MILWAUKEE – Here they came together Saturday night, walking down a back corridor beneath the stands of the BMO Harris Bradley Center, a family on a victory stroll. Butler’s newest Sweet 16 coach, his wife, his six-year-old daughter, hand-in-hand-in-hand.
Chris Holtmann would be asked later how to describe such a moment.
“Dream come true, absolutely. It feels like a dream. I never would have imagined I would be here at 45.”
But here he is, surviving and advancing in the NCAA Tournament. A lot more than surviving, actually. Butler won two games here and did not trail a single second. And so it is another step up the ladder for a man who less than three years ago left on a trip as an assistant and came home as the interim head coach, the job suddenly dropping from the sky.
Holtmann’s journey is a unique one, from a small college in Indiana to head coach at Gardner-Webb, to Butler assistant, and then to the Impromptu Coach. Brandon Miller took a medical leave of absence as Butler coach only days before practice began for the 2014-15 season -- for reasons still unclear -- and suddenly, Holtmann was the man in charge.
The recent national runner-up banners, famed Hinkle Fieldhouse, the shadow cast by the revered Brad Stevens, the burden of trying to win in the Big East, the school’s renown for mixing it up with the bluebloods. All suddenly on Holtmann’s watch. Miller never came back.
Barely 29 months later, Butler is in the Sweet 16. The last time that happened, Stevens was the coach and the Bulldogs were on the way to their second consecutive Final Four, a Cinderella suddenly transformed into a March power.
“It feels like it’s been a long time coming, but it’s only been three years,” Holtmann said Saturday. So what’s changed in those three years? Not much on the record ledger, Butler winning 23, 22 and now 25 games. But as for the man himself:
“I have this bald spot at the top of my head. I’m different for sure with that. My wife has just noticed that in the last six months. There’s a lot of pressure in this job. I’ve always admitted that, and a lot of it’s because of what’s been done before and who’s done it so well before. We’ve just tried to stay in the moment.”
Butler would be no place for an edgy egotist, or someone big on glitz. The Bulldogs are not the little team that could anymore, but there is still something of a small-town feel to it. Fact is, Butler is rather hard to classify – too powerful to be mid-major, but not still quite thrown in with the biggest fish.
“Our guys don’t really embrace the labels or non-labels,” Holtmann said. Come to think of it, neither does he.
“All I ever wanted to do was be a head coach someday at Taylor University,” he said of his alma mater, a tiny NAIA dot on a map northeast of Indianapolis. But come Friday, he might be facing Roy Williams and North Carolina in the South Regional. Not that the Bulldogs will be awed, having beaten Arizona, Cincinnati, Indiana and Villanova and Xavier (twice each) this season.
But it’ll still be a long way from Taylor.
“He became the head coach and it has not skipped a beat. Not a single beat,” senior Andrew Chrabascz said. “He’s just as emotional as us after these type of wins and that’s what makes it exciting. It’s a special group of guys, and a lot of it is because of him.”
On this special night, Holtmann had time to explain what it meant...
“It’s really emotional for all of us because we wanted it so bad. We had a former player in the locker room and I feel bad I wasn’t able to help get him to the Sweet 16 last year. I think about all those guys.”
And why Butler’s chemistry is so good...
“They found a way to be agenda-less in a society where that’s hard. There’s a lot of agendas usually.”
And what he said to his players in the preseason, when Butler was picked sixth in the Big East...
“I told them, `People think we’re not going to get to the tournament and it’s going to be a rebuilding year, and it may. But you can certainly help it not be that.’’’
And how he took Gardner-Webb from eight wins to 21...
“We were able to rebuild a program in three years. It reinforced what I believe wins. Because I saw that through in three years,and I think it gave me the confidence to come in and do this job.”
Then he left to be with his family. Walking down the corridor with little Nora, the Sweet 16 was not the issue. There had been talk about pizza.