Jeff’s Weekly Sports Rapp: Height, Energy And Success Galore
By Jeff Rapp
(Editor’s Note: Jeff Rapp has covered Ohio State athletics since he graduated from the university more than 20 years ago. He currently serves as a voting member of the Heisman Trophy Trust and is a longstanding member of the Football Writers Association of America and the U.S. Basketball Writers Association).
While football is back on its pedestal in Columbus with the Urban Meyer era roaring, we were reminded again that Thad Matta and his staff also are on the job.
Photo by Jim Davidson
Earlier this week, Matta secured a verbal commitment from top-100 guard prospect Kameron Williams out of the Baltimore area. Williams is a 6-2 shooting guard who is considered one of the best prep pure shooters in the nation.
Even with the loss of several key players, the Buckeyes are expected to contend again this season. And after that, Williams, longtime commitment Marc Loving of Toledo, and likely more help will be on the way.
After luring several topflight recruiting classes to Ohio State, posting a record of 221-65 in eight seasons at the school, capturing five Big Ten titles, three league tournament championships, an NIT title, and leading OSU to the Final Four again this spring, it’s now safe to say Matta is an elite college coach.
No pundit or critic could argue that he hasn’t done an admirable job with the program since taking it over under trying circumstances and amid NCAA scrutiny in the summer of 2004.
Fans love Matta’s passion and Midwestern humility, and they’ve taken to the players he has ushered to campus; especially Greg Oden, Mike Conley, Evan Turner, Jared Sullinger and Aaron Craft.
Photo by Jim Davidson
Best of all, Matta’s approach has had a steady appeal with his players, who see a him as a coach who can challenge them to improve, manufacture wins, and enable them to succeed on the next level.
Sullinger was selected 21st overall in the NBA draft this summer, making him the seventh Buckeye in the Matta era to go in the first round. The other six are Oden, Conley and Daequan Cook (2007); Kosta Koufos (’08); B.J. Mullens (’09); and Turner (’10). Jon Diebler, who was drafted in the second round last year, brings the total of Buckeyes plucked by the NBA to eight since Matta took charge.
But Matta doesn’t just attract players with promises of NBA riches and he doesn’t go about his business without help.
“He’s always got a lot of fire and he’s just a guy that you like to be around; and he knows that he doesn’t know everything and he’s willing to learn,” Craft said. “He’s just a great example for all of us to be around and continue to learn from. He’s one of the best leaders that I’ve ever had in my life.”
Those qualities, especially a willingness to tap into the talents of others, have allowed Matta to also bring in outstanding assistants.
Matta’s coaching tree includes Sean Miller, John Groce, Brad Stevens, Alan Major and Archie Miller, who are now all promising young head coaches at Arizona, Illinois, Butler, Charlotte and Dayton, respectively. Others who have worked under Matta in his 12 years as a head coach include Dan Peters, Brandon Miller and Todd Lickliter, who have each enjoyed success elsewhere.
“I have been very fortunate dating all the way back to Butler University in 2000 and obviously here,” Matta said during the 2011-12 season. “(Video coordinator) Greg Paulus and I were sitting in the coaches’ locker room the other day and we were laughing about the staff at Duke and how all those guys have been there for like 12 straight years, and I went locker by locker with just who’s been in all these lockers in the eight years I’ve been here.
“I think having great assistants is the key to any head coach’s success. Unfortunately, they probably don’t get the credit that they deserve. That’s something I want for them. I want them to coach, I want them to teach, and I don’t want them to take the blame. I want all of that on me.”
Matta’s current staff may be his best ever.
Despite recent turnover, he has been able to assemble a group of assistants that is the envy of most of college basketball. Jeff Boals, Dave Dickerson and Chris Jent are the core of the group but the staff also includes Paulus – a former point guard at Duke – results-driven associate strength and conditioning coach Dave Richardson and the well-organized Dave Egelhoff, the program’s director of basketball operations.
Photo by Jim Davidon
Boals is a former Ohio University forward who has shown as much tenacity as a coach and recruiter as he did on the court for the Bobcats. He’s a visible, rooting presence on the OSU bench and is an Ohio-based assistant highly involved in recruiting.
Dickerson was a topflight recruiter and longtime aide to Gary Williams at Maryland before becoming the head coach at Tulane. He is adept at putting together practice plans and game strategies and also has had success helping Matta rope in out-of-state prospects such as Williams.
Jent is an ex-Buckeye forward and hustle machine who won an NBA title with the Houston Rockets in the mid-1990s and has been a well-respected assistant for years in that league. In fact, he served as the interim head coach of the Orlando Magic and has immediate street cred with recruits as LeBron James’ former personal shooting coach.
It’s a collection of talent and combination of personalities that appears to function perfectly for Matta.
“I feel fortunate to be a part of it,” Boals told SportsRappUp.com. “You’ve got Dave Dickerson, who is a former head coach. You’ve got Chris Jent, who played in the NBA, has been a head coach in the NBA, won Big Ten championships and overseas. You’ve got Greg Paulus from Duke. And obviously, Thad. His success speaks for itself. It’s an unbelievable opportunity, and on a daily basis you learn something new.
“I think the one good thing about this staff is nobody really cares about credit. And you’ve got a unique deal where everyone played Division I basketball. It’s great for recruiting, it’s great for our guys, and Chris is still young enough where he gets out there and plays one on one and battles these guys in shooting contests, tries to dunk.”
OSU Coaching Staff
L to R Dave Dickerson, Jeff Boals, Thad Matta, Chris Jent
Photo by Jim Davidson
Boals laughed at the thought of Jent battling the onset of middle age. Still, he knows that Jent is an ideal complement to the staff because of his ties to the program and ability to inspire players behind the scenes.
Jent actually sat behind the OSU bench a few seasons ago as a volunteer assistant while he was finishing up his degree. When Groce left to become the head coach at OU, Matta was able to tempt Jent back to his alma mater.
“It’s been a great learning experience just as it was before when I was helping out,” Jent said during OSU’s latest postseason run. “Obviously I believe in Thad and what he’s doing and the guys are great to work with as well. Right now our focus is on getting these guys as far as we can in the tournament, but there’s no doubt this is an everyday job.
“I was torn a bit at first, but I finally realized it was a chance to be part of a great staff and come back to Ohio State, which is really hard to pass up.
Not only did that move make sense, it is believed to have secured the title of “tallest college basketball staff in the country.”
“Yeah, it’s kind of funny,” said Boals, who, like Dickerson and Jent, stands somewhere in the 6-5 to 6-7 range. “Thad (6-4) may be the shortest of the four of us.”
Height alone doesn’t guarantee respect, however. Matta’s full-time assistants all bring different personalities and impressive backgrounds – and Matta’s insistence on their regular input makes for a formula that works for the players.
As William Buford was inching up the all-time scoring chart and was asked what moment epitomized his outstanding four-year career, he chose something behind the scenes.
“The preparation before all of these games that we’ve been playing (in the NCAA Tournament) has been great for us,” he said. “We ask a lot of questions during film.”
“(The coaches) watch so much film and they’re in the gym forever. I’ll be in there late at night and I see them there watching film and just trying to prepare for the next opponent.”
The drive is evident to those who cover the team; even more evident to those on it.
Dickerson has been to three Final Fours as an assistant and was a key to Maryland’s 2002 national championship. Unfortunately, he wasn’t able to carry over the same magic at Tulane, a program, like its parent city of New Orleans, that was ravaged by Hurricane Katrina.
He resigned under pressure after a five-year run came up short and produced a mark of 68-84. But as fate would have it, he returned to the Big Easy in March as part of the brain trust for the Buckeyes’ Final Four team.
“If you’d asked me when I got fired if I would be competing for a national championship two years later … It’s pretty remarkable,” he said while in town.
“The great thing about being at Ohio State, like being in Maryland, is that every year the goal is to compete for the conference championship and the national championship. The last two years, I’ve been a part of 65 wins.
“Coach Matta has done a great job at Ohio State. One of his biggest slogans is that we’re going to try to recruit the best players in the country, and when we get them, we’re going to let them play and play to their strengths.”
Jeff Boals and Thad Matta
Photo by Jim Davidson
Boals not only espouses that approach, he said he tries to be a motivator every single day and doubles down on game day. Two student fans seated behind the bench came to every home game as Boals impersonators – all the way down to the slick attire, glasses and emphatic gestures.
“I don’t think I really have a label,” he said. “I try to be as positive and energetic as possible, and that’s how I played. I was a guy who was never athletic or better than anyone, so I had to bring that energy and passion. I had to dive on the floor. I try to just roll my sleeves up and work hard.”
The same could be said of Jent, who displayed a willingness to defend off-guards and power forwards alike.
Even though Jent was a 1,000-point scorer at Ohio State, he also was a bit of a stunt man on the college floor and is well-remembered by Buckeye fans for being willing to knock heads with the likes of Chris Webber and Kenny Battle.
And while the assistants all bring different perspectives, Matta prefers them to function as a unit. Unlike most other staffs in the country, the OSU assistants don’t always stay in the same roles and aren’t assigned to specific regions for recruiting.
Boals said just about every facet of the program is discussed as a staff and Matta encourages involvement from everyone.
“We do it probably a little different,” Boals said. “We try to all recruit the kid instead of just having one person do it. Obviously Thad is the ringleader, but we all help out in that aspect. I think it’s important, because we’re all going to be a around the kid on a daily basis and have an impact somehow on what is his experience here, so it’s important for all of us to be involved.
“Thad is the type of guy (that) you don’t work for him, you work with him. He is not one of those guys who claims to know everything. He tries to hire guys around him who will give him opinions and help him out. I think that’s what any good leader does.
“He’s great at listening to what we have to say. Obviously, he’s the head coach and formalizes the final opinion, but he does give us a lot of freedom and responsibility on the court, off the court.”
But with all of that energy and shared responsibility, there is just one remaining question: Which coach is most likely to get T’ed up?
“If it was last year, I would have said me,” Boals said, “but this year we’ve got Coach Jent.”
If all else fails, they’ll just work as a team.
*This is the latest installment of Jeff Rapp’s Weekly Sports Rapp on The-Ozone.net. He is a regular voice on 610 WTVN in Columbus and long-time reporter covering the Buckeyes. If you enjoyed this article, be sure to check out more of Jeff’s work on SportsRappUp.com.