A road trip to Northwestern used to be an automatic W, not just for Ohio State, but for everyone. But those days are gone amid the Wildcats’ improvement and OSU’s all-to-familiar January swoon.
Evanston, IL – The undeserved victory lap Ohio State seemed hellbent on giving outgoing athletic director Gene Smith may not go off as planned, due to one of the many mistakes Gene the Check-Cashing Machine has made over his years in Columbus.
While most of Smith’s flubs have conveniently been forgotten – like the national football championship OSU could have won in Urban Meyer’s undefeated first year had Smith not assured university brass it wouldn’t get a bowl ban for Jim Tressel’s misdeeds – the Buckeyes’ on-going basketball faceplant is loudly reminding everyone how knee-jerk incompetent Smith could sometimes be.
An 83-58 Ohio State loss Saturday night at Northwestern was the low point so far – it’s best to hedge your bets in that regard, given No. 10 Illinois visits Value City Arena on Monday night – in what’s been another miserable January under seventh-year coach Chris Holtmann.
What could possibly save Holtmann’s job at this point after a fifth loss in six games, after a 13-game road losing streak that’s more than one year in length and amid what appears a second straight year of missing the NCAA Tournament?
Well, as Holtmann’s luck would have it, Smith is set to remain on the job until June 30 and likely doesn’t want the last impression he leaves on Buckeye Nation to be the $15 million check he’d have to hand Holtmann to go away.
In case you forgot – like you probably forgot Smith presiding over an NCAA Selection Committee that placed top overall seed OSU in the toughest regional in the country in 2011 – Smith shocked everyone by giving Holtmann a three-year contract extension in May of 2022 when the coach’s original eight-year deal still had three seasons to run.
Remember, OSU had never placed above fourth in the Big Ten and had, one year earlier, lost as a No. 2 seed to No. 15 Oral Roberts in the NCAA’s opening round.
“We strive for championships and there’s no question we need to get there and we will,” Smith said at the time of Holtmann’s extension. “But you look at his recruiting and it’s off the chain. I just love the teaching he does.”
Holtmann’s salary jumped to nearly $4 million annually in total compensation under terms of his new contract. And in the same deal, Smith offered a buyout that must pay Holtmann the balance of his salary for all years remaining on his contract if OSU parts ways with him before the end of the 2027-28 season.
That’s four more years after this dumpster fire burns out, meaning the bill for Ohio State firing Holtmann after what would be a seventh straight failure to get to the Sweet Sixteen would number somewhere around $15 million.
While that may seem an outrageous amount of cash – after all, think how many Alabama football transfers $15 million could buy – it likely appears but a pittance to incoming athletic director Ross Bjork from Texas A&M.
Bjork, of course, knows his way around a fat, premature contract extension that packs a heck of a recoil. One year before Holtmann’s extension, Bjork sweetened the deal of Aggies’ football coach Jimbo Fisher to the tune of four extra years at nearly $10 million per.
Then Bjork hit the escape hatch on that this past November, swallowing hard as Jimbo parachuted away with a cool $75 million not to coach for the next seven years.
So, here’s the problem: Does new OSU President Ted Carter let Smith hire Holtmann’s replacement and wear the embarrassment when the AD is supposed to sailing off into the sunset as, “I’m Walking On Sunshine,” blares in the background.
Or does Holtmann survive because OSU doesn’t want to pay that ransom and doesn’t want to force-feed Bjork a coach he didn’t hire?
Or does Ohio State wait until Bjork arrives in July, let him pull the rip-cord on Holtmann and hope that the scarlet-and-gray money machine can entice a capable hire to Columbus in a month when the vital summer recruiting calendar is in full swing?
All those are much more enticing questions than answering what happened to the Buckeyes (13-7 overall, 3-6 Big Ten) on Saturday night in Evanston.
OSU’s “off the chain” recruiting offered lots of off the rim results, shooting 5-of-21 from three-point range to Northwestern’s 10-of-19 and managing just 37% success from the field to the Wildcats’ 58% accuracy.
When Northwestern finished a 20-1 run just under the 10-minute mark of the second half, OSU had all of four two-point field goals for the game.
That explains why the Buckeyes never led after the first two minutes against Northwestern, which was coming off an arduous overtime win two days earlier against Illinois – and why OSU trailed by 11 points at halftime and never got closer once the second half began with an 11-3 Wildcat flurry.
The deficit ballooned to 20 by the 12:50 mark, 25 by 10:29, 30 by 8:05 and 35 by 7:15 in what proved Northwestern’s second consecutive win over Ohio State for the first time since 1967.
That’s 57 years ago, when Bill Hosket and Dave Sorenson were a year away from taking Fred Taylor to the Final Four, seven OSU head coaches ago or four years before Holtmann was born.
“We have a quick turnaround against Illinois,” Holtmann said. “It’s going to be a test of who we are. As coaches, we have to be able to figure out who we are. We have to be able to find that fight inside of us and be better than who we were tonight.”