COLUMBUS, Ohio — Thad Matta is entering his tenth season as Ohio State's head basketball coach, and around here, that's some rarefied air. Of the 12 coaches before him in school history, only three have made it to a tenth season: Harold Olsen, Fred Taylor and Eldon Miller.
Thad Matta Reflects on Legacy, Longevity
by Tony Gerdeman
Photo by Jim Davidson
When it comes to winning, however, Matta is soon to be a in league all by himself. His 250 wins at Ohio State are nine-fewer than Olsen for second place, and he should have that milestone 260th win by mid December. Then sometime in January of 2015 he will pass Fred Taylor and his 297 wins, and become Ohio State's winningest coach of all time, and probably put the record away for good.
While the rest of that legacy is still yet to happen, Matta already has plenty to be proud of in the Ohio State history books. What's he most proud of, however?
“To be here 10 years,” he laughed. “It's like 80 in dog years around here.”
But then he quickly got serious, because it was obvious that he has taken great pride in what Ohio State basketball has become.
“I would say the program that we've built and the way we've built it, just in terms of what's been accomplished here under our watch. Where we were when we came in, and I remember saying to kids when we began our recruiting process, 'We're at rock bottom. I'm not going to lie to you. We can't go to post-season play.'
“It wasn't good. We had like a 20 percent graduation rate. I didn't know that until after I got here. Things weren't good. To see today the strides that we made, and I know some people tie it to one thing and one thing only, and that's winning. I like the way that we've won and the guys we've won with.”
If there is one thing that Matta is tied to, it is certainly winning. He has won 20 games every year that he has been a head coach, and he's done it in a variety of ways, be it with somebody else's players, veterans, rookies, and everything in between.
Everyone remembers “The Thad Five” in 2006-7 with freshmen Greg Oden, Mike Conley, Daequan Cook, David Lighty and junior college transfer Othello Hunter. The Buckeyes went 35-4 that year and made it all the way to the national title game. Because of that level of success, some might think that season is the one that stands out most for Matta.
They would be wrong.
“The second year [stands out most],” he said, referring to the 2005-6 season.
“We won the Big Ten outright, we won 26 games, we were a two-seed, and I've always said that that team is a team that will always be forgotten, but is number one in my mind in terms of what those guys were able to accomplish.
Photo by Jim Davidson
“Everybody was only concerned about the next year because Greg, Michael, Daequan and David were coming in. They didn't care about that season, and then those guys kept on winning and winning and winning. Terence, Je'Kel, James and Matt, to this day I owe those guys a lot, as well as Tony, Brandon and Matt when I first got here.”
When Matta talks about that team, the smile on his face says as much as his words do. But as you would imagine, every team is special to him. Each team comes with its own stories and memories, and each group of players creates its own history.
Most of those stories and memories were joyfully relived earlier this summer when Matta got home one afternoon.
“We had a special night,” Matta started. “My family threw me a surprise party I didn't know about. It was the guys I had coached here, they were at my house one night this summer. We had one of the greatest nights of my life.
“The biggest thing I found out is that these guys do listen, because they were able to say things that I said. I don't remember saying them in the tone that I said them, but that was a unique summer evening that I had no idea was going on.”
And as Matta reminisced about that summer night, it wasn't the wins that he was recounting, it was the young men and the memories that were made – that was the real legacy that stuck with him.
“Those are the type of things that I'm probably the most proud of, that I can have a Sunday afternoon this summer, and James Sullinger, Je'Kel Foster and Terrence Dials spend five hours at my house. You go to bed at night saying, 'Man, we've done this the right way.'”
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