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


Happy Tuesday, WFNY!

My freshman year at The Ohio State University was pretty great.

It was 1998, and the John Cooper’s OSU football team was #1 in the country. Joe Germaine was putting up one of the best seasons of any QB in OSU history throwing to the likes of David Boston and Dee Miller, Michael Wiley and Joe Montgomery were tearing up defenses on the ground, and the defense, led by All-Everything linebacker Andy Katzenmoyer along with the best defensive backfield OSU had ever seen (Antoine Winfield, Ahmed Plummer, Nate Clements, Damon Moore, and Gary Berry), was arguably the most feared defense in the country that season. That team was stacked, and they were great. Still to this day I consider that the best Ohio State football team of my life1. Yes, they had the frustrating upset loss at home to Nick Saban’s Michigan State team, but it was a fun season and that team was just amazing to watch.

Then that winter, the basketball team under the guidance of second-year coach Jim O’Brien and led by the dynamic back court of Scoonie Penn and Michael Redd made it all the way to the Final Four. That kicked off a four-year run in which the Buckeyes made the tournament every season. Even though they only made it past the first round twice under O’Brien, it really felt like a golden age of Buckeye basketball.

Just one year after I graduated from Ohio State, both John Cooper and Jim O’Brien were out as coaches at Ohio State. Cooper was replaced by Jim Tressel, who would win the program’s first National Championship since 1968 (or 1970, depending on who you ask). O’Brien would be replaced by none other than Thad Matta, the man who would transform Ohio State Basketball and raise the program to heights never seen before.

Prior to Matta, plenty of coaches had found various levels of real success at Ohio State. Fred Taylor won the program’s only title in 1960 as his teams made three consecutive Championship game appearances. Harold Olsen led the program to their first Championship game appearance in 1939 and would lead the team to four Final Fours in his 24-year tenure. Gary Williams and Randy Ayers would have good seasons here and there. But throughout it all, Ohio State was a football school with a basketball program that would give fans something to really be excited about once every five years or so. Sprinkling in some NCAA tournament appearances here and there, some generational players (Jerry Lucas, John Havlicek, Clark Kellogg, Jim Jackson, Michael Redd) every now and then. That was it. Little was expected and attention was waning at best.

Under Matta, all of that changed. In just 13 seasons at Ohio State, Matta flew past Fred Taylor’s record for wins. Matta would take Ohio State to two Final Fours, one National Championship Game appearance, five Big Ten regular season Championships, four Big Ten Tournament Championships, nine NCAA tournament appearances, five Sweet Sixteens, and three Elite Eights. In years in which his teams were eligible for postseason play, he only missed the tournament three times. He had a stretch of seven years in a row with at least one player drafted in the NBA and he sent 10 players to the NBA overall. Four of his players were drafted in the Top 5 of the NBA draft. In 2007 he had three players taken in the first round.

It’s hard to properly place into words just what Matta meant to Ohio State overall, but as a coach and as a person there has never been a finer coach in school history. He persevered through unimaginable pain and suffering as his back failed him, but he never publicly complained, never let his players hear him whine about it. He just endured. And he kept doing his job at a level never seen before at Ohio State.

I don’t know how I feel about his departure. As Twitter was filled with glee and people dancing on his grave yesterday, I was just filled with sadness. You either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain. That quote applies to coaches in college sports as much as anything else. Few of the great ones get to have a long, slow, graceful exit. If you succeed, you change expectations. You then eventually become a victim of your own success and expectations.

So no, I’m not happy about Matta leaving. But it might be the right thing for the program. As much as I want to cling to the surface and say “Hey, look, we only missed the tournament two years in a row, Matta should be given more time to get things back on track”, the truth is, there are deeper problems. Something has been off with Matta’s recruiting in recent years. I don’t know why. Was it a change in how recruiting works today? Were his health issues slowing him down too much in hitting the recruiting trail? Were other coaches using his health against him in recruiting? There’s probably some truth in all of those things. Whatever the reason, though, Matta’s recruiting simply hadn’t been good enough for quite some time and things were trending worse rather than looking like he was turning them around.

But as a fan and alum, it was heartbreaking watching Thad Matta have to choke his way through the tears as he delivered a moving and heartfelt farewell speech yesterday. This isn’t how he should have had to leave. In a perfect world, he should have been able to leave on his own terms.

The timing of the firing (and yes, this was a firing, make no mistake) was peculiar to put it lightly. If I had to guess what happened, and this is only a guess, I would guess that Gene Smith told Matta that he had made up his mind that he would be asking Matta to step down after next season and that nothing that happened this season would change his mind. At that point, Matta might have asked to just step down immediately then, rather than go through the humiliation of a lame duck season. I have no inside information, but based on the timing and Gene Smith and Thad Matta both saying it was a mutual decision, that’s about the only scenario that makes any sense to me.

Now Ohio State once again has to replace a once-revered coach who had a sudden and surprising exit from the program. The university got lucky with Jim Tressel when they were able to replace him with Urban Meyer. That’s not typically how these things go. Despite some claiming Ohio State is a highly-coveted job, I suspect this time things aren’t going to work out quite as well for Ohio State.

Sean Miller was always a pipe dream anyway, but now there’s absolutely no way on earth he leaves the No. 1 team in the country in June to come to a football school. Gregg Marshall, Shaka Smart, and Billy Donovan are all long-shots. Xavier’s Chris Mack is probably the most realistic coach with the most impressive resume. But even he might be more of a long-shot than people realize due to his comfort level with Xavier and the fact that he is a Xavier alum. Beyond that, none of the names of likely candidates are of the caliber of coach that Thad Matta was when he was hired.

To be honest, I’m a little surprised Ohio State didn’t just name Chris Jent interim coach and then conduct a proper search at the appropriate time next year. Maybe Sean Miller would have been a more likely candidate at that time (although probably not… he has one of the best jobs in America and gets to lead one of the best programs at a true basketball school).2 Maybe the pool of candidates could have been a little wider and included more realistic names to be excited about.

I’ll fully support whoever Ohio State hires and I will try to hold them to more realistic standards than what Thad Matta created. But the truth is, I’m really going to miss Coach Matta. It’s going to take some time for this to all fully set in and to realize that he is no longer coaching here. So I just want to say thank you to Coach Matta for everything he did for my school and to wish him and his family nothing but happiness, health, and future success in whatever endeavors come their way.

  1. You would certainly get no arguments from me if you went with the 2002 team which sent every starter except two to the NFL or the 2014 team which eventually had 12 players taken in the first round of the 2016 draft, but for my money I still say the 1998 team had the most elite top-line talent of any OSU team in my life. []
  2. Editor’s Note: Miller also gets to live year-round in Tucson. While the desert is a bit crazy during the summer, those are the months that Miller is allowed to travel. There is something to be said for 70 degree January days. []