It’s been a while since I’ve been behind a keyboard in the blogging scene, but that certainly doesn’t mean I’ve totally disassociated from Ohio State sports. I still closely follow all the writers on twitter, and read most of the blogs. At work, I’m a well known Ohio State fan – perhaps the OSU security card lanyard gives it away. Someone even drew a block M on one of the storage drawers for my electrical componants (it’s since been crossed out with a big red “no smoking” circle).
So it’s perhaps no surprise how I found out that something was going on with Ohio State Basketball.
“Hey, what’s going on with Thad Matta? Is he stepping down?” texted my former coworker, a Maryland grad who now works in a different group, in the middle of the working day. This is the same guy who drew that block M. There are worse people, honestly.
“??? Let me look”
“Yes, #OSUTwitter is on fire,” he threw back.
Sure enough, within 30 seconds of jumping on twitter there was BuckNuts (It’s since been updated. Warning: autoplay video ) reporting from unnamed sources that Thad Matta would retire after one additional season. I was bummed by the news, but not even remotely surprised.
I was a sophomore in college when we discovered Jim O’Brien’s dealings with Aleksandar Radojevic and Boban Savovic. In fact, I had just gotten back to Taylor Tower after marching in my first Spring Football game for the OSU Athletic Band when I saw the news that had broken. Apparently, O’Brien had admitted to Andy Geiger during that self-same game that he had offered a $6000 loan to Radojevic’s mother. Not surprisingly, a few months after finding out, Geiger showed O’Brien the door. What transpired after in various lawsuits is neither here nor there. O’Brien was out, and Ohio State needed a new coach.
Within days, I knew exactly who the next coach at Ohio State should be. Thad Matta, three year head coach at Xavier University, had demonstrated without question that he was the hottest rising star in the coaching world. In four seasons he had not won less than 20 games, and he had a spectacular reputation as a coach and leader. As a recruiter he could connect with the kids like no-one I had ever heard of before – it would still be a couple years before Urban Meyer and Nick Saban would truly splash on the scene – and it was clear that with Ohio State’s resources he would make the program shine like no-one before him.
And he turned the job down.
I did not let go of my certainty. This was the man for Ohio State. If we didn’t get him it would be the biggest error in the history of athletic direction.
A week later, on July 7th 2004, Thad Matta agreed to become the next head coach at The Ohio State University. The athletic department had successfully averted certain doom, and I was confident we would see the basketball team would thrive: perhaps we’d have some pretty good basketball teams after the next couple seasons.
For the next 10 seasons, thrive it did. Ohio State wasn’t the biggest name in basketball recruiting, but they were pulling top notch players. You know the names, the Greg Odens, the Jared Sullingers, the Mike Conleys, and the Aaron Crafts. The majority of the biggest names in Ohio State basketball history in the last 50 years passed through the program in those first 10 seasons.
On the court the Buckeyes jumped out to a 20 win season with O’Brien’s players – a shocking revelation to be sure. I had no idea that group of kids could ever do that, and I got to watch it from behind my snare drum in the stands. Talk about a rare treat, seeing history be made in person. I even remember some of the names: Tony Stockman, Matt Marinchick, Matt Sylvester, Matt Terwilliger, Brandon Fuss-Cheatam, Ja’Kel Foster, Terence Dials, Jamar Butler. Some of them went on to be critical pieces of the National Championship team, while some were Seniors just trying to finish off their careers with a bang.
It was that win versus top ranked, undefeated, Bruce Weber-lead Illinois that really set the tone. And I missed it – I was doing astrophysics homework that day and keeping tabs of the score on the internet. To this day I think that’s one of the top five wins in the entire Thad Matta era, if not the best win. With all the talk today of whether or not fans should rush the court after certain wins, that one earned it with no question. The pictures of pure joy told a story like no other. The fans loved this team, and they loved their coach. At least Ohio State Hoop’s twitter handle remembers.
Everyone talks about how Ohio State is a Football school first and a basketball school second. Those people don’t have a clue what they’re talking about. Ohio State has always been in a position to be both. Sure, maybe your best friend thinks about Football long before he thinks about Basketball, and maybe he can’t name half the players on the current roster. But Thad Matta proved that there is a huge thirst for a winning, successful basketball team at this school. The fans may revere their marching band, and love their football team, but there is more than enough space in their hearts to love the shooty hoops team too.
Thad Matta had that stadium selling out to see top name players. He wasn’t playing the toughest opponents every night, but he was scheduling one or two solid preseason matchups every year. And whatever anyone tells you, people cared. They cared for the team like they haven’t since the early 90’s. That’s what people mean when they say Ohio State is a Football school first; all they remember is the Ohio State of the mid 90’s, when it seemed like Randy Ayers was struggling to keep enough players on the court to simply play the game.
Sure, when the Basketball team started to struggle in the last few seasons the fan base dropped off. People stopped going to basketball games in a way that never would have happened for football. But do you know what else happened – they started asking for Thad Matta to step down. You don’t do that unless you care.
It’s a sad state that brought us to Thad Matta being forced out at Ohio State. In 2012 I was convinced he was with the Buckeyes for life. He would be the next Krzyzewski, 30 plus years at the same school, through all the ups and the downs. But there was one thing I couldn’t shake, one concern that constantly plagued my memory; that terrible back surgery from 2007 that robbed Matta of his youth.
People will frequently tell you that life is not fair. It’s not, but there are certain things that just shouldn’t happen. At the top of that list is one of the best coaches of a generation being hamstrung by a botched back surgery. For years I was convinced it would get the better of him, but he just kept going. He recruited Jared Sullinger’s class with that bad back and dead foot. He took the school to another Final Four. Things were looking ok.
But it had to get him eventually. I think he finally got too tired to keep up. The constant negative recruiting against kids he wanted, probably forcing him to take kids that didn’t meet his requirements. His need to probably place more weight on his assistants, and not getting nearly the same results as if he were doing it himself. In a cutthroat business he was playing five card draw with a hand of only four. You may get a 4-of-a-kind once in a while, but more often than not you won’t and you’ll be falling to the straights and flushes of your equally excellent opponents.
By the middle of last season I was just as certain as when we first hired him – Thad Matta needed to go. I believed he couldn’t see his own struggles, that he was too proud to admit that he simply couldn’t keep up anymore. I know the feeling, I’m as much of a fighter as he is, and I’m proud of him that he didn’t want to let his back and his foot beat him.
But it was time.
Someone needed to tell him that he needed to take care of himself. He couldn’t keep up with the requirements of his job anymore. And while we so greatly appreciated his hard work and success with the school, it was better for both Ohio State and for Thad Matta that he hang up the whistle.
But Gene Smith didn’t do that. At the end of the season, Smith gave the coach a public vote of confidence. I considered that there was something Smith knew that we didn’t, perhaps another year would be fine – though I probably would end up not watching.
The most irritating moment was realizing that the BuckNuts report was not true.
“Ohio State announces that Thad Matta is out as the program’s head coach. The search will begin immediately,” my Maryland friend messaged me again about 30 minutes later.
Of course, I can’t publish what I said next. Suffice it to say, I was not pleased.
At 337 wins, Matta has surpassed all others as the winningest coach in Ohio State history. He had more than 20 wins in every single one of his first 12 seasons at the school. He had a winning record every year, and a winning record in the Big 10 in all but the first and last. He made the post season every single season except his first and last (and the first doesn’t count since the program was ineligible following O’Brien’s transgressions). Of those 11 post season trips, all but two were to the NCAA tournament, and only twice did he not win at least one NCAA tournament game.
We had promised him an additional season. And when Gene Smith realized the recruiting wasn’t going the way he wanted, he fired the man with that resume.
I was, and still am, incensed. Thad Matta deserved to go out, perhaps not on his own terms, but at least not with a boot to the backside. We (and I say we here to refer to the entire Ohio State family) promised him another season, and reneged because we lost a top recruit. It kills me that we are so spoiled that we can do that.
Yes, the product has been failing for years. Yes, the win totals have been declining since the 2010-2011 season. Yes, our position in the Big Ten has been in freefall – from 1st, to tied for 1st, to 2nd, to 5th, 6th, 7th, and now 10th). Yes, the big name players weren’t interested in playing for us anymore.
When you make a promise, none of that matters. When you make a promise to a man as great as Thad Matta, that goes double. Principles matter, and the principle of being honest and forthright should matter more than anything.
I do not regret thinking that it was time for Matta to go. Watching Ohio State Basketball was no longer fun, and not simply because the team wasn’t winning. Nothing in the mentality of the players, nothing in their demenor, nothing in the play, spoke of a team that was interested in the sport of basketball. You will never managed to convince me that Amir Williams wasn’t patient zero in that sad display, and I think his personality began to manifest itself into a cultural shift in the program; a cultural shift that Matta was at a complete loss to solve. It says a lot that he was willing to tell his players to get the hell out of the program if they weren’t interested in doing things his way.
What I do regret is how this program let him go. I hope he doesn’t hold too many hard feelings, because he will always be the face I associate with Ohio State Basketball. Even when I eventually associate Coach Holtmann eventually as the Head Coach of Ohio State – I haven’t quite yet – I’ll never be able to disassociate Matta from the program.
It is shocking to me that the man I wanted to helm our program in 2004 was the ripe old age of 36. I’m not even there yet, but I’m not far off. The very thought of taking on a program like Ohio State at my age and leading it to such success is an impossible dream. The fact that we got to watch Thad Matta do basically that, and simultaneously put this program on the map as a tier two national basketball program will never go unnoticed.
I do know that I find myself excited about Ohio State basketball again, and I’m sure I will find time to watch the games this year now that there are things to look forward to. But I will always wonder what could have been if our athletic department had been principled.