Thad Hugs Gene, Says He Is ‘At Peace’

By Jeff Rapp, December 3rd, 2018

The return of Thad Matta for Ohio State’s basketball game with Syracuse on Nov. 28 meant the return of a beloved former coach and one of the profession’s truly entertaining wits.

The jokester side of him was on full display during and after a special halftime tribute to the program’s all-time winningest coach – a celebration highlighted by the university unveiling a banner in the rafters of the Schottenstein Center that honors Matta’s many accomplishments.

Moments after standing at midcourt for the stirring ceremony with his wife, Barbara, and daughters, Ali and Emily, the 51-year-old former coach cracked a few more jokes with reporters, saying he expected to get a rocking chair or golf balls.

He then added, “Usually they do this when a guy’s dead, and at least I get to see it. So I was excited from that standpoint.”

When he was told they wanted him to say a few words at halftime, Matta told school officials he would but would not consent to “ride a unicycle or jump off a trampoline or spin plates.”

Matta even dug out all his Big Ten championship rings, of which there are nine – five from regular-season titles and four more as a result of winning the Big Ten Tournament – and modeled all of them for his family at home and said, “Do you guys dare me?”

But in the end Matta didn’t talk a lot about his titles, two Final Four appearances (2007, 2012) his 337 wins at OSU or 439 overall. Instead, he thanked the fans, the university, his players and coaches, and even took the time to rattle off the names of all of the program’s medical staff and doctors, many of whom tended to his back issues and nerve damage in his foot that kept him from roaming the sidelines at the end of his tenure.

Many fans wiped tears from their eyes when the Matta family hugged a midcourt and minutes after Thad’s voice shook when saying he hoped his former players could look up at his name and smile.

Before the beloved coach spoke to the crowd, the school played a tribute video that featured many recognizable faces of the Matta era. Those players, in order, were Evan Turner, Aaron Craft, Jon Diebler, Keita Bates-Diop, Greg Oden, David Lighty, Jared Sullinger and Jae’Sean Tate.

Matta’s banner appropriately hangs next to the retired No. 21 jersey of Turner, who is perhaps the coach’s best success story, rising from underrated recruit to National Player of the Year.

Oden, who is now a volunteer coach for the Buckeyes, may have best summed up the feelings of OSU fans when he said in his video message, “Coach, congratulations on being recognized. Everybody loves you, we all miss you, you’ve done so much for us and we’re so thankful to have you in our lives.”

Tate added, “I wouldn’t be the player I am today, the leader I am today and the man I am today without you. I’m honored to say that I got the opportunity to be coached by one of the greats, and I wouldn’t change it for the world.”

In closing his remarks to the fans, Matta said, “I’m not sure I deserve that being up there … but since it’s up there, what the hell, let’s keep it.”

After the ceremony, Matta admitted to reporters, “I’m a little bit like in awe. Every gym or arena I’ve ever been in, I’ve always studied who was up in the rafters, and to have that honor tonight, I’m really at a loss for words.

“Tonight’s probably the greatest honor I’ve ever received and at the same time is probably the most humbling experience I’ve ever had in my life. Quite honestly, it means the world to me.”

His recognition was at the behest of current head coach Chris Holtmann and Dave Egelhoff, OSU’s Director of Basketball Operations who held the same title under Matta.

Holtmann has spoken very highly of Matta and his accomplishments. It’s a feeling Matta reciprocates when talking about Holtmann, who guided the Buckeyes to a surprising second-place finish in the Big Ten last season as well as a trip to the NCAA Tournament.

“The transition has been so smooth with what Chris has done, not only in coaching but also running the program,” he said. “Everything he’s done, I could not be happier.”

The fact that the Buckeyes suffered their first loss of the season in a 72-62 setback to Syracuse didn’t take away from the warm feelings of the halftime presentation, which included Matta bear-hugging Athletic Director Gene Smith – the very man who fired him in June 2017.

“Gene still remains one of the best friends I have in life, and I completely understand the nature of the business and completely respect what has to be done,” said Matta, who averaged 26 wins in 13 full seasons at Ohio State. “And like I said, if things weren’t going well right now, maybe I’d have a (grudge), but this thing is rolling right now.

“I am completely at peace.”

Still, reporters, of course, asked Matta if he was entertaining thoughts of getting back into coaching and he said he does think about it from time to time.

On the other hand, he chuckled at the thought of attending a Butler game recently because the Bulldogs lost and “I went home and went right to sleep.”

Tanned and hale looking, Matta said he is sill “unwinding” and his focus at the moment is being able to spend time with his family and soaking in the best moments of his career.

“We had a great run here,” he said. “When you’re coaching you remember the losses, but when you’re not coaching you remember the wins.

“Look, I’m not going to apologize to people for being happy.”

The Mattas live in Indianapolis now but seemed genuinely happy to be back in town. Ali and Emily waved to fans they recognized, Barb hugged old friends and Thad choked up when speaking to OSU fans.

“I raised my kids here for the majority of their lives, and 13 years is a long time,” he said. “And Columbus is such a great city and Ohio State is such a great institution that it’s always going to be part of who we are.”

For a look back at the Matta family’s commitment to the program, check out this archived SRU story from March 30, 2011.