It was during the summer that Thad Matta made a triumphant public return to Columbus. With a host of his former players taking part in The Basketball Tournament, the former Ohio State coach attended a game at nearby Capital University to a rousing ovation from a Buckeye-heavy crowd.
Wednesday night, Matta will be taking in his official former team at the behest of current coach Chris Holtmann and athletic director Gene Smith. The program’s all-time winningest coach, who was fired just shy of 18 months ago, will be recognized at halftime along with his family.
>>VIDEO: Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann in recognizing Thad Matta at halftime of the Syracuse game
“I think he’s incredibly deserving of all of the goodwill that comes his way,” Holtmann said Tuesday afternoon. “I was really excited that Gene spearheaded this idea and I think Buckeye Nation, the reception they gave him in the summer was tremendous. I’m sure, and I hope, that he and his family are going to feel that kind of reception and then some because he’s deserving. He did an extraordinary job for his tenure here, and did it the right way.”
In his 13 seasons with the Buckeyes, Matta won 337 games, reached two Final Fours and one national championship game. The Buckeyes won five Big Ten regular season titles and four conference championships while recruiting and producing players such as Greg Oden, Mike Conley, Evan Turner, Jared Sullinger, Aaron Craft and D’Angelo Russell.
He was let go in June, 2017, after the Buckeyes finished 17-15 overall and did not make a postseason tournament. Owing to a concert at Value City Arena on Tuesday night, Holtmann’s press conference took place inside a practice facility that did not exist when Matta was hired and roughly 15 feet from where Matta and Smith sat for the press conference announcing his firing.
Since then, Matta has moved to Indianapolis and has been present around the Butler program. An alumnus, it’s also where Matta got his first head coaching job.
The decision to choose the Syracuse game, which is part of the ACC-Big Ten Challenge, was Matta’s, Holtmann said, and owed somewhat to one of his daughters scheduled to be away next semester on a trip.
“The game was his choice,” Holtmann said. “Gene had mentioned it a while back about wanting to bring Thad and his family back. We had talked a little about it last year, but I think the timing was better this year. I can understand, I think Thad wanted his family here.”
Following the halftime recognition, Matta will be available for interviews. He declined an interview request from The Dispatch leading into the night.
Holtmann, who came to Ohio State from Butler, described the two as casual friends. Matta’s wife, Barb, has helped Holtmann’s wife, Lori, settle into the area, Holtmann said.
Of the current roster, only three remaining players suited up for Matta: senior guards C.J. Jackson and Joey Lane and junior forward Andre Wesson. Sophomore center Kaleb Wesson was committed to play for Matta and remained with the program through the coaching change.
“Obviously I believe in and think highly of him, wanting to come and play for him,” said Jackson, who said he didn’t know about Matta’s return until asked about it by a reporter Tuesday. “It’s real exciting to see him again since the summer when we had the games earlier in the summer. We saw him then and to see him again will be unbelievable. I’m excited.”
Matta, his wife and daughters Ali and Emily will all be recognized, and Holtmann confirmed the news with a post to Twitter earlier Tuesday. Holtmann said there was no concern about awkwardness concerning Matta returning so soon after the coaching change.
“None whatsoever,” Holtmann said. “Thad and his family, and I include his family because all of us who know coaches know that your wife and your kids go through the joys, the highs and the lows, as much as you do, and they’re deserving of being recognized as well. We are recognizing coach Matta and his family and their incredible contributions to this university and obviously the basketball program.
“That should be hopefully a really rewarding night for him and his family as they get a chance to come back.”