Thad Matta’s clean Ohio State program cost him his job in the end

With the recent scandal that is currently taking place in college basketball that includes players getting money to attend certain schools, agents and schools working together to get certain recruits, and even shoe companies getting involved as well, among other things, we express love for former Ohio State basketball head coach Thad Matta, who did things the right way, which eventually landed him out of a job.

When Thad Matta first came to Ohio State in 2004, he hit the ground running, both in terms of coaching on the court and on the recruiting trail. On the court, after the Buckeyes went 17-15 in 14-16 in the two seasons prior to Matta’s arrival, they were 26-6 in his first season, including losing in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, and 35-4 in his second, including losing in the national championship to a very good Florida team.

On the recruiting trail, Matta dominated out of the gate. In 2005, he had no commitments due to Ohio State not having any scholarships, but he made up for it (and then some) in 2006 with a class featuring Greg Oden, Mike Conley, David Lighty, Daequan Cook, and Othello Hunter—the second-best class in the country. His next three classes between 2007-10 then featured the fifth-best—twice—and third-best class once.

For Ohio State, it was unheard of to have recruiting classes as good as those, especially in consecutive years and multiple times during a five-year period. But for Matta, it was what he knew all along. The guy who was as great of a coach as he was a person, Matta not only dominated in the recruiting world for quite some time, but he transformed it onto their performance on the court as well.

At times, Matta made people forget that Ohio State was a football school. With the football team going through a scandal and firing of its own, he made Ohio State fans somewhat forget that the Buckeyes were a football school. It may have only been one season, but he turned them into a basketball school for just one year in 2010. Matta stopped the hurting from the fall, and it was exactly what Buckeye Nation needed at the time.

Over the last five years, Matta’s program came back down to Earth. Whether it was due to recruiting the wrong kid, not developing the talent they had at times, or just getting out-recruited by other schools, his recruiting and his team’s performance on the court led to him being let go by Ohio State.

With that said, Matta hung his hat on the fact that he had a clean program. When it came to recruiting, he and his staff didn’t cheat. They didn’t offer benefits or money to recruits in order for them to commit. He didn’t do anything special for recruits on official visits. And last, but certainly not least, Matta did things the right way, both on and off the court.

In order to compete at the highest level, you not only have to recruit the top talent in your state, but also nationally as well. After he was able to get those top recruiting classes early on, he struggled to recruit even one top player for much of the last five years. What really hurt Matta and his staff was that, while they were trying to recruit the top talent across the country, some of the in-state kids decided to commit elsewhere because Ohio State was focused on other players. Then, when they couldn’t get those out-of-state kids to commit, the Buckeyes missed out on both. It was a lose-lose situation much of the time for Matta toward the end of his time in Columbus.

As news continues to trickle out regarding the latest scandal, we see more evidence as to why Matta took such a hit in recruiting. With schools, including Louisville, taking bribes and paying players to commit, it becomes tougher to compete. There’s a reason why some of the top talent that Matta tried to recruit said no to the Buckeyes but decided to go to an Adidas school. Keep in mind, there’s still a lot more to come of this investigation—it’s not even close to being done yet and it will shed light on even more schools who had a recruiting edge over Ohio State over the years due to means that would otherwise violate countless NCAA rules.

Matta’s time in Columbus came to an abrupt end, but for him to have a clean program that competed at the highest level for so long cannot go unnoticed. Although the timing made many in Buckeye Nation sad to see him go, the fact that Matta continued to do business the right way will be what he is remembered for, and rightfully so. He will forever be a fan-favorite at Ohio State, not because of the way he coached, but for the person he was off the court as well. Kudos to Matta and his coaching staff for keeping a clean program even when times got tough before being forced out in the end. They could have cheated too, especially given how much money Ohio State’s athletic department has, but they chose to do the right thing.

Now begs the question, would you have rather had a clean Ohio State program the past 13 years or be like Louisville, had won a championship (in 2013) and then dealt with everything they have been forced to endure this summer—including escorts and a sex-to-play scheme—and the latest scandal that shows that the Cardinals funneled money to recruits to get them to come to their school? The Final Four appearances have most been fun for Louisville over the last few years, but they will now have quite a price to pay for the two scandals they are now involved in, a price that could ruin their basketball programs for the foreseeable future.

Coaches are judged by wins and losses, but Matta’s reputations and demand to keep a clean program will forever be what matters most and will define his legacy in the end. At his press conference that announced his departure, the coach said just that.

“I think the last thing that I hope I’m always remembered for is that we always did it the right way,” Matta said. “That to me is something that I want to hold or hang my hat on. That this program was run the right way.”

  • Chris

    Sorry, but that’s a stretch. Plenty of clean programs have had success. You want to say he lost his job because he didn’t adapt to the environment? Fine, but OSU basketball has looked pedestrian among their peers of “clean” programs, even in Big 10 (I say “clean”, because who really knows?).

    Big programs like Wisconsin and Notre Dame have done well during his tenure. Meanwhile, smaller schools (Butler, Wichita State) have seen unprecedented success. It’s not like Thad and the program were ever held to the ridiculously high standards of Duke, UNC, Michigan State, or Kansas. If they played like Purdue, he’d still have a job.

  • Chris

    He should certainly be applauded for sticking to his principles in the crazy NCAA environment. I just don’t buy that OSU let him go because he wouldn’t play dirty like the schools in this Adidas fiasco… they let him go because he became irrelevant.

  • Steve

    The cleanest programs as voted by other coaches, sure not a perfect measure, but if anyone knows it would be these guys’ peers:

    Beilein at Michigan
    Brey at ND
    Bennett at Virginia
    Gard at Wisconsin
    Few at Gonzaga
    Ohio St came in sixth
    Izzo at MSU

    The current state of one of these programs stands out from the others.

  • Chris

    Boy, did I get lucky picking example schools. Phew.

  • mgbode

    Lots of B1G schools on that list.

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    As a UM fan, I can speak to this a little bit. We had a championship in ’89 when Steve Fisher took over before the NCAAs and got a team that had some good NBA talent (Glen Rice, Rumeal Robinson, Terry Mills) all the way, and Fisher then built on that and got the Fab Five. At the time, it was unreal to be a fan of that team. They were amazing. And the crazy thing is that none of them took money until AFTER they came to Michigan.

    But, the fallout from that?

    Good lord. It ends up with your school languishing on probation, which kills recruiting. You end up with a coach like Brian Ellerbe, which not only kills recruiting but kills coaching. Not to mention that Ellerbe had been there when it all went down, so…

    Michigan had the fallout from Ed Martin paying all of the blue chippers (supposedly only Webber, Mo Taylor, Tractor Traylor, and Lou Bullock, but let’s be realistic). They then had Ellerbe take over with Fisher’s players and win a Big Ten tourney (which they vacated later), and then finish 37-51 (technically 25-50 in the NCAA’s eyes with the vacated wins) in the subsequent three years, making the NIT only once (and losing in the first round) once they were eligible for post-season play.

    Then you get Tommy Amaker, coasting in off of his Duke resume and a 68-55 record at Seton Hall. By most accounts, he ran a squeaky clean program, which finally got the stink of the Ed Martin stuff off the program. Other than that, he was a ho-hum 108-84 at Michigan and got them to the NCAAs exactly ZERO times.

    Enter Beilein. He has a similar trajectory to Matta in that he had that one big recruiting boom that resulted in what should by all rights be a national championship thanks to Louisville being arguably the dirtiest program in the country (not that I’m bitter, lol). But, for the most part, Michigan’s ceiling is a lightning-in-a-bottle tourney run every few years (like this past season) based on recruiting second-tier guys and coaching the hell out of them. That’s admirable as a human being (and Beilein might be one of the best humans to coach college sports that there is), but it can be frustrating as a fan, knowing you’re probably never going to win a championship unless EVERYTHING goes right for you.

    Despite a national runner-up run followed by an Elite Eight run that was almost a Final Four (lost to that Kentucky team that damn near went undefeated the following season on a last second miracle shot), recruiting never followed suit. And it’s precisely because of scandals like this. Michigan WAS an adidas school throughout much of Beilein’s tenure, but if you’re not willing to pony up the cash you’re not getting the top players, even coming off of a run where you turned a 3-star into a NPOY and damn near won a championship.

    But, having seen both sides of that, I’d still choose the way Beilein does it.


    I should also add that I don’t think “the reason” Matta got fired was that he was taking the high road. Beilein (as well as the other guys in the B1G mentioned above) shows that you can do it and still be successful.

    What cost Matta his job was a combination of identifying the wrong recruits and/or not developing them. Other than D’Angelo Russell, who has come through OSU in the past 3-4 years that has visibly improved?

    Maybe the scandal indicates that you can’t be a blue blood program without bending the rules (without having been grandfathered in, though I’m waiting to hear what the Nike schools have to say like Duke and Kansas), but it’s not a complete death sentence to run a clean program. Don’t let Matta off the hook for failing at his job over the past couple of seasons. He left Holtmann with an incredible mess in spite of running a very clean program.

  • Chris

    [Hears UM talk in other room…]

    I kid, I kid… excellent post. Great insight on the program.

  • mgbode

    Well-stated all around here DP.

    Given Holtmann’s initial recruiting successes, I’m not sure he minds the clean up efforts.


    Probably better to start with a clean slate.