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Commentary: Thad Matta departs Ohio State in an honorable way

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Thad Matta addresses the media for the final time as head coach at Ohio State on June 5, 2017. Credit: Courtesy of 97.1 The Fan

Thad Matta was fired Monday because lately the Ohio State men’s basketball team hasn’t won enough games, and it is an honorable reason to be fired.

There is no shortage of reasons why college coaches are fired, and failure to win enough games is the best of them. Just think about the last two big-time coaches fired at OSU: Jim O’Brien, who Matta succeeded, and Jim Tressel.

Both were removed amid scandal. Both left behind a trail of embarrassment and NCAA sanctions.

Heck, turn back the clock a little further and you can even toss beloved Woody Hayes in there, who was dismissed after punching an opposing player.

Of course, most coaches in college football and basketball are not fired for scandal, covering up a scandal or assault. Most cases are similar to Matta’s, and the phrases we heard Monday during his farewell press conference have become common parlance.

Time for new leadership. A change in direction. Mutually agreed upon.

We’ve heard those phrases over and over, but it’s important for fans — especially OSU fans right now — to remember that a failure to win games does not automatically indicate the failure to build a successful program. That is, we cannot simply let our measure of success be banners and win percentage. They are important, but they cannot become the only thing that matters.

We’ve seen the effects of that thinking already, and they look like Louisville’s Rick Pitino keeping his job despite his program reportedly hiring escorts for recruits, though he denied wrongdoing. They look like Jim Boeheim, of Syracuse, who actually received an extension in March despite having been suspended two years ago after the NCAA found he “failed to monitor his program” while it racked up violation after violation, including academic misconduct and impermissible benefits.

In his 13 seasons leading the Buckeyes, Matta carried himself with grace and integrity, and he built a program with principles and decency. In this column, there is no need to list the number of Big Ten titles he won or how far he took his team in the NCAA tournament. The one stat worth mentioning, Matta brought up himself.

“When I got here, we had a 20 percent graduation rate. We’re up to, I think, 88 percent right now,” he said. “To see these guys walk in here and the one-and-dones that we had and those guys fulfilling their dreams. The stories are countless and I don’t want to be up here all day, but I could tell stories that makes me feel good. Just in terms of what we’re able to accomplish, I’m very proud of it.”

OSU basketball coach Thad Matta laughs as he answers a question during Media Day on Oct. 10, 2013, at the Schottenstein Center. Credit: Lantern file photo

Matta’s former players are proud to call him their coach, too, and many took to social media to share his impact, which speaks volumes about the who he is as a person, not only a coach.

“Your enthusiasm, passion, knowledge, and humor are the reasons why I’m glad I made the decision to become a buckeye when I was 17,” wrote Evan Turner, who was the national player of the year under Matta in 2010, on Instagram. “You helped me weed thru a lot of ups and down in order to be the player and man you knew I could become. I’ll forever love you for that and you’ll always be a legend and great man in my book.”

“Family aside, no one has done more for my life than Coach Matta,” tweeted Mark Titus, a former walk-on and current writer at The Ringer. “Love that man w all my heart and will forever be indebted to him.”

Aaron Craft, one of the most beloved Buckeyes of the Matta era, tweeted, “Man, words can’t describe what Coach meant to me and the program! Wouldn’t have wanted to play for anyone else!”

So, yeah, Matta was fired because his team didn’t win enough. His health issues appeared to play a role, and the struggles in recruiting — which tie directly to the ability to win games — were broached during the press conference. In the end, he used to win a lot of basketball games, and recently he didn’t win as many basketball games, so now he lost his job coaching basketball at OSU.

Coach Thad Matta talks to his players during a game against on Minnesota Feb. 22, 2014, at the Schottenstein Center. Credit: Lantern file photo

“The wins, the losses, those things, they come,” Matta said. “We hit a stretch here that was probably about a five-year stretch as good as anybody in the country in terms of college basketball.”  

Consider this departure in an age where coaches have been fired for throwing basketballs at players, and where entire athletic departments have been plagued by questions of academic misconduct or, in the case of Baylor, covered up sexual assault allegations against its players, and where coaches have been fired after lying to the NCAA during an investigation.

“And I think the last thing that I hope I’m always remembered for is that we always did it the right way,” Matta said.  “That to me is something that I want to hold or hang my hat on. That this program was run the right way.”  

Indeed, Matta built a program the right way, and its sterling reputation remains intact as he departs in the most honorable way a dismissed coach can: because lately he didn’t win enough. 

 

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