Coaches advise players to control their emotions. Don’t get too high. Don’t get too low. It’s never as bad as it seems nor as good as it seems.
Butler’s basketball team tested that adage recently. In a seven-day period, the Butler team contemplated dying in a plane crash, then reveled in a victory over No. 1-ranked Villanova.
Coach Chris Holtmann, a native of Nicholasville, described this valley low-mountain high, one-two punch with even-keel understatement. “It was an eventful week, that’s for sure,” he said.
The week began with a 76-73 loss at St. John’s on Dec. 29. After the game, the team boarded a chartered flight from LaGuardia to Indianapolis.
The traveling party of about 30 had plenty of room to stretch out and get comfortable on the 50-seat jet. As is customary, coaches sat in the front and players in the rear.
Shortly after takeoff, Holtmann began reviewing tape of the St. John’s game with the video coordinator. About 25 minutes into the flight, the video coordinator felt a popping in his ears. Then he noticed a cold draft of air.
The video coordinator shot a what’s-going-on glance at someone across the aisle, which irritated Holtmann.
“I kind of nudged him, and I slapped him on the leg,” Holtmann said, “and I said, ‘Hey, pay attention. We’re trying to log these clips here.’ And he said, ‘OK, my bad.’
“Then 10 seconds later, bang, the lights go out. (Oxygen) masks come down and flight personnel said over and over, ‘Do not take your mask off.’”
The urgency in the flight attendant’s voice increased the growing anxiety.
Holtmann has come to realize that anyone who took the mask off would lose consciousness within a minute or so.
John Dedman, Associate Athletic Director for Communications, was sitting in the middle of the cabin. He had pulled out his laptop in order to work on media notes for Butler’s next game.
He was not immediately alarmed when the oxygen masks came down.
“For a second or two, I thought that’s just an odd malfunction because everything seemed normal to me,” Dedman said.
Then the cabin went dark, although there was enough light to see the worried looks on the faces.
The plane’s descent was not violent. But a growing fear gripped those on the plane.
“The scariest thing is you’re just not getting information from the cockpit,” Dedman said. “You’re not getting any feedback in terms of ‘Everything’s going to be OK. Stick with us for a second. We’re working up here. All is good.’
“And you really wanted to hear that, obviously.”
Dedman, a native of Harrodsburg, thought of golfer Payne Stewart’s death in a plane crash. He tried to send a text to his wife. He wanted her to know he loved her and their 4-year-old daughter. The text did not transmit.
Holtmann did not text his wife because he did not want to alarm her.
The plane was losing cabin pressure. The Butler team never found out why. It had to descend from about 30,000 feet to 10,000 feet.
Once at 10,000 feet, passengers could take off the oxygen masks. Dedman pointed out that the oxygen masks essentially tie a passenger to the seat. So there’s no communal comfort in sharing the experience with someone else. For instance, three brothers of Butler Athletic Director Barry Collier’s are pilots, and his wife had worked as a flight attendant. He was not especially alarmed, but he could not assure anyone else that all was OK.
When permitted to remove the masks, Holtmann went to the rear of the plane to check on the players.
“I wanted to kind of grab each guy by the shoulder and say, ‘Hey, how are you doing?’” he said. “Some were doing well. And others, you could tell were emotional.”
The plane landed in Pittsburgh. The traveling party checked into a hotel, where coaches and support staff sat in the lobby and relived the incident for a couple of hours. Holtmann and the video coordinator completed the review of the St. John’s tape at about 3 a.m.
Before boarding a bus the next day for a seven-hour ride home to Indianapolis, there was a bizarrely disjointed team meeting. It began with what amounted to a therapy session. The players were asked to talk about what happened the night before.
“Whether our lives were in danger or not, a lot of our players felt that they were,” said Holtmann, who has a degree in psychology. “So it was important for us to acknowledge that, and to acknowledge how that felt.”
Once back on campus, the players met with a trained professional.
Butler players and coaches returned to the sports world in the second part of the meeting. Holtmann said he was “very direct” in critiquing how players performed in the St. John’s game. The usual kick-in-the-pants oratory rang, if not hollow, then odd given the sensitivity training that preceded it.
“I felt like I had a split personality in a matter of two minutes, I’ll be honest with you,” Holtmann said. “I went from almost being their quasi- counselor to pretty direct and frank about the reality of how we played and performed. …
“I almost felt like I had to go into a closet and come back out and have a completely different disposition.”
When asked if the return to fire-breathing coach made him feel foolish, Holtmann said, “I think so.”
But he suggested the return to coach mode had a therapeutic value.
“I did feel like getting back to normalcy as important for them,” Holtmann said. “And normalcy for them when we don’t play well is me jumping them in film.”
What followed six days later was abnormal in a good way. Butler beat No. 1 Villanova 66-58. It was only the second time in program history that Butler beat a team ranked No. 1. The Bulldogs took a 13-2 record into Saturday’s game at Georgetown, which they won 85-76 in overtime.
Yet the routine of winning and losing, film study, practice and weight lifting doesn’t feel quite the same to Holtmann.
“You kind of circle back to why you started coaching in the first place,” he said. “And that was the relationship with the players and those that you work with.
“Just like any high-level program, there’s enormous pressure in these positions. But I do think you kind of circle back. The value is in the relationships that we have.”
Wildcats times two
Defending national champion Villanova had not lost until playing at Butler on Thursday.
“They’re good,” Butler Coach Chris Holtmann said of the Wildcats. “I think they’re really good. They probably lack the depth that they had last year.”
Holtmann also said that Butler probably caught Villanova at a good time. Villanova was coming off an emotional victory at Creighton.
“They’re so mature and tough in their approach,” Holtmann said.
As for the Wildcats closer to his native Nicholasville, Holtmann said that he keeps an eye on Kentucky.
“I just peek at them from a distance,” he said. “Obviously Coach Cal (John Calipari) and his staff just do an unbelievable job. They’re incredibly talented and so well coached. From a distance, I’m pulling for them.”
Five for five
All five road teams won SEC openers on Dec. 29: Kentucky at Ole Miss, Tennessee at Texas A&M, Georgia at Auburn, Florida at Arkansas and Vanderbilt at LSU.
“I wish I’d bought a lottery ticket that day,” Florida Coach Michael White said. “That’s the only thing you can take from it.
“It’s shocking. And I guess the law of averages says it won’t happen again this year.”
Not only did all road teams win, they won comfortably. Led by UK’s 99-76 victory at Ole Miss, the five SEC road victories on opening night came by an average of 12.2 points.
Where are they now?
Texas A&M lost four starters from last season’s team which tied UK for the SEC regular-season championship. Three of those players are playing professionally.
Danuel House made the Wizards’ roster. Then he was sent down to the Development League. He’s currently sidelined because of a broken hand.
Jalen Jones (Celtics) and Alex Caruso (Thunder) are playing in the Development League.
The fourth starter, guard Anthony Collins, is playing in Slovenia.
To Isaac Humphries. He turned 19 on Thursday. … To Tyler Ulis. He turned 21 on Thursday. … To Larry Stamper. He turned 67 on Friday. … To Bobby Perry. He turned 32 on Saturday. … To Kirk Chiles. He turns 68 on Sunday (today). … To former Ole Miss player and coach Rod Barnes. He turns 51 on Sunday (today). … To Terrence Jones. He turns 25 on Monday.