John Clay

John Clay: Central Kentucky native Holtmann more than holding down the fort for Butler

It has to be unlike anything most coaches will ever go through, learning days before the official start of practice that the head coach is taking a medical leave of absence, and suddenly, unexpectedly, the team becomes your team.

In the case of Butler basketball, that is the wrong way to see the situation.

"I've not looked at it like that," Chris Holtmann said Wednesday. "I've looked at it as our team, our group, us as a staff doing things together."

Interim head coach is simply Holtmann's title, one given Oct. 2 when Butler head coach Brandon Miller took leave for health reasons.

Neither the cause nor duration of Miller's leave has been revealed, though the school has indicated he is not likely to return this season.

Someone has to be in charge, however, and that's Holtmann, 43, who grew up in Lexington before his family moved to Nicholasville during his high school years. Holtmann graduated from Jessamine County High School in 1990 after helping the Colts reach the Boys' State Tournament.

His college career started at Brescia before Holtmann transferred to Taylor University in Indiana, where he was an NAIA All-American. He was an assistant at Geneva College, Taylor, Gardner-Webb and Ohio U. under former Butler assistant John Groce before going back to Gardner-Webb as head coach.

Undertaking a "significant rebuilding job," Holtmann stayed three years — Gardner-Webb went from eight wins to 21 — before accepting Miller's offer to be a part of Butler.

Holtmann was one year into the job when AD Barry Collier called him in off the road with news of Miller's leave and the decision to elevate Holtmann to interim head coach.

"It was tough first and foremost because somebody that you work alongside of every day was struggling health-wise," Holtmann said. "Beyond the uncertainty of everything, however, there's been more stability than the perception on the outside."

After all, even though the proud Bulldogs, owners of so much recent NCAA Tournament success, slipped to 14-17 last season, Butler boasted mature players who could handle the situation.

"You never know how players are going to respond, you just don't," Holtmann said. "But I think we knew we had a veteran group that would handle it the right way."

Though picked to finish eighth in the 10-team Big East, the Bulldogs won their first three non-conference games by comfortable margins before a Bahamas trip promised much tougher tests.

"I felt we could play well, but I don't know if we knew — I'm not sure right now even if we know how good our team is or can be," Holtmann said. "I think we felt like we have a tough-minded group that could compete. What all that meant, I didn't know."

At the Battle 4 Atlantis, Butler did more than compete. The Bulldogs opened with a 74-66 upset of then fifth-ranked North Carolina. After a 59-46 loss to Oklahoma, Butler bounced back to beat Georgetown 64-58 for a third-place finish in a tournament won by Wisconsin.

The Bulldogs won three more games, rising to 15th in the polls, before losing 67-55 at Tennessee on Sunday.

"I think they played hungrier than we did," Holtmann said, "particularly in the second half."

Next comes a marquee matchup with Indiana. Holtmann's parents, John and Patty, who still live in Nicholasville, are going to Indianapolis for Saturday's game and a Monday matchup with Tennessee-Martin.

After that, Holtmann, wife Lori and daughter Nora Jane plan to visit Nicholasville for Christmas Eve, where his mother will prepare "a big spaghetti dinner for the holidays," he said.

"I have a brother, John Michael, who decided to do his own thing and graduated from Mississippi State," Holtmann said. "We try not to hold that against him, but it does affect the gift-giving."

Then it's back to basketball and making the most of an unusual situation, not as an "interim head coach" but as a team working together.

"I think that's enabled us to kind of fight through some of the adversity together," Holtmann said. "Our thoughts are still with Brandon and will continue to be.

"But everything has been coming so fast, we really haven't had a chance to sit back and evaluate. It's literally been taking the thing that is directly in front of us and doing the best we can."