On March 8, Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith announced that Thad Matta would be back as his basketball coach in 2017-18. On June 5, Smith changed his mind and announced the decision he probably should have made in the first place.
It was time for a change.
The two had a regularly scheduled meeting last Friday, and after hearing about recruiting misses at least partly fueled by rivals using Matta’s well-known health issues against him, Smith reversed course. Matta was done at Ohio State, and the coach said he agreed with the decision.
Suddenly, jarringly, there is a big-time job open in college basketball. And at least one potential prime candidate for that job is almost assuredly no longer available.
Specifically, it’s not Miller Time in Columbus. Archie Miller, a former Matta assistant at Ohio State who was long believed to covet the Ohio State job, left Dayton for Big Ten rival Indiana. And there’s no way Archie’s brother, Sean – another former Matta assistant – will leave likely preseason No. 1 Arizona. (Not now and probably not ever, given the very different status of basketball at Arizona vs. basketball at Ohio State.)
Smith announced a national search during Ohio State’s Monday news conference to inform a startled fan base of the end of Matta’s highly accomplished run. But he acknowledged that June is not the ideal place on the calendar to jump into this endeavor.
“Obviously, this time is not the best,” Smith said.
(If it’s late spring in Columbus, stand by for bombshell news. It was May 30, 2011, when Jim Tressel stunningly resigned as Ohio State football coach. Six years later, Matta is out as basketball coach with no advance warning.)
You wonder whether Smith’s tangible affection and respect for Matta led him to make a March decision he’d regret come June, and to miss out on what might have been the best man for the job. Most of us would rather have a boss who is too loyal over one who isn’t loyal enough – but we’ll see how much the timing of this affects Ohio State’s ability to make another home-run hire.
That’s what Matta has been since the school grabbed him from Xavier in 2004: He took the Buckeyes to two Final Fours, five Big Ten titles and won 73 percent of his games. He did great work.
But in recent years Matta was worn down physically and mentally, to the point that he appeared far older than his 49 years.
It’s almost 10 years to the day since Matta had a back surgery that went wrong, resulting in chronic pain and decreased mobility in his right foot. Watching him labor to stand, to walk, to do much of anything on the sidelines is to see a man who has endured a lot to do his job.
He also had to be worn down by the losing and underachieving that marked the latter stages of his Ohio State tenure. Matta’s win total declined for the last six years, from 34 in 2011 to 31, 29, 25, 24, 21 and finally 17 last season. A streak of seven straight NCAA tournament appearances was stopped in 2016, and last year’s team was the worst he’s ever coached.
When the normally controlled Matta went after freshman JaQuan Lyle during the 2016 Big Ten tournament with a startling ferocity, it looked like a man who was snapping. Hands on Lyle’s shoulders, face fiery red and just inches from Lyle’s, this was edging beyond intense coaching toward absolute rage.
Perhaps we should have known then. Lyle was the star of a highly rated, six-man recruiting class in 2015 that has become an utter bust: None of them are still Buckeyes just two years later. There were no Mike Conleys, Greg Odens or Aaron Crafts in that class, and it cost Matta dearly.
The complete loss of a recruiting class in two years is part of what ails modern college basketball – the sheer impermanence of it. When he wasn’t tearing up or quoting the Grateful Dead at his news conference, Matta talked about how different the game is now than when he started.
He sounded like an old coach. He looked like an old coach. And yet he’s at an age when so many coaches are hitting their prime. Nobody ever said life is fair.
Someone asked Matta if he thought he’d still be the coach of the Buckeyes if he were fully healthy.
“Yeah,” Matta said. “Probably.”
Instead, he will move into an uncertain future and Ohio State will move into an uncertain search.
Fortunately for Smith, he’s still selling an A-list job: Ohio State has a huge athletic budget, a massive fan base and plenty of quality recruits in the area. So even if it’s not Miller Time in Columbus, there will not be a lack of other high-caliber candidates.
You couldn’t blame Smith if he at least put in a call to Billy Donovan to check his satisfaction level in the NBA. If that goes nowhere, Smith could conveniently drive south on I-71 to Cincinnati to talk to Xavier’s Chris Mack or west on I-70 to Indianapolis for a chat with Butler’s Chris Holtmann. After four straight NCAA bids at Providence, Ed Cooley could be an attractive candidate.
Holtmann has gotten extraordinary commitment out of Butler, which gave him a third straight contract extension this spring – he’s under contract until 2025. Mack and Cooley both signed contract extensions in spring 2016.
Then there is Gregg Marshall, just sitting out there in the plains of Kansas winning games year after year. But the timing isn’t great there, either: Marshall should start 2017-18 with a top-10 team at Wichita State, and he has as much job security in his current position as any non-power-conference coach in America.
Other options could present themselves as Gene Smith embarks on his search. But he’s working under a time crunch of his own making, and he might already have missed out on the ideal candidate. That’s a heck of a potential price to pay for loyalty to a coach.