Not long after Ohio State’s Final Four run in 2007, I ended up sitting next to Thad Matta in the bleachers at a summer recruiting event. Much of summer basketball small talk revolves around travel. Where you coming from? Where you going? How are you getting there?
Amid the minutia, Matta accidentally offered a detail that underscored his essence as Ohio State’s coach. Matta mentioned he’d always fill the tank on his rental car before returning it to the airport, no matter how early the flight or out of the way the station. He so appreciated his job at Ohio State that he didn’t want even the smallest thing to draw negative attention.
Ohio State fired Matta on Monday, an awkward and unfortunate ending to one of the more quietly consistent basketball coaching careers of this generation. The dismissal stemmed from a combination of Matta’s ailing physical health and recent poor performance of the Buckeyes both on the court and recruiting trail.
There’s plenty to dissect from the surprising departure, including the curious timing, potential successors and the dynamics of modern college basketball that forced this move. Matta, 49, is the all-time wins leader at Ohio State (337), reached two Final Fours and sprouted a coaching tree that includes Brad Stevens, Sean Miller and Archie Miller.
But reflecting on Matta’s sudden departure on Tuesday, I kept coming back to that image of Matta pumping gas in the pre-dawn darkness on the outskirts of some far-flung airport. No matter how big his salary or the size of Ohio State’s budget, he worried about the bean counters back in Columbus flagging him for not topping off the unleaded in his rental Altima.
That was Matta, who won 20 games for 12 consecutive seasons in Columbus. He was so appreciative of what he had and so defiantly low profile, he’d do just about anything to avoid being noticed. “He’s at a Hall-of-Fame level in terms of his success,” said Sean Miller, a former Matta co-worker and assistant said Monday afternoon. “It’s almost laughable that anyone would take him for granted. But he almost wanted it that way.”
Ever seen Matta on a national television commercial? Can you remember a controversial Matta quote? Even when he’d attend Ohio State football games to hang out with basketball recruits, Matta would retreat home before kickoff to enjoy the game on his couch. (His pregame football tradition revolved around chatting up the game officials, kindred spirits of a desire to be unnoticed.)
“A lot of coaches try to act like they don’t have an ego,” Sean Miller said. “But he’s the most egoless and selfless high-powered coach I’ve ever been around. He’s someone who was never caught up in his own deal. It’s never been about him.”
Instead, Matta directed all his energy to his team. Surely, he recruited great players—Greg Oden, Evan Turner, Mike Conley, Jared Sullinger and Aaron Craft come to mind. But he wasn’t a coach obsessed with the next star, transfer or social media gadget. He spent each day locked in on motivating, improving and engaging his team.
The players noticed, as the outpouring on social media showed on Monday. The loquacious Satch Sullinger, former Columbus area high school coach and father of Buckeye stars Jared and J.J., declined comment on Monday. He said his sons did the same. Considering Satch’s affability and affinity for conversation, the no comment speaks volumes about the true feelings about Matta’s ouster.
Stevens recalls one of his first days at work as a volunteer assistant at Butler in 2000, driving around with Matta as he passed on two pieces of advice—think like a head coach every day and be proactive in making easier the lives of Matta and assistant coach Todd Lickliter. “That’s literally what I thought of for seven years, every day,” Stevens said of his time as a Butler assistant. “That type of ownership was really powerful at 23.”
Stevens also recalled a game at UW-Green Bay where Butler trailed by 29 points with seven minutes remaining. With 2:30 remaining, the lead was 18 and Butler players were declaring: “We’re going to win this game!” Butler almost did, missing a shot at the buzzer to lose 69-68. Stevens still recalls Matta’s message and demeanor postgame: “Guys, we’re going to be a hell of a team! We’re going to be so good!” They were, as Butler ended up in the NCAA tournament after winning its league and conference tournament. Stevens recalls telling his wife, Tracy, then his girlfriend, throughout that season how much he’d have loved to play for Matta. “He was so much fun to be around,” Stevens said. “Everyone who played for him at Butler, Xavier and Ohio State loves him. I would have loved for my son to play for him. He never veered away from that positive outlook.”
Matta needed that demeanor after his world changed drastically in 2007 when a botched surgery caused nerve damage that led to “drop foot.” That essentially means the foot can’t function, leaving Matta in a brace and struggling to do simple tasks like put on shoes and pants. He later called himself “handicapable.” As he said back in 2009, “It’s challenging every day because you’re not the same person that you once were.”
Miller said the injury proved especially difficult for Matta, who was a fitness freak who’d think nothing of running 10 miles before coming into the office when they worked together at Miami University (Ohio) in 1994-95. In his press conference in Columbus on Thursday, Matta said he’d still likely have his job if he had his health. He also mentioned “major negativity” from opponents in recruiting because of his health. “In 11 days, it will be 10 years,” he said of the botched surgery. Adding sarcastically: “Not that I remember the date.”
Matta is a huge Will Ferrell fan, constantly quoting Old School and Step Brothers in speeches to his team. Former Buckeye assistant Jeff Boals, now the coach at Stony Brook, recalled Matta chatting with Ferrell on the sideline before Ohio State’s game with USC in 2009. They were chatting about Matta’s balky back, and Ferrell said, “Well, why don’t they do a surgery and reverse it?”
That was never really an option. So instead, Matta adapted and adjusted, trudging with little complaint and desire for sympathy.
Boals described Matta this way: “You didn’t work for him, you worked with him.” And that's exactly the way Matta wanted, emptying his tank of energy for his team and staff while filling his rental tank for the school.
On Monday afternoon, Stevens revealed that he and Matta always discussed their preferred retirement plans. They’d move back to Indianapolis and buy Butler season tickets in the top level. They’d walk to a bar together before games, sit in the top level of Hinkle Fieldhouse and just be fans. “We’ve always laughed about that,” Stevens said.
Just as he finished the story, Matta beeped in on his old assistant’s phone to discuss a career cut short. Rest assured he did so reluctantly, embarrassed by all the attention he’s received today.