The Ohio State University Athletic Director Gene Smith announced on Monday that Thad Matta is no longer the head coach of the school’s basketball team, effective immediately. Earlier Monday, the school released a surprising statement that announced that Smith and Matta would have a joint press conference at 2 p.m. ET, but what it was about was undisclosed. As speculation grew, many thought that it would be so that the head coach would announce that the 2017-18 season would be his last, and he would retire following the upcoming season. But, it was much more immediate than that and took almost everyone by surprise, especially since it’s already June, almost exactly three months following Ohio State’s season end.
Following a disappointing season in which the Bucks failed to make any postseason tournament, speculation swirled about Matta’s future in Columbus. In April, as axes fell across the college basketball landscape, the relative quiet at Ohio State led many to assume that Matta would receive one more year on the Buckeyes bench; one that would immediately start with him on the hot seat. Today proved otherwise.
Both Smith and Matta fielded questions during the press conference. Matta clearly became emotional during his opening statement, but he appeared to loosen up as the press conference wore on. He cracked jokes with the inquiring reporters, but his answers raised questions as well. When asked if he would still be head coach were he 100 percent healthy, the 49-year-old replied, “Yeah, probably.” Matta’s tone and answers seemed to indicate that the grind of major program recruiting was as much a factor in the decision as on-court performance. There was an air of relief in a few of his answers. Here’s a few of the question and answers that took place during the press conference:
On whether or not Matta is sick of [coaching]:
“It can beat a guy up. If you’re not intimately involved on a daily basis… you have no idea some of the challenges that lie there.”
On changes in recruiting:
“Recruiting is so much more challenging these days. Landscape has drastically changed.”
On how it feels to be done:
“This job makes you numb… You coach in the Big Ten you kinda become numb.”
Smith confirmed that Matta will stay on through the school’s search for the next head coach, and the school will honor the rest of his contract payments which will continue another three years. The athletic director intends to use him as a vetting resource in determining the right fit for Ohio State’s next hoops coach. There is currently no timeline to hire a replacement. Smith will conduct a national search and is interested in a coach who will not only win games but also “do things the right way.” He said he does not anticipate the next head coach will originate from Matta’s current staff, but that the assistants remain at the school as of now and will work with the incoming freshmen in the interim.
Matta departs the school after 13 seasons. Hired in 2005, he is the winningest head coach in program history (337) and coached the most games (460). Under his leadership the Scarlet and Gray reached two Final Fours (2007, 2012), three Elite Eights, five Sweet Sixteens, four Big Ten Tournament titles, and five regular-season Big Ten championships. The past few years were not as kind to Matta’s club, however. In 2014-15 the Bucks lost in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. In 2015-16, Ohio State could only manage an NIT second-round appearance. Last season was rock bottom; Ohio State went 17-15 (7-11 Big Ten), lost a conference tournament to lowly Rutgers, and failed to qualify for any postseason tournament.
Matta’s later Ohio State years were also the story of his health. Rumors suggested that he continued to have health issues off the court that impacted his ability and drive to recruit. Those remain unconfirmed, but Matta did mention that he has undergone four major back surgeries since he was 15. That would take a toll on anyone, let alone a college basketball coach.
This announcement’s timing leaves Ohio State at a bit of a disadvantage. Those schools such as Indiana or Duquesne, who created and filled head coach openings and have already settled the questions of who will recruit and run the program in the near future. Ohio State remains a destination program for many coaches, but the pickings may be slimmer now than they would have been a month or two ago. For recruiting purposes alone, Smith would do well to find Matta’s replacement sooner rather than later.