Doing Work at a Football School

By Kyle Rowland on December 3, 2012 at 10:00a

Rarely has the hiring of a basketball coach at Ohio State elicited the type of jubilation seen when Urban Meyer was hired to lead the football program a year ago. And by rarely, think never. 

Winter is now more than football recruiting season.

In the summer of the 2004, when Thad Matta was introduced as the head men’s basketball coach at Ohio State, some fans were left asking, “Thad who?” But eight years later, Matta has turned a stepping-stone job into one of the nation’s elite positions.

Just 23 years ago, Gary Williams departed Ohio State for Maryland. While Williams was a graduate of Maryland, he left behind a team that was stockpiled with talent and one that had recently signed a highly ranked recruiting class. Among those high school seniors was Jim Jackson, who would develop into the national player of the year and a two-time consensus All-American.

Instead of leaving talent like that behind, Matta has helped attract it. He’s recruited three first-team All-Americans at Ohio State, including Naismith Award winner Evan Turner. Of Matta’s eight draft picks in eight seasons, seven have come in the first round. Greg Oden was selected first overall, Turner second and Mike Conley Jr. fourth.

But it’s not just NBA talent that Matta has on his résumé. There are plenty of wins mixed in – 226 to be exact.

“As you go into an off-season, you look and go, ‘OK, what do we have? What do we think we have?’” Matta said. “Quite honestly, you go through the first three weeks of practice and say, ‘OK, this is the direction we probably should head in.’”

Guard Lenzelle Smith Jr. touched on team-building before this season saying, “Will (Buford) and Jared (Sullinger), they are great guys who helped us build a tradition here. When they left, the tradition and the legacy is left behind. So we carry that on."

Coaches and players have done exactly that. Losing first-round draft picks has not impeded Ohio State’s growth as a basketball program.

The high level of success has heightened expectations that haven’t existed for half a century. Former head coach Jim O’Brien tried to downplay recruiting and positive results that turned into fans yearning for more.

He gave Buckeye Nation one Final Four. But Duke, North Carolina and Kentucky Ohio State was not. But that is exactly what Matta is striving for. It’s the same attitude football coaches at non-traditional powers have toward adopting Ohio State’s building blocks.

“When I got here, I looked at the Dukes, the North Carolinas, the Kentuckys and the one thing that was common was they weren’t built in five years,” Matta said. “They were built over decades.”

In eight-plus seasons at Ohio State, Matta has helped engineer five Big Ten championships, three conference tournament titles and two Final Fours. Not bad for less than a decade.

But his tenure in Columbus has contradicted valuable advice received from a coaching legend. Matta said Lou Holtz once told him to never stay at a job more than seven years.

“The longer you stay, the more you fall in love with it,” Holtz told Matta, “but the more they fall out of love with you.”

It’s a results-based business in the midst of a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately culture. For Matta, the wins and big names on the roster have kept fans happy.

Fred Taylor put Ohio State on a path to basketball riches.

He’s only one of two coaches to win 20 or more games in the first 12 seasons as a head coach. If you’re keeping track at home, that’s every season of his career. Matta also owns the highest win percentage of any Ohio State coach who’s coached more than two seasons, and the Buckeyes’ 116 wins over the past four seasons are their most over a four-year stretch in program history.

“You look at the job that Coach K (Mike Krzyzewski) has done there in building that program over time and standing the test of time, that to me is what separates their program,” Matta said about Duke.

Prior to Krzyzewski’s arrival, Duke was a successful program, but not nearly at the level of what he’s built. The Blue Devils had been to the Final Four but never won a national title.  They’ve now won four and been to 11 Final Fours in Krzyzewski’s 33-year run.

Matta hasn’t delivered on the national championship yet, but he has produced the best sustained run of success since Ohio State’s glory days in the 1960s. It was then that Ohio State went to four Final Fours and won its lone basketball title.

"I hope in 25 years our program’s still at the level it is,” Matta said. “That’s exactly what Duke has done. They’ve stood the test of time. There have been a lot of great players roll through there.

“I think that is a coach’s dream – to really establish a program. You’re going to have ups and downs. For the longevity of what you’re trying to do, I’d love to be here as long as I can and standardize Ohio State basketball as one of the best in the country.”

It’s the same tone Krzyzewski, Bob Knight and Dean Smith all had when they began coaching careers that would develop into the gold standard and what future coaches would be judged against.

Where Matta differs from most other highly successful coaches throughout history is he’s doing it a football school. Throughout Matta’s tenure in Columbus, Jim Tressel and Urban Meyer’s football factories have overshadowed the product across the street at Value City Arena. The same was true during Fred Taylor’s heyday, when he had to jostle Woody Hayes from the headlines.

During Ohio State’s two most recent trips to the Final Four, spring football press conferences the same week had more media in attendance than Matta previewing his team’s matchup in the national semifinals.

But consider Matta far from offended.

“Honestly, you’d like to just coach a basketball team in a cave and come out and play games and go back in it,” he said. “Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way.”

No, it doesn’t. And with each win comes more attention for Matta and the Buckeyes.

During O’Brien’s final season, average attendance dipped into the 14,000 per game range. It took another slide during Matta’s first season, when Ohio State self-imposed a postseason ban, but has steadily risen ever since.

Ohio State has ranked in the top 20 in attendance every season Matta has been at the helm. If the Buckeyes appear in that same area of the national rankings – they have in recent seasons – the goal of building a blue blood program will have been accomplished.


Comments Show All Comments

NYBUCKEYE's picture

Thad is a great coach. If we can lock down some high level recruits to go along with the two 4 stars we signed during the early period this year we will be looking good for years to come. Another dominant big man would certainly help. 

gwalther's picture

Are 4 stars not "high-level recruits?"

Class of 2008

William's picture

The two guys Matta signed for 2013 are great. Marc Loving is an athletic SF/PF with a nice shooting stroke, think Dirk Nowitzki minus 3 inches, and Kam Williams is a small, slashing SG that Rivals listed as one of the better shooters in this year's class, his game is a lot like Kemba Walker's. 

LadyBuck's picture

I rather Matta evaluate talent and gets what he needs to run his program than all the high flying names.

gwalther's picture

We had the best pair of football and basketball coaches two seasons ago with Tressel and Matta.
And we still have the best combo of football and basketball coaches with Meyer and Matta..
Damn, we are awesome. #OhioState

Class of 2008

baddogmaine's picture

Muschamp and Donovan? The football guy is new but jumped from 6-6 to 11-1 in the SEC in one year. I like our pair but don't consider it a lock that we have the best pair.

William's picture

Doesn't even come close. Donovan has two more titles and one more Final Four than Matta, but Matta has a higher win percentage and one more conference title than Donovan. Meyer is 4-0 in BCS Bowls with a higher win percentage than Muschamp and two national titles to Muchamp's zero. Matta at the very least has had great success at OSU, while Donovan has been brilliant for UF. Meyer on the other hand is one of the Top 2 coaches in CFB, you can't say the same for Donovan or Matta in CBB at the moment. Muschamp is just beginning his very career as a HC. 
Right now OSU's combination of Meyer and Matta is the best in college athletics. 

GoBucks713's picture

As far as basketball, you have to give the upperhand to Thad, he constantly has 20 win seasons in a much better basketball conference. Billy Donovan is no slouch, but the competition in the SEC isn't that great. After UK and Florida, there really aren't that many consistantly good teams in the SEC.

-The Aristocrats!

tennbuckeye19's picture

I agree, the B1G is a tougher and more competitive basketball conference, but:
2 national titles > 0 national titles

gwalther's picture

Which is why Meyer owns muschamp. Oh, was that not what you were referring to? 

Class of 2008

tennbuckeye19's picture

I believe Meyer owning Muschamp goes without saying.


Even in down years under Matta the Buckeyes win 25 games and are nationally ranked. His players play with class and they get drafted. He does things the right way. Thats what I like most about him.

"Sherman ran an option play right through the south" - Greatest Civil War analogy EVER.

bhartman13's picture

Thad has been awesome for tOSU!  He has built a steady program that consistently competes for B1G Championships and has a few nice runs in the Big Dance.  The Final Four appearances are great even though they didn't finish with a National Championship but I think Matta is on path to bring a title and #1 ranking back to Columbus soon.
The recruiting has been great and continues to be solid but I think a couple 5* bigs are needed in the near future to complete what is already in place.  4* guards and forwards are nice and they are proving to be a nice unit currently and a nice team coming in over the next few recruiting classes but 5* bigs like Sully and Oden are what gets you to Final Fours and gives you a much better chance at cutting down the nets.

Jack Fu's picture

Anyone who asked "Thad who?" in 2004 clearly paid no attention to college basketball. Thad had been a finalist for the Naismith Coach of the Year Award and was coming off a season in which he led Xavier to the Elite Eight where they came within 3 points of beating Duke. The dude was a HOT coaching candidate, and I remember that everyone I knew was legitimately jubilant when OSU signed him. Amazingly, I think he has even exceeded our somewhat lofty expectations.

BuckeyeLurker0509's picture

Yea, that part is just plain wrong. Everyone knew who Thad Matta was (those  following CBB anyway)

RBuck's picture

You're right. Back during the coaching search I was really pulling for Matta.

Long live the southend.

Charlotte Buckeye Chip's picture

Why don't we play Craft, Smith, Ross, Thomas, and Williams as the starting 5?  I think that's the best lineup we have.  Craft is clearly not a 2 Guard, so him and Scott can't be on the floor at the same time.  It's sad because I like both Craft and Scott.  Smith needs to step his game up to be our Shooting Guard.  Ross is hands down better than Thompson on Offense, although I know how hard Sam has worked in the offseason.  Sam's D is getting much better too.  Ravenel is a good backup, because Williams is a force in the middle.  If he could only shoot free-throws!!!  Anyways, that's my take.  Go Bucks!!!

~Charlotte Buckeye Chip

tennbuckeye19's picture

I'm a big Matta fan and I believe OSU is lucky to have him. I wouldn't trade him for anyone else and I hope he stays in Columbus for the long haul. 
Speaking of the late great Fred Taylor: A friend of mine once tossed this out to me to think about. He said Fred Taylor coached for many years at Ohio State and one of his players was a kid named Bobby Knight. Knight once said that no one had had a greater impact on his life than Fred Taylor, even going as far as to say that Taylor was the reason he went into coaching. Knight's first head coaching job was at West Point coaching Army. One of his players at Army was a kid with a funny name, Mike Krzyzewski. Knight left Army and went to Indiana where he had one of the best coaching careers in college basketball history. That player with the funny name, Mike Krzyzewski, once said that Knight had had one of the greatest impacts on his life and was the reason Krzyzweski went into coaching. His first coaching job was as an assistant for Knight at Indiana before becoming head coach first at Army and later Duke. At Duke, Krzyzewski has had one of the best coaching careers in college basketball history. So my friend says, if Fred Taylor wasn't coaching at OSU, my guess is Bobby Knight doesn't become Bob Knight, The General. And if Knight doesn't coach at Army, my guess is that Mike Krzyzewski doesn't become Coach K. It all goes back to Fred Taylor.
Twisted logic perhaps, but I like it.

O-H-I-Owe-U's picture

I need to learn more about what made Fred Taylor special. Any suggestions?

Bucknut-in-the-South's picture

Fred Taylor was a great coach for two reasons:  he understood the players he had, their strengths and weaknesses, and designed his strategy based on that.  He was also a man of great integrity, who refused to sign players who were not also excellent students.  His teams were uniformly smart, disciplined, and tenacious, all qualities shared by Coach Taylor.  He garnered the utmost respect from his peers, including John Wooden, Al McGuire, and Dean Smith, all of whom at one time or another faced his teams with mixed results.  I had the opportunity to work with him after he was unceremoniously removed from his position as coach, and I found him to be a truly nice man and hysterically funny.  A great coach and a better man.

OldColumbusTown's picture

We are utterly spoiled as Ohio State fans when you look at the coaches OSU has put in charge of their top bell-cow programs.  It doesn't get much better than Urban Meyer and Thad Matta.
Matta seems to be a perfect fit at a place like OSU.  He's no coaching diva who requires the media-attention (or even seeks the attention) that some of the other high-profile coaches do.  As a top nationally-recognized coach at a football school, he's at a place where he is revered, but still stays under the radar.  He has built this program, arguably, to the best point it has ever seen.  He's a tireless recruiter and, whether some want to admit it or not, a great X's-and-O's coach.

BoFuquel's picture

To think TOSU  is responsible for the two most anal-retentive personallities in the history of college basitball,The Bobber and Shit-Chef-Ski.Yeah makes me proud I spent nine years as a student there.GO BUCKS!

I wish I didn't know now what I didn't know then.

thatlillefty's picture

Love Coach Matta even more after reading Titus' book last year. He just seems like a real down to earth guy with a sense of humor and he's a great coach to boot!
Here's hoping his health allows him to coach for years to come.

chicagobuckeye's picture

You can tell he has a sense of humor on the court, did you see him talking to Ross after he missed the dunk just kind of laughing to himself.  He realizes that it was a coaching moment, but a funny one at that.

BuckeyeLurker0509's picture

Thank You Andy Geiger.
And for those who dont think Thad is a good coach, or that we can do better... I hope you wake up one night, and stub your toe really hard on the way to the bathroom. 

Brutus's picture

Matta is only one of two coaches to win at least 20 games in each of his first 12 years and yet the moment the Buckeyes play a bad game, much less lose, many of us are on here claiming that he's a horrible in-game coach.  Yep, that makes sense.  I'm sure many bad in-game coaches are able to win that many games every year.