Matta made two Final Fours in his 13 years in Columbus, but his health problems and the team's recent struggles added up.
Photo by Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports
In 13 years as the head basketball coach at Ohio State, Thad Matta delivered two great teams, a few great players, and much more success than failure. This is how someone lasts in a job as stressful and difficult as Head Men's Basketball Coach At The Ohio State University, but it is also how you can come to be relieved of such a gig. Matta was good enough at his job to raise expectations to a level that he eventually could not sustain. Complications from the most recent in a series of back surgeries in 2007 left Matta walking with a limp and neurological damage in his foot, and both Ohio State athletic director. Gene Smith and Matta himself cited his health problems as the main reason why Matta would be leaving the team, effective immediately, in a Monday press conference.
It was not the only reason. Matta's first decade of success at the school had petered out noticeably towards mediocrity in recent years; his five-man 2015 recruiting class was regarded as one of the best, if not the best, in the nation, but none of those players remain with the program. Trevor Thompson left for the NBA Draft; JaQuan Lyle, the most recent defection, just plain left. The Buckeyes ended last season with a loss to Rutgers in the Big Ten Tournament, and missed the NCAA Tournament for the second straight year; they are poised to enter next season with only nine scholarship players on the roster out of a possible 13. This was the turning point for Smith.
"We weren't winning the battles in recruiting that I thought we had a chance to win, so as we started talking about that on Friday ... the flow of the conversation took me to the reality."
Smith said that Matta will assist in finding and hiring his successor, and Monday's press conference made the parting seem as amicable as possible. The Buckeyes' next coach—the usual big names are being bandied about as candidates, with CBS' Gary Parrish adding Thunder head coach Billy Donovan to the mix—will enter the July recruiting period with the advantages that come with recruiting for Ohio State, and the broader disadvantage of having to sell a program that is now unmistakably in decline.
Much of what that next coach will have to sell, though, has been built by Matta over the last decade and change. His teams made the Final Four in 2007, with Greg Oden and Mike Conley and Daequan Cook, and then again in 2012 with a team led by Aaron Craft and Jared Sullinger, and made the Sweet 16 five times. He's the school's all-time leader in wins and won more Big Ten titles during his 13 years on the job than any other coach in the conference. It's a track record to be proud of, but also this is college basketball—that sort of thing is never enough, and never as important as what comes next. On Monday, Matta said that, for him, the next priority is getting healthy; at 49, he could very well wind up coaching again if he's physically up to it. For Ohio State, it's getting the program back onto the trajectory that Matta set during his first decade on the job.