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(Getty Images/Ringer Illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer Illustration)

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Thad Matta Didn’t Get the Goodbye He Deserved

Ohio State’s longtime head coach and the program that he built have abruptly parted ways. Yet Matta’s impact on Buckeyes basketball — and the players he led — will endure.

Thad Matta is the greatest basketball coach in Ohio State history. That’s an important place to start, because it’s something that has gotten lost in the shuffle far too often over the past few years. In 2004, Matta inherited a program that had posted a losing record in six of its previous 11 seasons and was handcuffed by scholarship reductions and recruiting restrictions as a result of NCAA violations committed by his predecessor, Jim O’Brien. (To be fair, O’Brien got a raw deal with the way things played out.) Three seasons later, Matta landed one of the greatest recruiting classes in Big Ten history, won 35 games, and came one victory shy of delivering the school its first men’s basketball national championship since 1960. By April 2013 — just nine seasons into his Buckeyes coaching career — Matta had racked up five regular-season Big Ten titles, five Sweet 16 appearances, four conference tournament titles, and two Final Four berths. Tom Izzo had the cachet, Bo Ryan had the consistency, and John Beilein had the sexy offense, but from the moment Matta set foot in Columbus through the spring of 2013, his results were unrivaled among his Big Ten peers.

On Monday, Matta’s tenure as Ohio State’s head coach — and most likely his coaching career — came to an end. The official language surrounding the news indicates that Matta and longtime university athletic director Gene Smith mutually agreed to part ways, and I’d guess that is technically true. But during Monday’s press conference Matta looked very much like a man who was not ready to give it up just yet. When I sat down with him in his office last year for a piece I wrote in November, he made clear that — despite the questions about his health and whether the game had passed him by — he was not looking to hang up his whistle anytime soon.

Maybe the 49-year-old experienced a change of heart since then, brought on by a combination of the worst season of his career (Ohio State finished 17–15 in 2016–17), less-than-stellar recruiting results, and a swelling number of critics from within his own fan base. More likely, this "mutual" decision was made by Smith and accepted by Matta. And that’s a damn shame, because if there is such a thing as a coach who deserves to go out on his own terms, Matta — a Big Ten legend who made a point of graduating players, rarely had off-court problems on his roster, and kept his recruiting tactics clean — fit the bill.

But that’s the thing about college sports, especially in the modern landscape: Coaches almost never get to go out on their own terms. It would be cliché to quote The Dark Knight here and I’m way too talented to resort to that in my writing, so instead I’ll point out that what Lou Holtz once told Matta seems apt right about now: "Never stay at a school for more than seven years. Because the longer you stay, the more you fall in love with the place and the more they fall out of love with you."

Tubby Smith, Bruce Weber, Rick Barnes, Jamie Dixon, Tom Crean, Lorenzo Romar and countless other coaches would probably echo that sentiment. The only way to truly walk away on one’s own terms is as a winner, but the paradox is that the part of a coach’s DNA that makes him a winner is often too overpowering to allow him to quit. Thus, many coaches find themselves in awkward purgatories like Matta has been in the past few years, where all the success in the rearview mirror can only help so much in trying to navigate the road ahead.

Thad Matta (Getty Images)
Thad Matta (Getty Images)

I’m not sure that I agree with the prevailing thought that this was a decision the school had to make, but I also don’t think it really matters. Things were likely going to get worse for Matta before they got better, and knowing that, his unceremoniously and graciously stepping down during an abrupt afternoon press conference in June seems like a happier ending than Ohio State dragging him out of his office by his ankles next March on the heels of another season in which the Buckeyes struggled to crack .500. College basketball fans and university officials have terrible long-term memories, which is why coaching at this level is a cutthroat business. True job security in this profession is nonexistent; that’s something Matta has known all along, even if he didn’t fully want to believe it.

Still, while Matta’s exit may not come as the biggest shock in the world, the timing of it certainly does, as the college basketball coaching carousel stopped spinning at least a month ago. Now, an uncertain future for Ohio State basketball looks even more uncertain. The success rate for coaches at major programs who follow the best coach in school history is abysmal. The Buckeyes can back a dump truck full of money up to whatever candidate they want, but money can go only so far when trying to convince someone to follow a legend who was shown the door largely because he was too good too early in his tenure. And that’s to say nothing of the current state of Ohio State’s roster. (The Buckeyes are bringing in zero top-50 recruits and lost three starters — Marc Loving, Trevor Thompson, and JaQuan Lyle — from last year’s team that was the school’s worst in 20 seasons.) Under normal circumstances, Ohio State is probably one of the 15 or 20 best head-coaching jobs in college basketball. But these circumstances are far from normal.

(Quick point that needs to be made: Ohio State didn’t blow its chance at landing Archie Miller like so many are eager to claim. If Smith would have fired Matta in March like many Buckeyes fans hoped he would, Indiana still would’ve fired Crean, a bidding war would have ensued … and Miller still would’ve ended up at Indiana. I mean, really think about everything for a second. Miller’s only ties to Ohio State were the two seasons he spent as Matta’s assistant in 2007–08 and 2008–09. Why would Miller have turned down the prestige of being the Indiana coach to take over at a football school that he only has ties to through his mentor, who in this scenario would have just been fired by that very school? If Indiana hadn’t fired Crean this spring, maybe the "Ohio State missed out on Miller" case could be made. If we’re going to deal in hypotheticals, though, we might as well fire up the "Brad Stevens to Ohio State" speculation.)

The Buckeyes’ next move will become clear soon enough. For now, the curtain closes on the tenure of a man who accomplished more in 13 years in Columbus than those before him accomplished in the 50 years prior to his arrival. Whether he wore out his welcome is a debate I’ll leave to others. I’d just like to mention that the only reason people care so much about Ohio State basketball making a sudden coaching change is because Matta made them care.

What you just read is my professional "I’m a college basketball expert who demands to be taken seriously" take. I hope you enjoyed it. Now, I’d like to share my take on Matta’s dismissal as his former player, longtime friend, and loyal supporter who would follow him to the gates of hell. Here’s the short version: This sucks. It’s awful, I hate it, and I don’t like the way that things unfolded one bit.

I’m tempted to go on a passionate rant about how it’s bullshit that Matta was given the same treatment as Romar and Crean despite, you know, actually having a lengthy history of winning conference championships and going on deep NCAA tournament runs that neither of those other guys had. But I won’t bother. Matta’s triumphs on the court speak for themselves. Maybe he was out-and-out fired, or maybe the situation laid out at Monday’s press conference was the result of some sort of negotiation between Smith and Matta. I don’t know the details. I just know that I’ve often thought about what the end of Matta’s career might look like, and I sure as hell never came up with anything close to what ultimately happened.

Matta wasn’t just a good coach for a guy at a football school, and he wasn’t just a good coach for the Big Ten. He was bar none one of the best college basketball coaches in America, and his career was cut short before he turned 50. Just reading that sentence makes my soul want to collapse unto itself. Not long ago, Matta winning a national title seemed inevitable, as did him being enshrined in the Hall of Fame. (If you think that’s ridiculous, let me remind you that when John Wooden was 49 he had zero Final Fours to his name.) Now he’s been forced out of the program that he built, after taking the high road and staying a clean player in a notoriously dirty sport every step of the way? It makes no damn sense.

Of course, life isn’t fair. Bad things happen to good people all the time, and Matta would be the first to acknowledge that. In fact, it’s exactly what he emphasized to me when I was going through the darkest period in my life. During the middle of a season, he took two hours out of his day to give his former walk-on a pep talk I’ll never forget.

"You can go anywhere on this campus, walk up to someone, and say, ‘I heard what you’re going through and I’m so sorry’ and every single person would say, ‘How did you know?’ instead of ‘What are you talking about?’" Matta said. "Everybody has a cross to bear. You can either let that reality cripple you or embrace it and take comfort in knowing that you have nothing to be ashamed about."

Thad Matta (Getty Images)
Thad Matta (Getty Images)

Matta would absolutely hate to have a bunch of people kissing his ass, so I’ll refrain from laying it on too thick when describing what a great person he is. At the same time, the story of Matta’s career cannot be accurately told without mentioning the bonds that he built with his players. Mike Conley, D’Angelo Russell, Evan Turner, and tons of other former Buckeyes still regularly call Matta for advice, as does Greg Oden, who told me that Matta is often the first and/or only call he makes when at a crossroads. Matta was a player’s coach in every sense of the term; he would have rather lost with the guys he loved than won with the guys he didn’t, and I guess that may have ultimately led to his demise. I know that when a coach gets the axe it’s a popular move to talk about what a great person he was, and I also know that being nice means jack shit when a coach’s on-court results aren’t up to par. Nonetheless, I want to go on record as saying the admiration I have for Matta has nothing to do with his coaching ability and everything to do with who he is as a human being.

That’s why some small part of me doesn’t mind that this is the end of his Ohio State tenure. Truth be told, while the alum and fan in me hoped that Matta would coach the Buckeyes forever, the friend in me wanted him to retire five years ago. His daughters are both old enough to drive; he has enough money to last three lifetimes; and he long ago had nothing left to prove (outside of possibly winning a national title). Most importantly, though, his health has been an issue for years, a byproduct of a botched back surgery in 2007 that has debilitated him to various degrees ever since. At his worst, Matta would take all sorts of pill cocktails and lie on the locker room floor before, after, and even during games as he waited for his pain to subside. At his best, he walked with a noticeable limp, struggled to get up and down stairs, and needed a special chair while sitting on the bench. I can’t get on board with thinking that the game of basketball had passed him by, as his mind was as sharp as ever during the 2016–17 season. But I will concede that the grind that comes with the traveling, recruiting, and politicking required of a college basketball coach certainly wore on him.

I don’t know what’s next for Matta. The smart money says he hangs it up for good, stays in Columbus, maintains a strong relationship with the university he loves, and pops into Ohio State practices and games every so often to help any way he can, which seems to be his short-term plan given that he’s apparently going to help Ohio State find his successor. But he could also get another head-coaching job somewhere by tomorrow if he really wanted. Or he could lend his services to any of his former assistants who are now head coaches: Stevens with the Boston Celtics, Archie Miller with Indiana, Sean Miller with Arizona, and Jeff Boals with Stony Brook. Matta has plenty of options and all the time in the world to make a decision.

Then there’s the other possibility. In the 10 years I’ve known him, Matta has often brought up how his dream is to suddenly walk away from it all and open a beach bar in Mexico. He’s mentioned it so frequently that it stopped feeling like a joke at least five years ago. Ideally, he would’ve left Ohio State of his own accord, but now he’s left all the same. And this much I do know: If he does choose to go off the grid and open that bar, I will move heaven and earth to make sure I’m first in line.

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