Thad Matta And His Wonderful Dead Duck

By Johnny Ginter on December 13, 2013 at 2:30p
Shark creepin'

I once read (or made up in my head) a pretty great but probably entirely fictional anecdote about Harry Truman, during the early days of his presidency.

He's on a pleasure cruise on the Potomac, and an aide of his notices him leaning on the bow of the boat, looking out into the water. "Incredible," the aide thought to himself, "War, the Soviets, trying to figure out how to become the heir to FDR... what kind of thoughts must be racing through this man's head?"

A few minutes later, and Truman comes back to his aide, exclaiming "Hey! See that duck in the water over there? I've been staring at it for 15 minutes, and the damn thing hasn't moved! I think it's dead!"

Thad Matta is Harry Truman in this very very unlikely to have actually happened in real life scenario. Matta is a dude who has dealt with personnel setbacks, physical setbacks, and a brutal conference schedule that annually takes his team through the bowels of the toughest basketball conference in America. And none of that has phased him or even come close to slowing him down.

His response to this adversity has been to win the conference tournament three out of the last four seasons, consistently make noise in March Madness, and continue to win more than 20 games, as he's done every season of his coaching career. Not bad for a guy who outside observers might consider the third or even fourth best coach in the Big Ten.

On March 14th, 2010, Matta's Ohio State Buckeyes beat the absolute living hell out of Minnesota to win the Big Ten Championship. Evan Turner was Mr. Everything for the Buckeyes (as he usually was), scoring 31 points in a game that had a record 29 point margin of victory. Considering that the team had previously gone through a two months stretch where they had been a mediocre 7-5, it'd be appropriate to give credit to Matta for pulling his team out of that funk and into the NCAA tournament with gusto.

When that team eventually lost to Tennessee and noted douchebag Bruce Pearl in the Sweet 16 despite another 31 point performance from Turner, the narrative wasn't "Woah, Thad Matta's a genius, let's see what he can do with Jared Sullinger!" it was "OH GOD TURNER'S LEAVING FOR THE NBA WE'RE SCREWED."

Which is fine, I guess. We're hyperbolic fans who wouldn't notice the dead duck on the river, because we're too busy worrying about things that we have no control over. Matta remained typically cool as a cucumber (or a deceased duck), and the team went ahead and won the Big Ten tournament for a second consecutive year en route to a 32-2 season record.

That accomplishment is kind of insane to me. You lose the consensus best player in America, a guy who led your team in every major offensive category by a lot, and the next year your team is actually better?

That's amazing, but as is Matta's lot, even this was either made about the players or his failure as a coach. That team lost in the Sweet Sixteen again, this time to Kentucky by two points as noted deviant John Calipari bribed the basketball gods to allow his team to shoot a stupid percentage from beyond the arc.

The loss, like a lot of losses in Thad Matta's career, were pinned on him. He didn't receive nearly the credit for the victories, despite completely revamping his team around a player who hadn't played a minute of college ball.

Sullinger returned for his Sophomore year, and things seemed set up for a dominant run, until the Buckeyes dropped three straight games to ranked Big Ten teams. The end of that season is important due a Final Four loss to Kansas that seemed to be not quite the limit of what Thad Matta's squad could've accomplished in the eyes of many. I was not one of those people, but given the heights that Matta had taken the team so quickly upon being hired, it could be understood.

Still, this has become the established pattern for Thad Matta; coach up a certain element of your team, be it Evan Turner, Jared Sullinger, Deshaun Thomas, or the basketball playing Hydra of defense that is the 2013-2014 squad. Win, lose your most important element, completely revamp your team, continue to win at a ridiculous pace, repeat.

He has done this without even a hint of trouble or stress or any sign that changing what his teams fundamentally are on almost a yearly basis has been a burden for him. He just keeps doing his job and looking at ducks, unfazed by the chaos around him. And he has done it on one leg.

Matta's leg and back problems are by now pretty well known to the Ohio State fanbase at large. It worries us, because a 46 year old coach who has never won fewer than 20 games in a season should by all rights be blessed with a body that will allow him to continue being generally awesome for another 25 or 30 seasons. By all rights, Thad Matta should be a third of the way towards being one of the greatest college basketball coaches of all time. The unfairness of the injury that would prevent that from happening would infuriate a lesser person.

Instead, Thad Matta keeps doing his job and enjoying what he does as everyone else gives him either too little credit or too much blame.

Right now, Ohio State is undefeated and considered one of the best teams in the country. They have somehow adjusted to the new foul calling regime in the NCAA, cobbled together a kind of working offense, and coupled that with devastating defense. It's a team that looks little like what was put on the court last year, but it works. Because under Thad Matta, it always works.

When asked about his leg in 2012, Matta had this to say:

"It is what it is. It's the hand I've been dealt," Matta said. "It's definitely affected my mobility, but I can't let it completely change my life. I've never really asked, 'Why me?' "

No he hasn't. Not for his leg, or his back, or the personnel on his team. He's a superstar coach who shrugs his shoulders at adversity and goes back to his perch at the bow of the boat, looking forward.


Comments Show All Comments

Ludwig Yards's picture

Good stuff. We really are pretty damn fortunate to have Thad as our coach.  

Denny's picture

Thad Matta is not Harry Truman because Thad Matta wears single-breasted suit jackets.


hodge's picture

So did the chick in Total Recall.

BeijingBucks's picture

I recall her suit being triple breasted... but I digress

None can love freedom heartily, but good men; the rest love not freedom, but license. ~ John Milton

HYDEYOKIDS's picture

At this point I think you can make a solid argument that Thad Matta is better than Izzo and the best coach in the B1G.

Seattle Linga's picture

Just wait until you see this next class develop into championship material.

Bucknut-in-the-South's picture

I knew Fred Taylor during and after his heyday and thought he was a remarkable coach and a better person. Thad Matta deserves the same kind of credit in an era when consistent excellence is much more difficult to achieve.

alust2013's picture

I think Matta is one of the most underrated coaches in Basketball. That Kentucky loss in 2011 was a giant bummer, because the Buckeyes were by far the best team in the regular season and had a so-so game against a team that was playing out of their minds. Plus that team was so fun to watch, especially the second Wisconsin game. 

...and Michigan still sucks.

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

Love the comparison, Johnny. Truman was an earnest midwesterner, outworked most of his peers with a tireless work ethic, ever the optimist in the face of incredible pressures, consummate overachiever. Sounds like Coach to me. (If you're looking for something to read between bowl games, pick up Truman by David McCollough. Amazing life story.)

ITWASME's picture

And it will just happen all over again after losing aaron craft

Doc's picture

Thad Matta should be worshipped by our fan base. He is a winner and class act. Thad, please stay for as long as you would like. 

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Jack Burton's picture

I love the expression on Mark "The Shark" Titus' face in the photo...not at all impressed with Evan "The Villain" Turner.

It's all in the reflexes - Me

d5k's picture

Throw in some references to "Matta doesn't use his bench enough" next time and you'll have a complete Matta thesis.  I think his best coaching job was the team that lost to Kentucky.  So much rides on the final result which as you point out is often flawed analysis.  If Matta wins a national title it will likely be with a worse team than the one that lost to Kentucky.  That team was about as balanced as you can get in this 1 and done era.

NashBuckeye's picture

I love Matta as our BB Coach. I lived through the 20 years between Big 10 Championships and the depths at the end of the Randy Ayers' era, so I am thrilled with where the program is under Matta. Would have loved to get the NC in 2007 or when Sully was here (thought that was our best shot), but I remember when Coach K went through a stretch where he couldn't win the big one either.  

thatlillefty's picture

Matta is a solid coach and a better person.

I really enjoyed some of the stories bout coach in Titus' book. Between that and his interviews, he seems like a funny dude.

yrro's picture

I don't know anyone even outside of the Big Ten who would put him lower than 2nd in the conference.

chowoon97's picture

Thad Matta is the best coach in the BIG conference, while Tom Izzo have lost many games in a tournament and haven't got better recruiting. I cannot find better person among head coaches than Thad Matta.

bucksfan92's picture

Thad Matta is one of, maybe THE best coach in college basketball.  I really hope his health issues don't get in the way of a long career because I would love to see him stroll our sidelines for another 20-30 years.  He has a tremendous basketball mind, along the lines of Wooden and Knight - the man just knows the game inside and out and has an uncanny knack for having the right combination of players on the floor in crunch time.
I was very concerned when he was hired, being as young as he was, and having lived through the end of the Randy Ayers debacle, that was my only reference point for a young coach.  Boy were my fears unfounded.  Matta is averaging a B1G title per season. That is remarkable!  And look at how he has done it - in his second year with O'B recruits and a JUCO.  In his 3rd with the greatest college basketball freshman class of all time (yes better than the Fab 5 which was a cheating sham anyway). With a veteran team, and with a team of mostly sophomores.  Now in his 10th year he has solidified OSU as the premier program in the B1G and it really isn't even close.  MSU is second and not gaining any ground. There is no other coach I want here and there is no fear of him leaving.  He is in a basketball hotbed, at one of the nation's winningest programs, and with virtually unlimited resources.  It is just a matter of time before he gets that first national title, then watch out - he could win them in bunches.