It's easy to be a Thad Matta fan.
Aside from all the winning that he did over the years at Ohio State (and, as the coach with the most victories in program history, he did a lot of it), Matta is a genuinely funny, self-effacing, and straightforward human being. I covered a charity/scholarship event for Eleven Warriors all the way back in 2012, and the three speakers were Urban Meyer, Luke Fickell, and Thad Matta. Matta was, by far, the most engaging of the three, but that's maybe because his Buckeye team was coming off the second Final Four appearance of his tenure and third straight regular season conference championship. Urban hadn't yet accomplished anything at Ohio State, and Luke Fickell, well...
Anyway, at the time I didn't really have many expectations for the event. I figured it'd just be some boilerplate speeches about teamwork and success while we all ate rubber chicken lunches, and for most of the afternoon that's exactly what happened. Then Matta got up on the podium:
(Thad Matta) [...] barreled into a story about him doing Lucas a solid by speaking at one of his memory conferences, and then displayed his utter incompetence at memorization by attempting and then failing to remember the names of like five people in the audience. I don't know what purpose that bit served, but Matta thought it was funny as hell, which made me laugh pretty hard.
...The real meat of his speech was that his approach to coaching at Ohio State, and why he believes he's successful, is that he wanted his players to take ownership of the program.
On day one he declared to his team that they were "331st of 331 D-1 teams," and that he wanted them to "build something."
That year was the high-water mark of Matta's tenure at Ohio State, and how most people, I think, want to remember his time in Columbus. Because at that point, he certainly had built something. An NCAA runner-up, two Final Fours, four straight years as either a Big Ten regular season or conference tournament champion, four straight NCAA Tournament appearances in the Sweet Sixteen or better, and, hell, let's throw in the NIT championship while we're at it.
Of course, that's not how things ended for Matta in Columbus. His last few years in Columbus saw progressively worse returns in terms of wins, conference contention, and postseason prestige. Effort on the court seemed to diminish. Big time recruits failed to develop, and entire (very highly rated) recruiting classes fled in short order. In Matta's final season, the Buckeyes were 17-15, tied for 10th in the Big Ten, and not invited to any postseason tournaments.
It would be wrong to talk about all of that without mentioning Matta's ongoing health issues, even if that's not something he ever used as an excuse. But in his own words:
“I went through a year where I couldn’t walk. I couldn’t take my shoes off after a game. I couldn’t take my pants off after a game,” Matta said. “The stuff I had to go through in terms of being serviceable … but, maybe to a fault, I always fought.”
According to the man himself, he's now healthy and ready to take on college basketball once again, which is fantastic to hear because the game is much better with him in it. That's something that, despite how his career at Ohio State ended, I think fans recognized both then and now. I went back and read our reporting on Matta's dismissal, and the comment sections of all of our articles are filled with an appreciation for the man and what he accomplished in Columbus.
But with an acknowledgement that it was time to move on.
And that's what I find most interesting about Thad Matta returning to coach at Butler; when does administration and fans decide that it's time to move on from a coach? What standard is created by a successful coach, and what are the expectations for the person that follows them?
Because we now have a very interesting situation in Columbus and Indianapolis. At Ohio State, a head coach with close ties to Butler, who took over the Buckeyes after their incoming head coach was fired. And from the perspective of Butler, a prodigal son (Matta only coached at Butler for one season) returning to maybe show their departed coach how much he's missing. It is inevitable that these two coaches, teams, and schools will be using one another as a measuring stick of success, and I find that fascinating.
The unsaid challenge here is to Chris Holtmann. Thad Matta left Ohio State more amicably than had been seen from a head coach of a revenue sport in decades. Fans wanted him gone but also still loved him for what he was able to accomplish. In the coming years, Holtmann will have to figure out a way to build that kind of good will in Columbus while at the same time being increasingly compared to the man that he followed.