The making of Butler coach Thad Matta: 'When Reggie Miller lit me up inside Hinkle, I knew'
INDIANAPOLIS — Thad Matta walked out of Hinkle Fieldhouse his head hanging, his bag slung over his shoulder, his mind swirling. He took off toward his dorm room in Ross Hall.
It was 1987 and Matta was a transfer to Butler basketball from Southern Illinois. The campus was hopping that day. Students were laughing on the sidewalks.
Matta didn't notice any of it. He was deep in thought. He was replaying what had just happened on the court.
The Indiana Pacers had shown up to Hinkle. The city's pro team was there to give the Butler Bulldogs a scrimmage in open gym.
"When we checked it up, I was guarding this young 6-7, 190-pound guy named Reggie Miller who was a rookie from UCLA," Matta said last month as he sat on the court at Hinkle. "And he lit me up."
Matta remembers that walk back to Ross Hall — it was the deciding moment of what would become an illustrious career as a college basketball coach.
It was a sad moment in some ways. It was a happy moment in so many others. It was when Matta knew, despite those dreams of a career in the NBA, what he was destined to do.
With three seasons still in front of him as a Butler player, a resolved Matta said to himself as he walked into his dorm room:
"You're not going to the NBA. You're not good enough. After college, we better try this coaching thing."
'He always pushed us'
Cast aside the farfetched pro dreams of a modest basketball player and, the truth is, Matta always knew he would be a coach.
He grew up in Illinois, the son of Jim Matta, a revered high school basketball coach. Matta grew up in the locker rooms, the winning ones where players couldn't wipe the smiles off their faces. The losing ones where, sometimes, the room was so silent and depressing, it seemed as if death loomed.
"Until you've been in both, you don't know what coaching is," said Matta, 54, who returned to Butler earlier this month to lead the team for a second time. "All I wanted to be was my dad. I wanted to be a high school coach. I thought it was the coolest thing I'd ever seen."
As a teen, Matta lived in the Hoopeston-East Lynn High gym. His dad had the keys to the school.
"Thad would take the keys and just open the gym," said Kevin Root, who played high school basketball with Matta and was the son of a teacher and coach. "And I would take my keys."
But, more often than not, when Root showed up to the gym, Matta would already be there.
On his Hoopeston team, Matta was a standout, always the leading scorer and taking them further in state playoffs than the school had ever gone. His senior season, the team finished 31-3
And Matta finished third in Illinois' Mr. Basketball competition.
"That never went to his head," Root said. "He wasn’t arrogant. He wasn’t one of those, 'I'm better than anybody else.'"
Instead, Matta mentored his teammates.
"He always pushed us kind of like he does his players now," Root said. "But he always looked after people and helped people. He was kind of our coach on the floor."
A coach in the making at 17 years old.
'Basketball would be in his life forever'
Before he would be coach, Matta would be a college player. He was a two-year starter for Butler in his three seasons at the school. He led Butler in assists (100) and 3-point field goal percentage (.433) during the 1987–88 season. He led the team in free-throw percentage (.872) in 1988–89.
All the while, his dreams of coaching grew bigger and he made sure those around him knew all about them.
"Are you kidding?" Butler teammate Rick Donovan says laughing. "Oh my goodness, that’s all I ever heard about. 'I want to be a coach.'"
When Donovan first met Matta on the court at Hinkle, he exuded "small town guy."
"We hit it off right away because our main interest was to play hoops," Donovan said. "He was a great guy and you knew right away that Thad didn't know a stranger. He just treated everybody the same, treated everybody with respect, was always friendly, upbeat, it didn't matter who it was. People warmed to him very quickly."
That personality has been a key to Matta's coaching successes. But Donovan had no idea back in the late 1980s just how far his teammate would take that dream.
"You knew he was headed down that path from early on. You knew that guy was an absolute gym rat," said Donovan. "You knew he would have this game involved in his life forever. I didn't know it would be at this level."
Matta finished his career sixth on Butler's all-time list for free-throw percentage (.800). He graduated in 1990.
He would spend the next decade as an assistant coach at Indiana State, Butler, Miami (Ohio), Western Carolina, back to Miami and back to Butler.
In 2000, when Barry Collier left Butler as coach after 11 seasons for Nebraska, Matta got his first head coaching job -- at the age of 32.
'He was the one that deserved it'
On April 8, 2000, exactly 14 years to the day that Matta first visited Butler on a recruiting trip with his father, he was named Butler's head coach.
It was surreal.
"We drove over to Indianapolis and walked into Hinkle Fieldhouse," Matta told the Indianapolis Star in 2000 of that recruiting trip. "I turned to my father and said, 'This is home.' It's weird how things work themselves out."
Weird and magical. Matta took over at Butler 22 years ago after being an assistant at the school for four seasons, during which the team had four consecutive 20-win seasons and four consecutive postseason appearances, three in the NCAA.
"This is a dream of mine," Matta said at the 2000 news conference inside Hinkle. "This is a good situation to walk into. Somebody said that coach Collier left the cupboard full, but I like to consider myself the stock boy."
As Collier prepared to leave Butler, he made sure the school knew who he thought should take his place. He went to administration and vigorously advocated for Matta's promotion. Players did the same.
"We had to voice our opinion. A lot of guys would have been disappointed if he hadn't got the job. He was the one that deserved it," said sophomore Rylan Hainje after Matta was named coach. "He's been here with us through the thick and thin. We wanted to keep it in the family."
'Enjoy this. It may never happen again'
Matta made his head coaching debut Nov. 18, 2000, inside Hinkle facing Eastern Illinois. With 11:08 left in the first half, Matta got a technical foul.
He laughs about it now; Butler won 90-73. But that technical is still one of his favorite memories of that single season he coached at Butler before leaving for Xavier after leading the Bulldogs to a school record 24 wins.
"My buddies were sitting up in the corner and there's only 2,000 people here," Matta said. "And they were cheering as loud as they possibly could because I got T'd up."
In his one season at Butler, Matta was named 2000–01 Midwestern Collegiate Conference Coach of the Year and national "Rookie Coach of the Year" by CBS SportsLine.com and College Insider.com.
The team made it to the second round of the NCAA tournament when eventual runner-up Arizona ended Butler's run.
That run was magical for a first-time head coach. When Butler won the conference championship tournament against Detroit at Wright State, sending Butler back to the NCAA tournament for the fourth time in five years, Matta remembers exactly what he told his players.
"As we cut down the nets, I said, 'Hey, look, enjoy this,'" he said. "'It may never happen again.'"
Of course, it did happen for Butler many more times after Matta left. He, too, went on to have those same great moments as he rose in the ranks of Division I coaching.
After Xavier, Matta spent 13 seasons at Ohio State, leading the team to five Big Ten Conference regular season championships, four Big Ten Tournament titles, two Final Four appearances and the 2008 NIT Championship. He is the winningest coach in Ohio State history.
Matta was building a Hall of Fame-caliber coaching career when he was forced to step away from coaching at Ohio State in 2017 due to health issues he had been battling for years.
After back surgery in 2007, Matta woke up to a permanent disability to his right foot called "drop foot." It causes his foot to drag on the ground when he walks.
"I wouldn't have taken this job, just to address the elephant in the room, if I didn't think I was physically capable," Matta said at the news conference announcing his hiring as Butler coach. "I'm not going to die. My foot doesn't work. That's it.
"I've punched my ticket and I'm ready for another heck of a ride."
'I could tell he missed the coaching'
Barbara Matta, a board member of A Kid Again, which provides free adventures to families with children who have critical conditions, would come home from a long day of volunteering.
She would look at her husband and she knew deep in her soul that Matta needed to be back on the sidelines.
"I called him the other day and he had a recruit coming in," said Barbara Matta, who met her husband at Butler. "I just said, 'Thank you,' because it feels normal again."
During his four years at home, Matta would sit in his office and friends would call. Usually, the conversation would turn to basketball.
"He always kept that basketball mind going," Barbara Matta said. "I could tell he was just missing the coaching part. I said, 'Thad you have such a great basketball mind. The sitting there is not going to last.'"
Before returning to Butler, Matta spent the 2021-22 season as the associate athletic director for Indiana and the men's basketball team. And his wife was right. The slower pace, the noncoaching pace, wasn't for him.
"It was funny because I haven't had to make decisions in the last five years at the pace that I'm doing now," he said. "Used to be, you'd wake up and say, 'OK what do you want to do for dinner tonight?' That was my big decision of the day."
Now, Matta wakes up to eight text messages with questions for him.
"Everything is coming at you a million miles an hour," he said. "It's like OK, you're back in the saddle. Here we go."
'Get this program back to relevance'
Matta has been pondering what he wants for the Butler program that is now his to lead.
"This is a completely different job than when I was here in 2000. Butler's a different university," he said. "I think the biggest goal I have is to get this program back to relevance."
Relevance in the Big East. Matta was so entrenched in his job at Ohio State, in the Big Ten, that when he retired and came back to Butler games as a fan, he learned just what the Big East was.
"My season tickets were right there," he said pointing to seats off the court. "I knew the Big East was good. I didn't know how good of a conference and competitive it was from the coaching, the players and the venues that you have to go play in now. I was shocked."
If anyone can get Butler back, it's Matta, said Donovan. "He just brings that extra layer of care, extra layer of confidence across the Butler fan base," he said. "People feel like they got the right guy."
For Matta, returning to coaching is bittersweet. It was his dad who sparked his love of the game and his dream to be a coach. Jim Matta died in January.
"I just wanted to be him. I thought it was the greatest thing I'd ever seen, being a coach," Matta said. "He never worked a day in his life and I haven't either.
"And now to be back at Butler? This is home. This has always felt like home."