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Leonard: Butler's coach follows in friend's footsteps
Holtmann latest coach to lead Bulldogs into NCAA tournament
Butler coach Chris Holtmann reacts during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Seton Hall Tuesday, Jan. 13, 2015, in Newark, N.J. Butler defeated Seton Hall 79-75 in overtime. - photo by Bill Kostroun

March Madness is upon us. It begins with the First Four tonight and Wednesday. It culminates in the Final Four on April 4 and April 6.

This is the time of year when most of us channel our inner underdog to root for schools we’ve never heard of, thanks in large part to the fact we picked them to win a game (or more) in our bracket. It’s when upsets and surprises capture the imagination and we just might learn more about Stephen F. Austin than the fact that its nickname is the Lumberjacks.

But I want to tell you the story of a coach who leads an underdog turned household name and a little bit about his journey.

Butler head coach Chris Holtmann was performing quite well in his third season of his first head coaching job. It was December 2012, and his Gardner-Webb team had just finished off a victory against The Citadel.

After the game, working for The Star in Shelby, N.C., covering Gardner-Webb, I couldn’t help asking Holtmann about Butler’s win against No. 1 Indiana earlier in the day. Holtmann lit up talking about his good friend Brad Stevens, then Butler’s coach, and how he wasn’t surprised at the effort by the Bulldogs against a loaded Hoosiers team.

Stevens wasn’t Holtmann’s only close friend to find head coaching success. Holtmann was on John Groce’s staff at Ohio when the Bobcats scored a major upset of Georgetown in the 2010 NCAA tournament. Groce is now the head coach at Illinois.

Fast forward to July 2013, four months after Holtmann led Gardner-Webb to a berth in the postseason Tournament. The Boston Celtics hired Stevens as their head coach. Holtmann told me in an interview then that “he’s got a system and a plan, and he’s not going to deviate from that.”

It’s funny looking back. Those are the type of words that could easily apply to Holtmann now with the job he’s done at Butler.

Less than two weeks after Stevens went to the pros in 2013, Holtmann left his head coaching post at GWU to be an assistant for new Butler head coach Brandon Miller.

When Miller took an indefinite leave of absence in October 2014, Holtmann became the interim head coach. Butler made Holtmann the permanent head coach on Jan. 2 after a 10-4 start.

All he’s done since taking over in October is beat North Carolina, Georgetown and Providence once and St. John’s twice while guiding the Bulldogs to a No. 6 seed in the NCAA tournament.

Holtmann has been a part of NCAA success before. He’s also worked methodically to get to this stage with this opportunity. It should be fun to watch him in action against Texas this Thursday.


Clark Leonard:; 770-718-3418;

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