On Brink of 10th Season at Ohio State, Thad Matta's Place in Columbus is Secure

By Kyle Rowland on November 8, 2013 at 9:15a
Thad Matta: creator of champions.

Late Sunday, March 28, 2004, Thad Matta trudged out of the Georgia Dome after one of the most agonizing losses of his career. The seventh-seeded Xavier Musketeers, 10-9 in early February, had just fallen to No. 1 Duke in an Elite Eight game they led late in the second half.

For Matta, it represented the most recent March heartbreak in a list that was already littered with close calls in college basketball’s holy period. But it was also a turning point for Xavier. Long a basketball school, Matta had the Musketeers on the doorstep of the Final Four and positioned among the top mid-majors in the country.

That’s why Matta rebuffed then-Ohio State athletic director Andy Geiger when he was originally contacted about becoming the Buckeyes’ next head coach. Basketball is far different than football. You don’t need to be one of the Joneses when it comes to the hardwood.

Jim O’Brien’s final two seasons in Columbus yielded an overall record of 31-31, eighth and ninth place finishes in the Big Ten and looming NCAA sanctions. Put simply, Ohio State was struggling after reaching the Final Four in 1999.

Despite the Buckeyes falling behind Cincinnati, Xavier and even Dayton in the state’s basketball prestige pecking order and Matta’s own admitted disinterest in the job, he eventually opted to make the 105-mile trek up I-71 to begin a rebuilding process that a decade later has Ohio State on firm footing with the nation’s elite.

The potential awaiting Matta in Columbus was why Dawn Rogers, Xavier’s athletic director at the time, feared he would leave the Cincinnati-based school.

“I always had the uneasy feeling that Thad might be the next Ohio State coach," she said. “Ultimately, he did what he needed to do to be where he wanted to be as a coach.”

After acquiring the job, Matta made it clear why he did so. The Hoopeston, Ill., native watched the Big Ten his entire life and was entrenched in the culture. It was only natural for him to become part of the conference and coach in locales such as Champaign and Bloomington.

“I’m a Midwest guy. I grew up in the Big Ten and think having the opportunity to get what I conceive is the best job in the Big Ten, I feel very fortunate at that,” Matta said.

At his introductory press conference, Matta laid out his plans for the Buckeyes. And they were quite simple.

“I am fully aware of the state that this program is in right now and I stand before you today that I have accepted this position for one reason and one reason only – to bring Ohio State basketball back into national prominence,” Matta declared.

In nine seasons, he’s done more than anyone could have foreseen, even Geiger. The 10th chapter begins Saturday against Morgan State. 

The success Matta has concocted – five regular-season Big Ten championships, four conference tournament titles and two Final Fours – has threatened Ohio State’s status as a football school. Urban Meyer remains undefeated, but the excitement over the basketball program grows each season.

"Sylvester for three..."One shot may have changed the direction of a program.

“There’s an element inside of me that knows I’m representing more than myself or the university, and that is the fans and the state of Ohio,” Matta said. “I don’t want to say that it’s pressure, but it’s a driving force to do the best that I possibly can.”

Matta’s won 250 total games and over 70 percent of conference games at the helm of the Buckeyes. The only thing he hasn’t done is win a national championship.

“In ’07, we had maybe one of the best teams ever in the Big Ten and we play Florida, who has everybody back from the team that won it the year before. That’s the kind of luck I have,” Matta said, tongue-in-cheek.

He’ll pass Harold Olsen this season for the second-most wins in program history and eclipse the legendary Fred Taylor’s 297 wins next season to become the Buckeyes’ all-time winningest coach. Still, one victory during Matta’s first season, a year in which Ohio State wasn’t eligible for the post season, still resonates more than any other. 

On the final day of the regular season, the Buckeyes played host to No. 1 and undefeated Illinois. They’d already lost to the Illini by 19 points in January. Ohio State had steadily progressed throughout the season, though, and a team that won 17 and 14 games the previous two seasons had already topped that mark prior to the Illinois game.

The Buckeyes’ resurgence was already taking shape, albeit at a slow pace. Then everything went into a sprint. Matt Sylvester’s March 5th performance will forever be revered in Columbus after his game-winning three-pointer with 5.1 seconds remaining sunk the top-ranked Illini. But it was far more than just one win, it proved to Matta, his assistants, players and recruits that a turnaround was not only possible but occurring.

Shortly thereafter, Greg Oden, Mike Conley and Daequan Cook committed to Ohio State. Suddenly, the rebuilding was in full swing and the Thad Five was born.

“Looking back on it, I feel like [Sylvester’s shot] was a defining moment because everything that we had preached, the environment we tried to create around the basketball program came into fruition and showed that hard work does pay off,” Matta said. “There was no light at the end of the tunnel for that team. They were playing for nothing and won 20 games and just did an incredible job. I think that kind of propelled us into the future.”

Rock bottom is how Matta remembers describing the Buckeyes’ situation to recruits after he took the job. The basketball program had a 20-percent graduation rate and little in the way of talent. The nine-year transformation has been stunning for many across the college basketball landscape.

Ohio State holds the nation’s longest active streak with four straight appearances in the Sweet 16 and seven years of having a player selected in the NBA Draft.

“There were 330 Division I programs, and we were the 330th. People forget where we were,” Matta said. “It’s been exciting to see this program come to fruition of where we thought we could build it.”

Year 10 is foreign territory for Buckeye basketball coaches. Only Olsen, Taylor and Eldon Miller have reached such heights.

“To be here 10 years, it’s like 80 in dog years,” Matta said, laughing.

Perhaps the most challenging part of his Ohio State tenure is the reloading, not rebuilding from the ground up the first two seasons. Matta’s dealt with one-and-done players throughout his time in Columbus only to cycle in another highly rated recruiting class. He’s won with freshmen, seniors, centers and point guards.

The eye for talent Matta and his assistants have displayed, a group that includes Illinois’ John Groce, Butler’s Brandon Miller and Dayton’s Archie Miller, is the chief reason why the Buckeyes have been able to replenish the roster with top-flight players.

“I have accepted this position for one reason and one reason only – to bring Ohio State basketball back into national prominence.”

Oden is arguably the most hyped freshman to ever don the scarlet and gray. His best friend, Conley, was part of a package deal. Conley was a coveted recruit, but many believed his success was largely due to playing alongside Oden in high school and on the AAU circuit. That notion would quickly be put to rest after Conley composed an historic season that culminated in being named to the NCAA All-Tournament team.

“The only two people in the world who knew how good Mike Conley was was myself and Greg Oden. We used to laugh about it,” Matta said. “I used to tell people he was the best point guard in the country and nobody would believe me. You’d just see him make play after play after play.”

Just three years later, Evan Turner earned national player of the year honors, proving once more that Matta and Co. know ability when they see it. 

“Having a guy like that in your program and watching him develop into who he is as a player and a person – that’s pretty gratifying,” Matta said.

His players have repaid him over the years with their appreciation and adoration. On a summer day in Columbus, if you’re to traipse into Value City Arena, chances are you’ll catch a glimpse of former All-Americans and current NBA players scrimmaging against the current crop of Buckeyes. Aaron Craft guarding Conley, Turner attempting to find an open shot over Lenzelle Smith Jr. The assembly of former players has become normal.

This summer that gathering moved to a second venue – Matta’s house.

“We had a special night,” he said. “My family threw me a surprise party. It was the guys I had coached here. We had one of the greatest nights of my life.

“Those are the types 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.’”


Comments Show All Comments

LouGroza's picture

Only hope Matta gets all the gratitude he deserves from everyone for what he has done for OSU. He certainly deserves high praise.

averagejoel419's picture

Great read, thanks. In a day of so many "snake-oil salesmen" out there we have a great leader for the basketball program.

TheShookster's picture

Matt Sylvester for three was a great moment for me, growing up in Illinois. I believe I was a junior in high school at the time and EVERYONE had jumped the U of I bandwagon that year. It was disgusting, but that Illinois team was REALLY good. 
Matta is the man, and no matter how many heartbreaking tournament losses pile up, I am confident he will not leave Columbus without at least one national title. 

He ain't even stretch doe!!

mmangino's picture

I was living in Chicago in a condo building. Our neighbors went to Illinois and were watching the game below us. For some reason, their TV was about 2 seconds ahead of ours. I'll never forget the sound that came from their place the second before Sylvester took that shot. 

osu07asu10's picture

Matta is a top flight coach and we're damn lucky to have him leading the basketball program. 

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osu07asu10's picture


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Seattle Linga's picture

Thanks for the pics - well done. I still show my wife and kids that gum mishap - That actually made national news. 

AirAssaultBuckeye's picture

Gene Smith or his successor had better make damn sure that this is THE LAST place that he ever coaches basketball!!!!

Rendezvous With Destiny

chowoon97's picture

Future is so bright. 
2014 - D'angelo Russell, KBD, Jae'sean Tate, Dave Bell, (one more?)
2015- Mickey Mitchell, AJ Harris, (Possibly Caltron Bragg)
2016- Payton Dastrup, (Possibly VJ King).
Really loaded. Thanks a great coach Thad Matta.

d5k's picture

With or without a 5th commit, 2014 could be another top 5 type team with the mix of seniors and underclassmen if enough guys live up to potential.

OSUFlash's picture

Would love to see Craft and Conley going at it. That's Pay Per View drama right there!!!!


Buckeye1004's picture

I'd pay to see that!  I would give you an upvote for sure!
Go Buckeyes!

ibuck's picture

[Matta] has Ohio State on firm footing with the nation’s elite.

Seems like Ohio State is just now beginning to be accepted as an elite hoops school. The thumping of Duke ("My butt is sore" - Coach K), the consistent winning & NCAA tourney runs, the upcoming series with Kentucky, UCLA & North Carolina will probably make that notion more widespread.  
Makes you wonder what some of the big men recruits are thinking when they include the Buckeyes in their final few choices, and then go elsewhere. Is it Matta's requirement that they learn how to defend properly and work hard on it? Or personality? Or hoops not being the top sport at OSU? 

Our honor defend, so we'll fight to the end !

If you can't win your conference, just quietly accept your non-playoff bowl game.

Patriot4098's picture

Inclusion into that blue blood invitational tourney with UK, UCLA, and UNC is very telling. If we are measuring his success by what he clearly states as HIS goal of 'returning Ohio State to national prominence', then congratulations are in order. I'm just glad he doesn't plan on going anywhere.

"Evil shenanigans!"     - Mac

igo43's picture

Excellent article, I enjoyed reading it. I was surprised that it's been 10 years already.

"The minute I think I'm getting mellow, I'm retiring. Who ever heard of a mellow winner?" - WWH

zbd's picture

Great article to show how Matta has moved the program to the top. Now Myles Turner needs to come to Columbus.

umbyosu's picture

Although Sylvester shot against Illinois was a definitely a turnaround, but what if Ron Lewis does not hit the 3-point at the buzzer against Xavier?  Does the Thad Five get all of the hype that it does now?  Does Conley (or Oden) stay longer than one year?  I guess we never will know, but getting to the Title Game certainly helped propel this program into more of an elite status that it currently enjoys today.
Gus Johnson never gets old!

Seattle Linga's picture

Where would we be without our seasonal fix of the GUS JOHNSON game winning shot for the Buckeyes! 

Doc's picture

As much as I love Urban, I think I love Thad more.  The guy is just a class act. I hope Coach is with us for at least another 10 years. Good luck this year Coach Matta we are all behind you.

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mtgerken's picture

Can you say "The Best Damn Coach In The Land" Unbelievably blest to have him as our coach:

10 Years:

  • 5 Big Ten Championships
  • 4 Big Ten Tournament Championships
  • 2 Final Fours
  • 1 National Championship Game
  • 9 NBA Draft Picks
  • Best winning percentage in the history of the Big 10
  • 4 straight Sweet 16 appearances

And still not done yet. No one deserve the National Championship more then Matta. 

"Because I couldn't go for three!"


Seattle Linga's picture

Well said MT - Thanks for the lay out - he certainly could get one in the future with some of his classes coming in.

skid21's picture

I've only had one man crush in my life and it is Thad Matta. As a huge BB fan who lived through the worst of times Thad brought OSU basketball not only back to being respectable but back to being a legit NC contender every year. I love the man!

gravey's picture

He's a great coach and a regular guy.  He's everything we could ask for in a Buckeye. So glad he's ours.  You rock coach!  

ScarletGray43157's picture

When Matta was at Xavier it seemed like he would beat Huggins' Bearcats in the Crosstown Shootout every year.  Xavier had national respect.  That Thad wanted to come to Ohio State, especially given the circumstances, indicates the kind of character that embraces challenge, and the past 10 years indicates that Thad is the rare individual who thrives in that challenge.  I wish him much continued success and I will remain as an admirer as well as a fan.  

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NashBuckeye's picture

Love the article. I grew up watching Big Ten Basketball with my Dad in the 80s on the Raycom Network. OSU had not won a Conference title since 1971. Finally broke through and won 2 Big 10 Titles when I was at OSU (1991 and 1992). Now with Thad Matta, Big 10 championships are expected.  He is a great coach for OSU and I hope he stays for 10 more years. Hope Q and Aaron and the guys keep the tradition going this year!! 

semperfibuck's picture

Matta will soon have the most wins in Buckeye history, but he will surely be the best bball coach in Buckeye history. As a guy who lived through the Taylor years, there is no comparison with Thad. Thad does it all, starting with recruiting. Hope he stays at least 10 more years!

bucksfan92's picture

We are very lucky to have nabbed Matta when he was a very young coach as he is clearly one of, maybe THE best in the business.  I remember being a little worried about that when he was hired, given how fast Ayers, who was about that same age when he got the job, flamed out.  But Matta has been a solid, consistent winner, and does everything clearly above board.  The only issue I have with this article is that statement that OSU had ever dropped below UC, X and Dayton in the state' pecking order.  That is just not true.  OSU has always been and will always be the premier basketball program in the state.  UC did make a run under Huggins, but OSU has never given up top perch status, even in our down years.  Thankfully those seem to be behind us now.
And when talking about "basketball schools" keep this in mind - OSU has more B1G regular season titles than any other school - 22.  We flat out OWN the B1G tourney (or as I like to call it "the OSU Invitational"), and we have been to 11 Final Fours - again more than any B1G school, and more than all but about 5 other schools.  We are also north of 1600 wins all time.  By any measure OSU's history, and current stature, makes it one of the premier basketball programs in the country.