This afternoon the news broke that Thad Matta, Ohio State’s long-time men’s basketball coach, was stepping down due to health reasons. The move is somewhat of a surprise, as he is one of the most successful active coaches in the league. His health has been an issue for some time, however:
Matta: “I went through a year where I couldn’t walk. I couldn’t take my shoes off after a game, my pants off after a game."— Tim Shoemaker (@TimShoemaker) June 5, 2017
Among the 14 active coaches in the conference he is one of only four that have won a conference crown:
Big Ten Championships among active coaches:
Tom Izzo - 7 regular season titles, 5 conference tournament titles
Thad Matta – 5 regular season, 4 conference tournament
John Beilein - 2 regular season, 1 conference tournament
Matt Painter - 2 regular season, 1 conference tournament
Everyone else: Nothing
Since Illinois pulled off the double in 2005 with their national runner-up team only six schools: Purdue, Wisconsin, Ohio State, Michigan State, Michigan, and Indiana, have won either the Big Ten Tournament or the regular season title. Bo Ryan (retired) and Tom Crean (fired) have since departed those schools, but for a very long time Matta was up there with Izzo as the class of the conference. Along with Painter and Izzo he has been the Big Ten’s Coach of the Year three teams, only trailing Ryan, Gene Keady, and Bob Knight.
Against Purdue, Matta’s run was even more dominant. Matta took over at Ohio State before the 2004-05 season. In that time he was 17-10 against Purdue, with three of Purdue’s wins coming in the last four games (and a few of Matta’s worst teams). That has allowed Ohio State to take an 89-86 lead in the all-time series with the Boilermakers, making them the one Big Ten program with a winning record all-time against Purdue. Purdue played Ohio State seven times when Matta had them in the top 5 nationally and went 1-6. The only win was E’Twaun’s memorable 38 Special in 2011.
It wasn’t so much that Matta’s Ohio State teams were great, either. It was that he came into Indiana, using connections that he forged here long ago, and he kept taking the best players. Mike Conley. Greg Oden. Deshaun Thomas. Mark Titus. JaQuan Lyle. Trevor Thompson. Matta was recruiting circles around Painter during much of his tenure. As a result, he went to two Final Fours, nearly won a national title, and ruled the Big Ten.
It seemed like Matta always had Purdue’s number both on and off the court, so in that regard I won’t miss seeing him on the sidelines. When a major program like Ohio State goes into limbo with a depleted roster (they currently list only 10 players on the active roster, two of them freshmen) just five months before the season it certainly helps Purdue in its quest for Big Ten titles. In that regard, this is a good thing.
It is a bad thing overall for the Big Ten, however, because Matta was a genuinely nice guy and a damn good coach. He leaves Ohio State as the program’s all-time leader in wins, and even though I am not as entrenched as media as others, I have a great personal story involving Matta.
The only time I went to Big Ten basketball media days was before the 2010-11 season. The previous year Matta had shared the Big Ten title with Purdue and Michigan State with National Player of the Year Evan Turner. Naturally, the talk at the media day would be how the Buckeyes would respond after losing such a great player.
The thing about these events is that everyone always asks the same dull questions. It usually comes in the form of “Talk about…” Knowing this, I took the initiative in the general Q&A session. Instead of asking him how he was going to cope without turner, I asking him how he was going to cope without blogger extraordinaire Mark Titus, who had graduated the year before. As a devoted reader of Club Trillion I know Mark kept guys loose and, even though he could be a troublemaker, did a lot to keep the team in a good mood.
Matta blinked, then laughed and actually answered the question. Later on he spotted me in the hallway of the hotel and actually thanked me, personally, for asking. He told me it was one of the best questions he had ever been asked in a press conference.
All this was directed at a random blogger who far too often tweets before he thinks. It meant a lot to me that he thanked me and bridged the sometime acrimonious gap between media and coaches.
The Big Ten lost a great coach today. It was frustrating to play those excellent Ohio State teams, but at the same time I respected the hell out of them. Matta was part of a solid circle of Big Ten coaches what is now one member smaller, and the conference will struggle for a bit as a result of it. The ending was not solid, as Thad’s recruiting had peaked and the last few teams were not nearly as good as previous ones, but for 13 seasons Matta had the Buckeyes regularly in the top 15 and as the class of the Big Ten.
You have to respect that.