Farewell to the greatest basketball coach in Ohio State history

With his struggles in recent years, both in-season and during the offseason, Ohio State men’s basketball coach Thad Matta’s seat was progressively getting hotter by the day. Many believed that, given the recent transfers and the team’s record in the last two years, Matta’s days were numbered at Ohio State. The biggest question remained just how numbered were they? Given his success during his 13 years in Columbus, WFNY was told at the end of the 2016-17 regular season that the head coach would get one more year to prove himself. That’s the least he deserved, right?

But, then Monday happened. Early on Monday, the school released a statement that athletic director Gene Smith and Matta would meet for a joint press conference but did not disclose the reason. While there were plenty of rumors that it was to announce that he would retire following the 2017-18 season, all of the speculation was wrong. The presser was to announce that Matta was stepping down as the Ohio State men’s basketball coach. Though writing appeared to be on the wall, it caught everyone by surprise. How could a coach be fired this far into the offseason, especially after there was speculation that he would be given one more year to prove that he still had it?

Matta leaving Ohio State was quite surprising, but the timing was what made many angry. Having to look for a new head coach at a prestigious school five months before the 2017-18 season tips off not only impacts recruiting, but it limits the options in who the Buckeyes can hire as well. It is Ohio State, so they have the facilities and money, but there was no reason to go into a hiring process with one hand tied behind their back.

Smith and Matta both behaved extremely well during the press conference. Matta could have easily just said that he or stepping away while offering little in the way of followup, but he did his fair share of answering questions, both with extreme emotion and sadness, and had a few laughs as well. Seeing him choke up and a few tears really messed with my emotions and even made me choke up as well. The only Ohio State basketball coach I truly remember was no longer going to be there. The coach that brought Ohio State’s some of it’s best years on the hardwood was being let go and, much like when Jim Tressel was forced out, Ohio State was going to have a new look on the sidelines. The successor will have high expectations as they follow a true class act.

I am 26 years old, so I do not remember much about the Buckeyes on the hardwood prior to Matta. He is all I know, and I learned quickly that I was watching one of the best coaches in college basketball from Day 1. Say what you want about his struggles—both on the court and in recruiting—over the past couple years, but he set the bar high for what should be expected from an Ohio State basketball coach from the moment he came to Columbus in 2005. During the winter, he made people forget that Ohio State was a football school. Hell, for parts of the winter, some may have even considered Ohio State a basketball school. Jim O’Brien’s teams were good, but in Matta’s early years in Columbus, he made the Buckeyes a national powerhouse, among schools like Duke, Kansas, and North Carolina. Matta’s first recruiting class at Ohio State was ranked the second-best class in the country and consisted of Greg Oden, Daequan Cook, Mike Conley, David Lighty, and Othello Hunter. From the moment he stepped on campus, he set the bar high, both in terms of recruiting and the way his teams were able to compete.

Following a recruiting class like that, you would have thought that it would be hard to continue that greatness in terms of recruiting. In 2007, he answered with a class that included Kosta Koufos, Evan Turner, Jon Diebler, and Dallas Lauderdale (fourth-best in the country). Then in 2008, B.J. Mullens, William Buford, and Walter Offutt, which was again fourth in the country. If you thought it couldn’t get better than that, he brought in the second-best class in 2010, with Jared Sullinger, Deshaun Thomas, Jordan Sibert, Aaron Craft, Lenzelle Smith Jr., and J.D. Weatherspoon. I know, recruiting only tells so much, but the majority of those recruits were the reason why Ohio State was one of the best teams in college basketball during Matta’s early years in Columbus. The reason they came to Ohio State was Matta.

Following those three classes, there have been a handful of big-time recruits who have come through Columbus, but many of them haven’t panned out the way they were supposed to. Yeah, there’s a few who have, but it hasn’t been like the 2006, 2007, or 2010 classes in quite some time.This was part of what led to Matta’s downfall.

Ohio State fans quickly were spoiled by the greatness. When Matta was able to join the Buckeyes and immediately start getting some of the top recruits in the country year in and year out, the expectations grew significantly for a basketball program that was considered second-fiddle to the football program. Now, fans expected Matta to be able to do that every single year and expected his teams to compete for not only Big Ten championship, but national championships. Matta was the reason expectations were so high, and those high expectations were one of the main reasons why he is no longer the head coach of the Ohio State men’s basketball team.

Matta’s health proved to be what hurt him the most. His back was in fact never 100 percent and was only getting worse. Although people around the program knew of his struggles because they were with him every day, fans would have never guessed that it was as big of a problem as it was. He not only had a special chair made for him on the bench (one that Ohio State brought to road games as well), but he had a special chair with wheels in the practice gym as well, one that allowed him to sit as much as possible. He never complained. He tried his best to hide his struggles. He never whined. And he sure as hell never used it as an excuse. This 2012 column from Yahoo!’s Dan Wetzel describes the steps taken to simply climb the ladder needed to cut down the net in that season’s tournament.

As a big-time college coach (be it football or basketball), it’s a 24/7/365-type job. During the season, you’re  coaching in games or practice, creating a game plan for the upcoming game, or on the road recruiting. During the offseason, you have workouts and are on the road recruiting even more. If you step back and relax for just a single second, that second can allow another school to nab the recruit that you were hoping for. Now imagine if you had back problems while trying to do all that. And yet, Matta never complained to the public or to the media. Though it feels like he’s been in Columbus forever, he is just 49 years old and has plenty of life ahead of him.

He was one heckuva coach, but Matta was an even better person, and that will be something that will forever be remembered, even if his legacy may have fallen for some due to his struggles in recent years. Him being a class act could have also been included in his inability to recruit top-tier talent lately. In an age where schools have been accused of offering financial compensation to recruits or their families, Matta continued to have a clean program. He will never say it himself, but there’s a reason why the top talent in Ohio left the state. Matta never had any issues involving the NCAA because he never cheated. He wanted to win the right way, and that shows just how great of a coach he truly was.

Related: The end of the Thad Matta era: While We’re Waiting

Sometimes, when a coach is let go, current and former players just look forward to who the successor will be. That wasn’t the case for Matta. To show just how great of a man he was, plenty of current and former players took to social media to express their gratitude. Even media members took to Twitter to express just how great of a man Matta truly is.

Here are a number of the tweets, courtesy of Ohio State’s official Athletics Twitter account:

In his 13 seasons in Columbus, Matta won a school record 337 games, along with having the second-best winning percentage (73.3 percent) in school history, trailing only Thomas Kibler, who led the Buckeyes to a 22-2 record (91.7 winning percentage) during the 1909-10 season. Along with that, Matta also led the Buckeyes to five Big Ten regular season titles, four Big Ten tournament championships, two Final Four appearances, and was named Big Ten Coach of the Year three times.

Both Matta’s inability to make the NCAA Tournament the last two seasons along with the poor offseasons, ones that have included four players transferring from the program along with another quitting the team (all of which were the five players in the 2015 recruiting class), seem to be the reason why Smith finally had to cut the cord. It may have been later than expected, but the athletic director seemed to think that Ohio State needed someone new leading the men’s basketball program, one that will (hopefully) bring a spark to the program much like Matta did when he arrived in 2005.

He may not be the head coach anymore, but no matter what Ohio State does on the hardwood in the future, Matta will not only be one of the best to ever coach the Buckeyes on the hardwood, but he has set the bar quite high for whoever is at the helm in the future. Columbus may not have an NBA team and Ohio State will forever be known as a football school, but Matta did his best to make people realize that the basketball team in that city and at that school can be among the best in the country.

If there’s a single picture that defines Matta during his time at Ohio State, it’s this one:

GOAT—the greatest of all time—is a term that is thrown around loosely, especially on social media, but when it comes to Ohio State men’s basketball coaches, Matta is truly the GOAT. He not only put the Buckeyes back on the map, but at a football school where basketball wasn’t really thought much of at times, he not only put Ohio State basketball on the map, but there were times where some people believed that even if it was for just a few months during winter, Ohio State was a basketball school.

Thank you, Coach Matta, and I wish you nothing but the best going forward. Here’s to hoping you can relax more than you ever have, and your health problems will be better than they have been in recent years. The legacy you left at Ohio State will never be forgotten. You put Ohio State basketball on the map, and now those high expectations will be what Buckeyes fans will always want going forward. Ohio State basketball will never be the same, and that’s thanks to your greatness. You will be missed, Coach.