Leave it to Thad Matta.
On Monday, he and Ohio State athletics director Gene Smith met with the media to announce Matta’s oddly-timed firing. It began with Matta holding back tears and yet it wasn’t long before he had everybody laughing, including himself.
Even though Matta had been told this was the end days earlier, speaking about it today showed just how raw the wounds remain. For 13 years, Thad Matta was Ohio State basketball, and Ohio State basketball was Thad Matta.
He was the perfect fit for a program that wanted to be something more.
He was consistent and he could be trusted. He played “the game” the right way, and that was exceedingly important considering where the program was when he arrived.
And it wasn’t just the NCAA sanctions that he inherited. On Monday, Matta said that when he arrived in 2004, the team’s graduation rate was just 20%.
This was a program that was completely lost. At least up until the day it found Thad Matta.
Early on under Matta, it was clear that he was going to get the most out of his players on and off the court. And for a long time, he did exactly that.
Even when they didn’t have the most talent, they generally had the most effort.
Over the last few years, however, both the talent and the effort faded away.
The Buckeyes went 17-15 this year, which was the worst season for the program since the year before Matta arrived.
Gene Smith didn’t fire him for what happened on the court, however, but rather for what was no longer happening off the court.
It was Matta’s inability to recruit to his established standard that eventually did him in.
Smith and Matta had conversations about the state of the program’s recruiting, and both acknowledged that it wasn’t going to get any better. Matta’s ongoing health concerns were a constant source of negative recruiting, as well as an actual struggle for the now-former Buckeye coach.
Opposing coaches could use Matta’s back and foot issues against him, and try as he might to combat those tactics, this was still a man who had to have help undressing after some games.
On Monday, Matta even told stories of showing up to his doctors’ houses at 10 o’clock at night needing help with the pain.
So yeah, recruiting was going to struggle.
And yet, when he and Smith sat down and had their discussion, Matta said that he came to the same conclusion that his boss did.
Matta could have lied to Smith during that conversation and simply told him what he knew his AD wanted to hear, but that’s not how he has ever done things.
He was essentially sealing his own fate, and he was doing it for all of the right reasons.
I asked him how difficult it was to come to the realization that it was over during that conversation and he said that it was part of the job as a coach. You prepare yourself for it.
He also said that he wants what is best for Ohio State, and if that is no longer him, then get somebody in who is.
He then alluded to the old Bum Phillips quote that there are two kinds of coaches — those who have been fired, and those that will be.
Thad Matta now belongs to that first group, as do many other great Buckeye head coaches before him.
He will be missed. He was as personable a coach as a fan base could ever hope to have (or media could ever hope to cover.) He didn’t seek the spotlight. He still isn’t on Twitter. He simply went to work every day and did everything he could with whatever he had left to give.
Unfortunately, over the last few years, what he had to give wasn’t enough to keep the program at the standard that he had set. Matta had no interest in blaming his health for the deterioration of the program, citing several great years while he was in tremendous pain.
Yet this was a change that needed to happen. There is never a good time for this, but necessity makes its own schedule.
Ohio State will now head in a new direction for a program that was always headed down the straight and narrow under Matta.
Now, for the first time in a decade, he can finally worry more about himself than he did everyone else.
Here’s hoping that he finds the good health that has eluded him for so long. Lord knows he’s earned it.
Thad Matta set the standard for Buckeye basketball. From his first day to his very last day, he did it the way it should be done. He leaves Ohio State basketball in a better place than when he found it, and the chapters of OSU history will feature plenty of echoes from his time here.
The next head coach at Ohio State will have more to live up to than any previous coach in program history. And that is exactly the kind of legacy you should always want your coach to leave.