The mood surrounding the Butler men's basketball program in wake of coach Chris Holtmann leaving for Ohio State Friday was somber to say the least.
My daughter (a junior at Butler) called distraught over the news, while many on social media echoed the same level of sadness and disappointment. Indeed, the loss of Holtmann is sad. However, what it isn't, in terms of the operation of the Bulldog program, is catastrophic.
As one NCAA Division I basketball coach told me earlier this week: “If Butler can survive the loss of Brad Stevens, then it will survive the loss of Chris Holtmann.”
Which is completely accurate.
As long as Butler athletic director Barry Collier handles the “national search,” that he said Friday in a statement would be conducted, in the proper and thorough manner in which it should.
Which is different from the last time that he was in this position.
Four years ago, Collier either ignored or purposefully didn't seek to learn of the personal issues that had plagued the earlier coaching career of former Butler player Brandon Miller before hiring him to lead the Bulldogs.
Those in and around college basketball were cognizant of Miller's emotional history at Ohio State prior to his resignation from that program. Heck, Miller once spilled his guts to a nurse in southern Indiana while on a pharmaceutical sales call during his time away from the coaching profession, so even she knew he probably wasn't cut out to lead a Big East basketball program. However, Collier was blinded by his love of Miller, a tough, ornery Bulldog player, literally and figuratively, and didn't heed those red flags.
As far as Holtmann is concerned, Miller's lasting legacy at Butler – to his credit - will forever be that he set the program up for future success. Twice.
Miller hired Holtmann as his assistant knowing that the former Gardner-Webb head coach would prove to be a valuable resource of knowledge and experience as Miller navigated those professional waters for the first time. He then recommended Holtmann to Collier when he was taking a leave of absence as “the guy I lean on.”
That is why Collier turned to Holtmann when he was desperate and Holtmann did nothing but deliver.
Seven times in the past 18 basketball seasons, the Butler leadership has found themselves in this position of needing a new coach. Each time, the Bulldogs simply looked inwardly and promoted a current assistant. There will be columns supporting that to be done again, but this time, it isn't that simple.
This time, the best coach to replace Holtmann, in my opinion, doesn't currently have an office in Hinkle Fieldhouse.
And who is that coach? Well, it could be any number of experienced, proven and very successful sitting head coaches. I promise you, by sundown tonight, Collier will have had 200-plus coaches – some names you know – some big names – some names that will do a fine job leading the Bulldog program - reach out to him and express their interest in being at Butler. And I won't fault Collier in any way if he goes that route and hires the “sure thing.”
But Collier's history, for whatever reason, is that he has looked at assistants to make the next step, and if that process is followed again, then the best candidate is former Butler assistant and current Nebraska assistant Michael Lewis.
People will think this is a column based on personal feelings more so than professional, and I do have a positive working relationship with Lewis from his time at Butler. But I have a good relationship with everyone at Butler, so this isn't personal, it's business.
The people at Butler, including Lewis, Collier, Holtmann, etc. have never done squat for me or my family financially; Ogden Newspapers has. I'm paid to be honest professionally and if Collier is adamant that he wants to hire an assistant then Lewis has the knowledge, confidence, and experience, particularly within the Butler culture, to guide the Bulldogs better than anyone else.
Lewis knows everything there is to know about how the Butler program operates. He knows the players (he personally recruited many of them, including incoming freshman shooter Cooper Neese), he knows the university and he gets the “Butler Way.”
Lewis left Butler to take a position with a struggling Husker program and he didn't do so with naïveté. He did it in order to grow professionally and he made the decision with complete confidence in himself.
Lewis told me this spring that expanding his basketball intellect by studying a program from a different perspective has proven to be invaluable, regardless of how Nebraska's season turned out.
“Coming here has made me a better coach,” Lewis said at the time. “I'd make the same decision again.”
The transition in hiring Lewis would be a seamless and successful one.
These times are nerve-wracking along 49th Street, but in the end it won't be difficult to keep the Bulldog program rolling along. I do have confidence in Collier and I have even more in Lewis.
This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Tom Davis at Tdavis@news-sentinel.com.
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