a step up from a finish in 96th in 2016, their best defensive year was in 2015 when the Bulldogs were 8th, allowing .88 points per possession. Defense clearly matters to Holtmann. I would offer to him that he doesn’t know the meaning of the word "atrocious" in this context. Of note: the Bulldogs are 3-1 since that rant, including holding three of those opponents to 71-points or less.
8. So how about offense?
Butler’s rankings in KenPom’s Adjusted Offense from current to the last two years are: 19th, 15th, 66th. So with 2015 being a blip on the radar, clearly the last two seasons have shown Holtmann’s teams to be fairly efficient on offense. Tempo-wise, we could have some disappointment again. They are currently 286th in adjusted tempo (good for just 66 possessions a game). This is a pretty significant drop from last year’s 182nd, but in 2015 they were 239th. They will get out in transition some and clearly can score in buckets (see the 110 points they put on St. John’s a week or so ago) but they are definitely a little closer to UVA than to the current offensive tempo we are used to.
9. Any indication that he can recruit McDonald’s All-American-type players?
Well not All-Americans, but Butler has consistently reeled in solid three-start talent with a sprinkling of better players. This includes Joe Brunk, a Center from Indianapolis (so hometown kid) that picked Butler over offers from basically the entire Big Ten, Oklahoma, and Xavier; and Kyle Young, a PF currently committed to Butler from OH who had offers from the entire Big Ten, Clemson, Florida, West Virginia, Xavier…and NC State. He is the 11th ranked PF in the nation and 83rd overall per Scout. A strong assistant staff would be necessary but it doesn’t seem like he has had too much trouble getting kinds to commit to a Big East school over P-5 schools in the same neighborhood, including Indiana and Purdue.
10. Does he have any connection to NC State, North Carolina, or the ACC?
As previously noted, he spent three years in lovely Boiling Springs, NC outside of Charlotte coaching at Gardner-Webb. So yes.
11. Any other random red flags or positives?
Not that I could find.
Would he be better than Gottfried?
Eh. Maybe? The lack of deep tournament runs or championship wins at either stop so far (granted they are short tenures) doesn’t point to him being better than Gottfried. He has high-upside and did right the ship at Butler after the drop-off when Stevens left. His teams do seem to be much more disciplined with the basketball, play with effort, and have a focus on defense, all of which we have lacked for the last six years.
OK, so what is his ceiling?
Holtmann is young at 45, so there is time there for him to make an impact. He may not be a championship-caliber coach, but he may be. Brad Stevens does text him after every game so clearly he is still getting counsel from one of the best coaches out there. I can see his floor as being a Gottfried/Herb level but just not sure what the ceiling is?
Would he take the job if offered?
Searching on his salary, it was rumored in 2015 that Holtmann made less than $1 million a year, maybe he is up over that figure now given the extra money Butler is likely making in the Big East and his success, but money shouldn’t be an issue. Would probably come down to fit and if he felt like this as a logical step. The obvious answer is to say "well yes, of course he would come here!" and I would think he would be interested. Probably just depends on if NC State is the kind of job he wants or if he will bide his time at Butler for something else….or decide that he likes being in a basketball-centric league and decide to stay.
How would I feel if he were hired?
To me, this is the kind of hire that we should have made with a quickness in 2006 or 2011 when it was evident that the big names weren’t interested. This is a high-risk/high-reward type hire but Holtmann has shown consistency at a job that got a lot harder between the National Title runs under Stevens and now given the upgrade in league and the upgrade in expectations. His persona is a fit, I think. This would be somewhat akin to how I felt about the Dave Doeren hire initially: optimistic but cautious .
How would the fan base as a whole feel if he were hired?
I’m sure the initial reaction would be "who?" Would probably take some time to sell. But I would think they would be more hopeful than after the end of the last two searches.