ATHENS — Thad Matta was back in Athens on Tuesday, and this time he brought his wife, Barbara. So it’s appears more and more likely that he’ll be named Georgia’s men’s basketball coach.
And that’s a good thing. I like the thought of Georgia hiring Matta. Love it, actually.
Yes, Matta comes with qualifiers — like the rest of us in the human race, I guess. But it’s better he comes with an “if” than a “but.”
Based on everything I’ve been able to gather, there are only one or two possible reasons Matta hasn’t been announced yet as the Bulldogs’ next basketball coach: (1) The school is still doing a complete background check on him, which is diligent and responsible; (2) He is mulling the offer but is expecting — or already has — other offers to consider.
The first shouldn’t be a problem. The second could be.
In the meantime, I decided to do my own background check. Now I’m not privy to personnel and medical records like UGA would be as a potential employer. So I turned to the place people like me usually do. I talked to other writers.
I reached out to some of the writers who have covered Matta through the years at Ohio State. You might’ve noted, he did some pretty good work there. Like, actually, an over-the-moon level of success.
And it’s not like it’s ancient history. He won fewer than 20 games with the Buckeyes only once in his 13 seasons there and that was the last one, which ended with a 17-15 record and him getting fired. You might also note that they take their basketball serious up in Big Ten country.
Matta took Ohio State to the Final Four just five years before that (2012) and led the Buckeyes to the national championship game in his third season. I’ve mentioned this every time I’ve written about him so far, but it bears repeating that he’s No. 29 in career winning percentage (.740) on the list of all-time coaches and is within the top 15 for the last 50 years. That’s ahead of such notable coaches as Rick Pitino (.739), Phog Allen (.735), Jim Boeheim (.735), Lute Olson (.731), Gregg Marshall (.727), Lou Carnesecca (.724) and Larry Brown (.723).
Again, that’s while coaching at the hoops havens of Ohio State, Xavier and Butler. But you’ve heard all that.
Here’s some things you might not have heard:
- He’s not old. Yes, he looks old. He’s 50, which is not old, and he won’t be 51 until July.
- He’s funny. Most pictures of Matta tend to be of him with that “hate refs” scowl so many coaches possess. But I’m told he has a dry wit about him and is a great storyteller and loves to tell jokes. He’s a big Will Ferrell fan and quotes the Grateful Dead and the Allman Brothers.
- His general reputation as a coach is that he recruits great players and gives them a lot of freedom on the court. It’s been said, “If you can’t play for Thad, you can’t play for anybody.”
- Matta doesn’t claim a lot of hobbies outside reading. He’s all about basketball.
- He has recruited Georgia — and recently. He got point guard Shannon Scott out of Milton in Alpharetta and center Daniel Giddens from Mableton by way of Oak Hill Academy. The latter didn’t work out well. Giddens transferred to Alabama where he’s now a sophomore.
- Matta is like former Georgia coach Mark Fox in that he hates, and is outspoken against, cheating in basketball recruiting. He lost a couple of high-profile commitments in recent years under questionable circumstances.
- He’s expected to bring former assistants Greg Paulus and Dave Dickerson with him to Georgia. Both were with him at Ohio State. Paulus, a former Duke point guard, is currently on the interim staff at Louisville. Dickerson, who was once the head coach at Tulane, was an associate head coach at Ohio State but is not currently coaching, and he was spotted at the SEC Tournament in St. Louis.
- Matta’s expected to hire his third assistant after taking over. That coach preferably would be young and familiar with recruiting in the South. That would bode well for current UGA assistant coach Jonas Hayes.
- Matta’s a great tournament coach. There’s no other conclusion to draw. He lost NCAA first-round games just twice at Ohio State and won the NIT championship in 2008. From 2009-13, the Buckeyes went to the Sweet 16 twice, the Elite Eight once and the Final Four once.
- In fact, Ohio State enjoyed its greatest period in its men’s basketball history under Matta. The Buckeyes went to the NCAA in nine of 11 seasons after being ineligible his first year and played in a record seven NCAAs in a row at one point.
- He flourished at a football school, where he embraced the sport and used it to his advantage wherever he could without letting his ego get in the way.
That’s all good stuff.
But there’s a reason Matta is available, so here’s some of the not-so-good stuff:
- Ohio State beat writers aren’t wishy-washy about it. Matta was fired. He was fired because of “a pretty toxic cloud around the program.” That wasn’t because of any misdeeds, but it was due to declining attendance, eroding recruiting and poor on-court results.
- His firing came in June 2017, an odd time considering it’s well after the season and in the middle of recruiting. Matta’s dismissal came on the heels of 17-15 season and no postseason bid. The Buckeyes won 21 games the season before and lost in the second round of the NIT.
- Matta’s back problems are/were no joke and seriously impacted his ability to recruit. The back issues date back to high school and have required multiple surgeries. A 2007 surgery damaged a nerve and resulted in what is known as “drop foot” in his right leg. So he walks with a noticeable limp.
- Matta’s back issues contributed to his demise at Ohio State. The Columbus Dispatch used open records to obtain recruiting logs, which showed Matta’s activity on the road decreased every year until he was dismissed. He reportedly was coaching practice in a chair, would lay on his stomach in the locker room at halftime and had a specially made chair on the Buckeyes’ sideline that was higher and easier for him to get out of.
- After the Buckeyes went to the Final Four in 2012, it appears they shifted to more national recruiting. Consequently, they lost on several high-profile local recruits, including Trey Burke of Columbus, who ended up at Michigan and is now in the NBA. The entire recruiting class of 2015-16 transferred without finishing their careers at Ohio State.
And that’s where the big IF comes in.
If Matta has sufficiently recovered from his back problems and can handle all the physical demands that come with job — hey, don’t discount traveling and sitting in rental cars, on airplanes and in high school gymnasiums — this is what one would call the proverbial home run hire. He’s a Final Four coach who has thrived in the most competitive college basketball environments in the country and he’s 50. If he wants to come to Georgia, you can’t pass on him.
That said, personally, I’ve never known anyone who has had “successful” back surgery. Maybe there is such a thing, but people I have known to have chronic back issues severe enough to require surgery are always dealing with them. I’ve seen it in my own family.
But here’s the other side of that: I don’t believe for a minute that UGA — or its third-party representatives — didn’t start looking around before officially dismissing Fox. There has been buzz about that going back to early February. And if Matta is the undisputed top candidate, as we’re led to believe he is, people representing Georgia’s interests would have started the vetting process well before Matta showed up in Athens on Monday.
It’s not like they’d wait for a face-to-face meeting to ask, “So, Thad, how’s your back?” His health and physical welfare are absolutely central to his entire candidacy at Georgia, or anywhere else for that matter. You’d get that box checked before you sent a plane to pick him up. Or you certainly should have.
That said, for a coach of Matta’s pedigree, whether it’s in a wheelchair or nice leather recliner, I’d give Matta whatever he feels he needs to lead the Bulldogs’ basketball program and work around whatever else may be required. When it comes to coaching aptitude, it simply doesn’t get any better than Matta. Not at Georgia.
If Matta can walk and use a cell phone, hire him. And if the hold-up is others coming after him, out-bid them. This dude’s worth the trouble.