CHICAGO — When Ohio State took the court against Minnesota in the Big Ten Tournament, Buckeye coach Thad Matta had a fresh layer of stubble coating his normally shaven face.
“I’m a rugged dude,” Matta joked after his team dispatched the Golden Gophers, 79-73, Thursday night at the United Center.
Jokes aside, Matta said he had an explanation when his players inquired about his new facial hair.
“They asked me the other day, the said, ‘You haven’t shaved?’” he said. “And I said, ‘No, because I haven’t shaved since the Wisconsin game, every time you look at me I want you to think about that game.’”
The game in question was Sunday’s 72-48 blowout loss against the No. 6 Badgers on senior day. But after the Buckeyes’ felt the sting of defeat in the final regular season game of the season, their first postseason victory came with an added bonus.
Matta is in the midst of his 11th season as OSU’s head coach, and Thursday’s victory marked his 298th win since joining the Buckeyes. That number moves him one spot ahead of Fred Taylor for the all-time program wins record.
Senior guard Shannon Scott, who scored a career-high 21 points against Minnesota, said it was a “great feeling” to help his coach lock up the record.
“He has done a great job with this program,” Scott said. “Turning it around the way he did, he got to the Final Four many times, but he wants to keep winning.”
While the official OSU record books will have Matta’s name atop the wins chart, the former Xavier and Butler coach said the accolade means more to him because of the support he’s received from his family.
“It means a lot to me for three people: my wife and my two kids,” Matta said. “Because what I’ve been through the last eight years has been very, very challenging.”
On June 16, 2007, Matta underwent back surgery, but a complication left him with only partial functionality in his foot. Since then, he said he hasn’t been able to do everything he’d like as a husband and as a father.
“But they’ve never left my side,” Matta said of his wife and children. “They gotta take my shoes and socks off after games because I can’t bend over. They’re always right there to help me through the good and the bad. So for them, it means a lot for me for those three because of what they’ve done to help me.”
But even with his health issues, Matta has persevered as the Buckeyes’ coach, winning at least 20 games in every season since he joined OSU, all with his family and his players by his side.
“I love coaching basketball and I love Ohio State University,” Matta said. “Every day that I have the opportunity to lead those guys into battle, I cherish those moments.”