Thad Matta the Undefeated, Inscrutable to the Last

By Johnny Ginter on February 27, 2015 at 2:10 pm

The first and only time I've been in the same room as Thad Matta was in 2012, and it was more than enough to give me eternal respect for the guy.

A while back, one of the neighbors on our block in Middletown named Mark Kerns started a scholarship fundraiser called the Pigskin Roundball, an event with a silent auction and pricey tickets and football and basketball coaches doing their best rubber chicken stump speech. It's an amazing event, and is also the reason why I got to meet Earle Bruce as a little kid and confuse him with Abe Lemons. C'est la vie.

Anyway, I went to the 2012 edition and did an okay-ish writeup of getting to hear from Urban and Fickell for the first time in their new roles with Ohio State, but by far my favorite part of the experience is Thad Matta cracking jokes about Xavier fans about 20 minutes from the campus that he spurned for Ohio State, and then laughing harder than anyone in the room at what he'd just said.

That's right kids, it's the annual "let's talk glowingly about how lucky we are that Thad Matta deigns to coach at Ohio State" article.

Ohio State is not having a stellar season, which is why this is the perfect time for it.

Last night Thad Matta won his 20th game this season, something that he's done in every single one of his 15 seasons as a head basketball coach. In an era when big time college sports programs are basically guaranteed 12 wins by beating up on the St. Turgid of the Wet Blankets of the world, that might seem less than impressive, but his contemporary Tom Izzo has three seasons in that same time period with less than 20.

In those 15 seasons, Matta has reached the Sweet Sixteen or better a total of six times, five of those with Ohio State. Only twice has a Thad Matta coached team not reached March Madness, once because of NCAA sanctions, and the other because the selection committee was really, really stupid that year (the 2007-08 team beat the crap out of everyone in the NIT, and then right afterward screamed that "[t]his is what happens" when you ignore a good Thad Matta-coached squad).

Records aren't everything, but it's important to note that before Matta's arrival, Jim O'Brien had led Ohio State to the bottom of the Big Ten standings two straight years, despite a resume that included a Final Four. Consistency is damn near impossible to come by in college coaching, and Thad Matta provides that in spades. We can gripe about player development and lineups and defensive systems all we want, but the success that Matta has brought to Ohio State is really remarkable.

So allow me to posit this idea: Thad Matta is the greatest coach in Ohio State history.

Okay, to be fair he doesn't have a ton of competition. Fred Taylor is the only coach that really even comes close, and that's mainly on the strength of more seasons overall and possession of the Buckeyes' lone national championship in 1960. Still, you'd be hard pressed not to win a 'ship with Jerry "LeBron of the 60s" Lucas on your team, and aside from five or six really brilliant seasons, Taylor was a mediocre coach who was subject to the same ups and downs that most coaches seem to be beholden to.

"Most." Thad Matta has never had a truly bad season, and he probably never will. Even the 2014-15 Buckeyes, an infuriating one trick pony that most of the time seems like a bunch of jai-alai players who just learned the rules of basketball back in October, aren't particularly bad; they're merely mediocre, and like a negligent mother, Matta's constant spoiling of us with sweet, sweet success is also his greatest failing.

Actually, that's not true. It's ours, but that is a lot of what being an Ohio State fan is all about.

That's still not why I think Thad Matta is the greatest coach in Ohio State history.

It's because despite a right foot that he can't feel, a brace on his leg that he needs to keep from falling over, and a back that has caused him progressively more pain since he was a teenager, Matta has been living his life in exactly the way that he's wanted to: coaching as much basketball and making as many lame jokes and chewing as much floor gum as he possibly can before his body won't allow him to do it any longer.

This great video from CBS Sports is peak Thad Matta. It's glorious to watch a person who clearly loves his job get to do said job in exactly the place he wants to be, but it's bittersweet to know that his time doing so is limited.

The next time you watch an Ohio State game, pay close attention to him. Not just because his is the face of a guy quite literally suffering for his craft, but more because we're not going to have him around forever. He deserves to be elevated to the pantheon of the great Buckeye idols in the immediacy of the present, not the nostalgia of the future.

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