As someone who respects Thad Matta as a flat-out winner who ran a college basketball program that never ran afoul of the NCAA, and who seemed to have his values in the right order amid a racket of nefarious street agents, AAU money launderers and cutthroat recruiters, I must say there remains something troubling about his retirement, or his mutually agreed departure, or his firing, or whatever happened to him. The truth is elusive.
One day in March, Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith issued a public vote of confidence for Matta and understated Matta’s accomplishments as “highly commendable.”
One day in June, Smith announced that Matta will no longer be coaching at Ohio State because “it was time for a change in our men’s basketball program.”
It was suggested that a rough patch of recruiting and a few player deflections caused Smith to act. It was implied that Matta’s health — back and leg ailments have plagued him — was an issue. The word “retire” was never uttered. Neither was the word “fired.” It had the feel of a dog-and-pony show.
There is an old Russian saying: “Don’t believe anything until the Kremlin denies it.” The Ohio State equivalent, it seems, is, “Beware the vote of confidence.”
“We all thought Coach Matta was coming back for another year,” former guard Jon Diebler said.
Diebler is part of a contingent of former Buckeyes — some of them playing professionally here or overseas, others looking to catch on somewhere — who are gathered the Ohio State practice facility, working on their team game. They are readying for the next round of The Basketball Tournament, a winner-take-all event made to fill ESPN summer-programming slots.
This Scarlet & Gray team, largely consisting of former Buckeyes who had great success under Matta, has made it to the round of 16. It will play Always A Brave (a group of Bradley University alumni) at noon Saturday. The winner will play in a regional final at noon Sunday. The games are in Brooklyn and will be aired on ESPN.
“Every summer we come back and play with each other,” said Dallas Lauderdale, one of the bigs. “We’ve been doing it for free for so many years. Why not try to win $2 million?”
The OSU basketball practice facility, completed after the football program ran out of amenities to install at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center, is a testament to what Matta accomplished before he was summarily something-or-anothered.
“Look what he has done here,” said former guard Aaron Craft, raising his hands to the walls, which are festooned with reminders of OSU’s basketball exploits. Matta led the Buckeyes to five Big Ten regular-season championships, four Big Ten tournament titles and two Final Four appearances (including one championship game) during his 13 seasons.
Matta’s former players said that, to the best of their knowledge, Matta had been cleared by his doctors to coach and that was his aim.
“It shocked everybody,” former guard William Buford said.
Let me be clear: Thad’s Boys were not carping about any of this. None of them had a bad word to say about Matta’s successor, Chris Holtmann. They were just answering questions.
Matta’s something-or-another was indeed a shock.
Suddenly, at the start of an important recruiting period, the school ushered away the most successful coach in program history. There is something strange about that, no matter the circumstances.
Matta got golden parachute worth $9 million, which is a princely sum as far as hush money goes, but it was an odd ending to a great run in a secondary sport at the great state university. Maybe, only the late, great Fred Taylor can understand. I wish he was still around, too.