March Madness is upon us and people are getting ready to fill out those pesky brackets. We love this time of year because of the drama and possibilities that exist when Davids meet Goliaths. Will this finally be the year that a 16-seed defeats a 1-seed? Who will make it to the Final Four? What team will become the Cinderella story of the story? Who will be cutting down the nets when “One Shining Moment” is playing on CBS? Who will be the underdogs you will be rooting for?
The NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament is a 3-week long spectacle that draws in viewers that haven’t watched basketball all year. There is something special about filling out your own bracket and rooting for the underdog that happens to have a cool mascot. This period in March almost has an Olympic feel to it, with all of the human interest stories and once-in-a-lifetime opportunities afforded teams you’ve never heard of representing conferences that you didn’t even know existed. However, the teams are not the only underdogs or rags-to-riches stories that exist during the tournament. There are some coaches who have interesting stories to tell. There are some coaches who took some unexpected roads to get here. If you haven’t decided what team to root for yet, then here are two coaches that just might be worth rooting for when the ball gets tipped for this years version of March Madness.
Quick, name the coach of the Butler Bulldogs? Wrong…it is not Brad Stevens. Yes, he was the coach who took the little unknown private school from Indianapolis to two straight National Championship Games. Brad Stevens would probably be a first-ballot Hall of Fame rags-to-riches coach because of his story but he has since moved on to be the head coach of the NBA’s Boston Celtics. The current coach of the Butler Bulldogs has an interesting story nonetheless.
Chris Holtmann played for Paul Patterson, a legendary coach at Taylor University in Upland, Indiana. When Holtmann was playing for a NAIA school back in the early 1990’s, he probably couldn’t have imagined that one day he would be the head coach of the team that would beat the defending champions (Villanova) twice in the same year. That same Villanova squad is the overall #1 seed going into this year’s tournament. Holtmann’s Bulldogs are 23-8 and a #4 seed entering this year’s tournament.
The man that just received the Big East’s Coach of the Year award was never an assistant at a flashy Power Five school. He never won a small college national championship propelling him into the spotlight. In fact, Holtmann didn’t even have a winning record as a head coach before taking over the Butler program.
He worked his way up the coaching ladder rung by rung by rung. He spent five years as a NAIA assistant and then seven years as an assistant at Gardner-Webb and Ohio University before eventually becoming a Division I head coach at Gardner Webb University. Even though he made strides with that program and steadily improved from 11 wins his first year to 12 his second and then 21 his third year, he still had an overall 44-54 record. Not quite the typical resume of a guy that would go on to be one of the top coaches in the country.
After Holtmann’s third season, he decided to move back to Indiana to become an assistant coach at Butler. Even though Butler was in the Big East, it might have seemed strange to many to give up being a DI head coach to become a DI assistant. He would then become the interim head coach when the head coach Brandon Miller took a medical leave of absence. Eventually Holtmann would earn the job on a full-time basis. He has maintained the “Butler Way” and kept the Bulldogs in the Top-25 and a major player on the national scene.
Fortunately we are talking about what a great coach Chris Holtmann is and how far the Bulldogs can advance this year because the story could have been much different. In December, Butler was faced with a very scary situation when their chartered flight coming back from a game in New York City experienced loss of cabin pressure. For nearly 10 minutes, nobody on the plane knew what their fate would be as the pilots tried to regain control of the airplane. During that time, the plane dropped from 35,000 feet to 10,000 altitude. Fortunately, everyone was okay and the plan landed safely.
Wouldn’t it be a wonderful story for a team and a coach like this to make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament? If you want an underdog story to root for, then I suggest Chris Holtmann and his Butler Bulldogs.
If I were to get my way, Butler would face off with the other “underdog coach”, John Beilein and his University of Michigan squad in the Final Four.
It is said that John Beilein mows his own grass. Truth is that most of us mow our own grass. That is what normal people do. But John Beilein isn’t supposed to be like most normal people. He is the head coach of the Michigan Wolverines. He has taken his team to the NCAA Championship Game. He has won more than 750 games as a head coach. Guys with his status don’t mow their own lawns. But then again, guys with his status also weren’t NCAA Division III coaches. They weren’t high school coaches. They weren’t community college coaches.
John Beilien is the everyman’s coach. He has been at all the levels. Coaches all across the country might want to be Rick Pitino or Coach K or Roy Williams, but they can most relate to John Beilien. He has been were they are. He grinded. He toiled. He earned his keep. Newfane High School, Erie Community College, Nazareth College, LeMoyne College, Canisius College, Richmond University … do those sound like the type of schools that big-time college coaches come from? Have you ever heard the saying, “Make the big-time where you’re at”? Well that is exactly what John Beilien did. Every place he has ever been, he treated it like it was Duke, Kentucky, Kansas … or Michigan.
This year, his Wolverines finished 8th in the Big 10 after a number of injuries detoured their goals. However, they still had the conference tournament to salvage their season. If they could perform well at the tournament, maybe they would be selected as an at-large team and make the field of 68.
Just like their season contained potholes and bumps along the way, they faced down their biggest challenge of the year when their plane skidded off the runway on the way to Washington DC for the conference tournament. Even though the plane was in rough shape, none of the players were hurt badly. They would have to overcome some cuts and bruises. They would have to overcome the mental distractions that a near tragedy like this brought presented. They would also have to find uniforms to wear because theirs were still underneath the plane. Despite all of this, Michigan won four straight games (3 of which they found themselves as underdogs) to earn the Big 10 Conference Tournament Championship.
A coach that paid his dues. A team that had to rebound from a near airplane disaster. A coach that performed, arguably, his best coaching job last week. This sounds like a team and coach that I could root for.
The next three weeks are sure to bring us Cinderella teams and remarkable stories, but the stories of Chris Holtmann and John Beilein are worth knowing. They are also men worth admiring. The great statesman and evangelist Billy Graham once said that
“A coach will impact more young people in a year than the average person will in a lifetime.”
I believe that Chris Holtmann and John Beilein are the type of role models that Billy Graham had in mind. These are two good guys to be rooting for during this year’s version of March Madness.