July 7, 2004 was a special day for the Ohio State Buckeyes men’s basketball program. While head coach Jim O’Brien led the team to four straight NCAA Tournament appearances from 1999-2002, including a Final Four appearance, that mid-summer day in 2004 was a day that potentially changed the program for the long haul.
What happened that day, you ask?
After O’Brien had just a 31-31 record during his final two seasons in Columbus, on July 7, 2004, Ohio State named Thad Matta its new head coach of the men’s basketball team. It was a hire that gave Buckeyes plenty of hope on the hardwood after O’Brien revitalized the program just to see it become mediocre once again.
Born inaptly named Hoopeston, Illinois, Matta’s success on the court traveled through Indiana (Butler, 2000-01) and Ohio (Xavier, 2001-2004) before coming to Ohio State. He not only had experience in terms of both playing and coaching, but he had it recruiting in Ohio, having been at Xavier for the previous three years. He wasted no time and showed off how great of a recruiter he was within the first two years of being in Columbus.
After transferring from Clemson, Tony Stockman spent two seasons as a guard for the Buckeyes. The former Mr. Ohio and Medina native was a senior during Matta’s first year at the helm.
“Coach Matta and his staff came in and were a great change for the program,” said Stockman to WFNY. “His positivity really helped us to be successful.”
Due to having such a young roster, Ohio State was unable to get any commitments during Matta’s first full year at the helm in 2005. He would make up for it in 2006. His first recruiting class while leading the Buckeyes was the best in the Big Ten and second-best in the country. It included Greg Oden, Mike Conley, David Lighty, Daequan Cook, and Othello Hunter. Quite a way to start an era, eh?
It was a really good class that eventually led the Buckeyes to 35-4 and a national runner-up after losing to Florida in the national championship game, but it was also so good that it would be hard to do again. Given that Ohio State fans expect their teams to be among the best when Matta gave them a little glimpse at the national title game and one of the top recruiting classes, Buckeyes fans expected that every year. That was one the head coach’s biggest problems. He set such high expectations from the moment he stepped in Columbus that those expectations were hard to keep up with.
He answered that 2006 class with the fifth-best class in the country in 2007, one that consisted of Evan Turner, Kosta Koufos, Jon Diebler, and Dallas Lauderdale. Matta would do it again in 2008, with the fifth-best class that had B.J. Mullens, William Buford, and Walter Offutt. Due to not having any available scholarships, Ohio State didn’t have any recruits in 2009. There’s no way Matta and company could dominate the recruiting trail again in 2010, right? Wrong. Jared Sullinger, Deshaun Thomas, Aaron Craft, Lenzelle Smith Jr., Jordan Sibert, and J.D. Weatherspoon combined to be the third-best class in the country.
“After I graduated, coach did a good job of recruiting, and more importantly, taking care of his alumni,” said Stockman. “He would have multiple events every year where he would invite all the alumni to get together and celebrate the program [he helped build].”
That type of success on the recruiting trail in Columbus was unprecedented, especially for multiple years in a row. It was almost as though Matta turned Ohio State, a football school, into a basketball school, even if it was for just a few short months between January and April. The same new high bar of expectations that made him so special wound up being what made him inevitably lose his job.
Due to the number of postseason games that Matta led the Buckeyes during his 13 seasons at the helm, he passed Harold G. Olsen for most games coached at Ohio State with 4601 and Fred Taylor for most games won with 337.2
Matta poses with his team and family after breaking the all-time wins record during the Big Ten Tournament in 2015. (via OhioStateBuckeyes.com)
Matta becoming the winningest coach in program history was a special moment, as his wife, Barbara, explained to NCAA.com’s Mike Lopresti.
“It was very special because he’s always worked so hard, before his back surgery, after his back surgery,” she said. “I used to teach special education, so it’s very neat when people have obstacles to overcome, and they learn to read, or get 298 wins.
“You think you have it bad some days, and then you realize it’s not as bad as somebody else.”
Throughout his time leading the Buckeyes, Matta suffered from numerous health issues, the most glaring being back problems and a less-than-fully-functioning right foot after a botched surgery. The surgery, which was on June 16, 2007, was supposed to help his back, but it made it that much worse—and then some. He woke up from the surgery not only with the same back problems but also with a permanent disability to his right foot called “drop foot”, also known as foot drop. He not only had the same back problems, but was not required to wear a brace to be able to even stand and walk, and that brace still didn’t help at times. Even when it did, the amount of energy that it took to move took its toll on Matta. What is drop foot, you ask? Here’s the explanation from Spine-health’s Grant Cooper, MD.
Foot drop is a term that refers to a weakening of the muscles that allow for flexing of the ankle and toes.
This condition causes the individual to drag the front of the foot while walking. To compensate for this dragging, the patient will bend the knee to lift the foot higher than in a normal stride (high steppage gait).
Foot drop typically affects the muscles responsible for moving the ankle and foot upward, specifically the anterior tibialis, extensor halluces longus, and extensor digitorum longus.
While foot drop is a neuromuscular disorder that affects the nerves and muscles, it is not actually a disease. It is a symptom of another underlying medical problem, possibly a condition in the lower back.
— Former All-Big Ten forward Deshaun Thomas
Off the court, it’s even more devastating and sad. There were times he couldn’t pick up his daughters and put them on his shoulders, take off or put on his shoes, get dressed or undressed, or even do everyday things that to many of us take for granted. He can’t play golf or run like he once loved to do. There were times that Matta couldn’t just be a dad or the alpha of his family. He needed his two daughters and wife to help him with the simplest of activities.
Here’s what he told Lopresti back in 2015 about his back and foot issues:
“I couldn’t pick up my daughters and put them on my shoulders in the swimming pool. I couldn’t play catch with them. They’re runners, and I can’t move to watch them at a cross-country meet.
“What I’ve been through the last eight years has been very challenging. There are things I can’t do as a husband, there are things I can’t do as a father. But they’ve never left my side. They’ve got to take my shoes and socks off after games because I can’t bend over. They’re always right there to help me, through the good and bad.”
Even with all that said, Matta never once complained about it. Whether he was with his family or his team, he never used drop foot as an excuse. Although his limp was noticeable and his facial expressions may have made it obvious that he was in pain, he never brought it up or made people feel bad for him.
“Every time I hear the Velcro on my brace I get ticked off. But this thing helps me work, and I can’t walk without it.
“The pain can get pretty bad. It’s more of just getting flat. I just want to try to get healthy. …I’ve got a lot of things to be thankful for.”
While Matta’s back and foot problems were excruciating, what made it even worse was the fact that rival coaches were using his health against him in recruiting. The coach wasn’t as connected to his players as he once was, and other coaches took advantage. That’s just big-time college sports recruiting. Programs and coaches will use anything and everything to get the player(s) they want and to keep them away from other schools.
“Somebody told a recruit I was dying,” Matta told The Lantern’s Jacob Myers. “Swear to God. Not that my foot doesn’t lift, but I was going to die. Tough business I’m in.”
He added that the recruit’s father then called him saying that the recruit was going to delay the announcement of his commitment because of health issues. When Matta asked the father what was wrong, he told Matta it was not the recruit’s health, it was Matta’s.
“He said, ‘Well it’s your health. You’re going to die.’ I said, ‘I’ve never missed a day of work, I’ve never missed a day of recruiting, I’ve never missed a game,” Matta said.
His recruiting struggles were well known in the latter part of his career, but those could be partially due to two things: his health and the fact that Matta ran a clean program.
What’s a clean program, you ask?
While programs such as Rick Pitino’s Louisville Cardinals, Arizona Wildcats, Auburn Tigers, Oklahoma State Cowboys, and USC Trojans (among others) went through turmoil this past offseason, Ohio State fans knew that the Buckeyes wouldn’t be included because of the kind of person Matta was. There’s a reason why some top recruits chose schools like those five, especially Louisville, over committing to Ohio State and it’s because those programs offered the player money, strippers, or something of that nature. He may have struggled in terms of wins and losses during his final years in Columbus, but Matta’s reputation and the fact that he didn’t cheat shows you how great of a person and coach he was.3
Arguably his greatest sustained success at Ohio State was between 2009-13, when he led the Buckeyes to four straight Sweet 16 appearances and three Big Ten titles, all of which came well after his botched back surgery. But then, the program started to go downhill. After the 2014 recruiting class consisted D’Angelo Russell, Keita Bates-Diop, and Jae’Sean Tate4, the big-name recruits started to stay away from Columbus. That became even more apparent when all five members of the 2015 class5 eventually transferred away from the program. During his final two years at Ohio State, Matta went a combined 38-29 from 2015-17 and the Buckeyes were held out of the NCAA Tournament in both seasons as well.
His recruiting struggles coupled with losing and not having much success on the court was the main reason why Matta was eventually forced to step down. As said previously, he set high expectations of winning and top recruiting classes, at least in the Big Ten. Those expectations were eventually why Matta is no longer the head coach of the Ohio State Buckeyes.
Now that his career at Ohio State is over, let’s take a look at Matta’s biggest accomplishments, ones that have made him the best coach in program history:
Soon after it was announced that Matta and Ohio State had parted ways, plenty of his former players took to social media to thank their former coach for all he had done for them, not only in terms of basketball but to help them become better men as well. Their appreciation became well known when a bunch of former players6 decided to throw a surprise party for their head coach. The party featured each member wearing a “Thad’s Boyz” t-shirt and allowed Matta to show off his rings and just enjoy time with some of his former players, all while reminiscing about all of the great times they had together, as seen in Mark Titus’ Twitter post.
— Mark Titus (@clubtrillion) July 1, 2017
“He was a good coach that made players better not just on the court, but off the court as well,” former All-Big Ten forward Deshaun Thomas told WFNY of Matta. “He taught us about how to become a man, and work hard at everything you do.”
Although the departure of Matta was sad for many, Chris Holtmann was a very solid hire by Ohio State. In just a few months, he and his coaching staff were able to secure the Big Ten’s best recruiting class ahead of their first season at Ohio State. Although the Buckeyes don’t have much depth given the recent transfers over the past couple of years, Ohio State’s starting lineup can compete with anyone in the Big Ten. Holtmann has led the scarlet and gray to an 8-3 record in this early season. Two of the three losses were when the Buckeyes gave up back-to-back double-digit second-half leads to Butler and Clemson, too. The scarlet and gray could easily be 10-1 right now.
Some may say that Matta’s fall from fame was due to his inability to recruit in the state of Ohio or to have one of the top basketball programs in the country like he once did, but his biggest downfall was due to his health—something that he couldn’t change. The legendary coach will forever be known as the best basketball coach in Ohio State history, but in the end, his Hall of Fame career was derailed by a botched back surgery. Following the end of his final press conference at Ohio State, Matta had to ask athletic director Gene Smith to help him down the riser, a moment that truly showed just how bad his health problems were.
While he had plenty of achievements on the court, his life off the court is what’s most important. Hopefully, the time off has done Matta well. Here’s to hoping the 50-year-old has a full life ahead of him and is able to enjoy his life and his family even though he will always have back and foot problems. Matta being able to enjoy life off the court is what’s most important, no matter how good of a coach he was.
Thank you for everything, Thad.