A Billion Wicked Thoughts

By Ramzy Nasrallah on February 21, 2024 at 1:15 pm
Feb 23, 2020; Columbus, Ohio, USA; Ohio State Buckeyes head coach Chris Holtmann as time winds down in the win against the Maryland Terrapins at Value City Arena. Mandatory Credit: Joseph Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports
© Joseph Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

Ten basketball seasons ago, Thad Matta slipped.

Ohio State suffered through an uncharacteristic down year, which in 2014 meant the Buckeyes reached their sixth-straight NCAA Tournament but didn't survive the first weekend. Out of character, ten seasons ago.

They finished 5th in regular season conference play. After a lengthy run enjoying penthouse views, the upper-middle of the conference felt like poverty. Throwing out his disposable NCAA Tournament ban-laden honeymoon season, 5th was as bad as it got under Thad.

That early exit was preceded by runs to the Elite Eight, Final Four, Sweet Sixteen and Sweet Sixteen respectively. On-brand, ten seasons ago - an absurd run most basketball schools should envy.

Maryland doesn't have four consecutive years like that this century. Indiana, whose uniforms include five stars to denote the Hoosiers' national basketball championships haven't had four seasons like Thad's final stretch since the early 1990s.

Ohio State basketball fans - we must be specific in a place where one sport is religion while every other is merely an unhealthy passion - grew accustomed to what Thad reliably delivered every year between kickoffs. Ten seasons ago he slipped.

Seven seasons earlier he had a chunk of his vertebra removed and it viscerally impacted his health so badly his posture and gait became a recruiting instrument against the program. Seven seasons later Thad finished fifth, then he followed that up by finishing sixth and then seventh.

The ceiling isn't measured in recurring conference titles, Sweet Sixteens or Final Fours. It’s Ohio state. There is no ceiling.

Then 10th. Out of character. Yes, they are currently 13th in conference play - we'll get to that.

Ohio State lost as many conference games over Thad's final four seasons in Columbus as it had dropped over the seven preceding the slide - which included a rebuilding year which ended with an NIT trophy. Thad coached through pain, and not just because back was killing him. His teams no longer played like his teams.

So Ohio State separated from its greatest coach ever (I don't have the energy for a Fred Taylor debate today) and tapped Chris Holtmann - the reigning Big East Coach of the Year. He ingratiated himself by becoming the B1G Coach of the Year in his first season, guiding Thad guys to 2nd place and 25 wins. 

Holtmann's teams never breached 21 wins once the program was firmly in his hands, and last week Ohio State decided to pay him $12.8M to not coach the basketball program anymore. Ten seasons ago Matta slipped, and the program was out-of-character. One week ago the university decided this was its brand now, and it could not wait any longer to correct it.

Outside of Holtmann's red herring honeymoon season, the basketball team has been exhausting to watch - Thad's fifth place finish in 2014 feels like a fever dream, and nothing surround the program shows any real symptoms of decay or toxicity.

The culture has appears to be buoyant, the guys are very easy to cheer for - and unlike the football program, strength and conditioning has produced desired results on the court rather than soft tissue injury infestations on the practice field.

Mar 1, 2020; Columbus, Ohio, USA; Ohio State Buckeyes head coach Chris Holtmann (right) is congratulated by head football coach Ryan Day (left) following the second half against the Michigan Wolverines at Value City Arena. Mandatory Credit: Joseph Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports
Mar 1, 2020: Chris Holtmann is congratulated by Ryan Day following the 2nd half against Michigan at Value City Arena. ©Joseph Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

It feels eerily similar to what Ryan Day is dealing with on the religious side of the sports ledger is why such an abrupt and dramatic change was necessary, and how - not similar, but parallel - the paths to here are. Day was Ohio State's first B1G Coach of the Year in his first full season - the program's first in 40 years - and has been challenged by his employer's religious standard ever since.

The similarity lies in the optics of two programs with strong cultures that have suffered through pervasive, repetitive, uncomplicated and self-inflicted setbacks. Day and Holtmann both come across as leaders who would rather be proven right than change course to do what's right. That observation expired abruptly for the football program after the Cotton Bowl.

Day finally relinquished the overwhelming, impossible burden of running the program, calling the plays, coaching the starting quarterback and being the lead recruiter. Last season he made a cosmetic change to the org chart by promoting Brian Hartline into a [giant air quotes] playcaller role.

But nothing changed on Saturdays. And the season began and ended in similar fashion, again. Same process, same result. Wait, are we talking football or basketball here? Yes.

One offseason later, Day didn't just hire an offensive coordinator - he hired two. There was nothing cosmetic about his delegation of duty this offseason, and he also finally separated a nepotism retainer along with a catastrophic internal promotion. This was a leader who stopped waiting to prove he was right and fully-immersed himself in doing what was necessary to be right.

The result was the football program spending the month after the season ended executing nearly every action on the most radicalized, dead-ender Buckeye fan wish list. It wasn't a clean sweep but appeasement wasn't part of the equation.

As for the basketball program, there was nothing stinky about it except for the Januarys, Februarys, Marches, road games, 2nd halves - the pervasive, repetitive, uncomplicated and self-inflicted setbacks that showed no sign of being corrected. If Holtmann coached at Ohio State ten more years everyone reading this would have been able to retire early by shorting the program after the New Year.

The culture for ohio state’s football & men’s basketball programs appears to be buoyant. They just haven’t achieved any of their goals in several years.

Alas, we'll have to make our money elsewhere. Despite ranking 13th out of 14, this predicament could be so much worse - even while paying rent in basketball squalor, Ohio State's program is not radioactive, contentious or controversial. The vacant bowels of the Schottenstein center might suggest otherwise, but that building sucks no matter who is playing in it.

Holtmann is and was widely respected in coaching circles, and it's absolutely permissible to show bewilderment at the loose fraternity which defends a man who by all accounts belongs in the Hall of Fame for Nice Guys but also led a basketball program with inexhaustible resources into the basement of a conference that can't shoot its way out of the NCAA Tournament's first weekend.

He did it with an odd elegance and grace that normally doesn't accompany a program that shows its ass every January and February in the 2nd halves of every basketball game it plays. And he showed no willingness or appetite to change, so Ohio State made that change on his behalf. This is 180 degrees from how the guy atop the football program is behaving.

As for who is next, Ohio State bought some time to get it right - and with a new athletic director coming in, this is a hire he has to get absolutely right. This program's ceiling isn't measured in conference titles, Sweet Sixteens or Final Fours - that's something we are all old enough to remember as the usual. There is no ceiling.

Thad proved Ohio State could build basketball dynasties and reach NCAA title games. The next guy should be able to prove winning it all isn't out of character.

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