Thad Matta coached men’s basketball at Ohio State for 13 years. He averaged just under 26 wins per season over that span and won 20+ for 12 consecutive years.
And he’s not coming back for a 14th.
Said OSU Athletic Director Gene Smith, "While this may be a surprise to many, it's the right thing for our program at this time.”
To be fair, back surgery last year significantly hampered Matta’s ability to sometimes simply get through a practice without pain. And getting out on the recruiting trail was a challenge, too. “I went through a year where I couldn’t walk. I couldn’t take my shoes off after a game. I couldn’t take my pants off after a game,” Matta said. “The stuff I had to go through in terms of being serviceable … but, maybe to a fault, I always fought.”
And he still wanted to coach. Gene Smith had other ideas.
Matta and the Buckeyes won five regular season Big Ten titles, four conference tournaments, and went to the NCAA tournament nine times in 13 years. Among those nine trips to The Dance were two Final Four appearances.
If he coached in Piscataway he’d have a lifetime contract and there would already be a statue of him built outside the RAC. But he coached in Columbus, and therein lies the difference.
What equals success? Sometimes it depends on the school or the culture or simply expectations. At Ohio State, expectations are high, especially when you miss the NCAA tournament two years running and you have players leaving the program.
A Rutgers comparison
In the fall of 2008, Greg Schiano was in his eighth year at the helm of the football team. He was leading his charges to an 8-5 record that included a win over NC State in the PapaJohn’s.com Bowl. It was the fourth consecutive year of bowling for Schiano and the third straight win. But prior to 2005 and the Insight Bowl, Schiano was 12-34 over his first four years. If he had not won in 2005, would he have been kept on?
Before Schiano, there were three football coaches on the Rutgers sideline, each averaging 5.7 years on the job and just under four wins/year, much of that ineptness due to Terry Shea’s efforts. As he entered the 2005 season, Schiano was averaging just three wins.
There generally isn’t a lot of patience on the part of fans and ADs for losing football coaches. But Bob Mulcahy hired Schiano, seeing “something” in the young coach; he was going to give him time. But Athletic Directors today are under far more pressure to rid themselves of coaches who don’t produce. Anderson and Graber lasting six years with those records was amazing, and likely wouldn’t happen today. Schiano, too, might not be around today with a 12-34 log.
Basketball isn’t patient either. Eddie Jordan lasted just three seasons with a 29-68 record. And to make Dave White’s often-made point about the neglect that hoops suffered over several decades, there were seven men’s basketball coaches at Rutgers during the same period of Anderson/Graber/Shea/Schiano (1984-2011). It was a true carousel of coaching.
The table above goes beyond the Schiano years and precedes the Anderson years with Tom Young; that’s just to give some perspective. Young was 16-14 in his last year and never had a losing record.
So, we’re presuming there’s a point here?
Right, so where am I going with this?
Thad Matta was a proven winner at Ohio State and was kinda/sorta allowed to retire-before-I-show-you-the-door by Gene Smith. Rutgers has gone through football and basketball coaches at a pretty brisk rate over the last three to five decades. But other sports at Rutgers have stayed the course despite losing records.
Back in the early spring we looked at baseball potential vs. results (for which I was criticized by a friend for taking a “shot” at Coach Joe Litterio). And we discussed the change in coaching for rowing, a sport that has been less than successful, and whether there would be a true effort to find a top-notch coach.
And this all goes back - as always - to money and facilities and commitment. I mentioned the 2008 football season earlier for a reason. That year was the first for CJ Werneke as the head coach of volleyball. We were still in the Big East and no one outside of the volleyball community really concerned themselves about Big East volleyball. It’s been nine years - and now three football and four basketball coaches - and Werneke is still at the helm. And he has a tough situation: selling kids on coming to Rutgers where they play in the College Avenue Gym, where he doesn’t have a big budget, and now plays in a conference that had six teams ranked in the final Top 20 with two others getting votes last fall.
But still, over those nine years, he is 71-201, a .261 winning percentage.
I’m not calling for his firing. That’s serious business. Firing someone means they're gone - no income, benefits, family disruption. Not fun or easy. But as I’ve asked before, are we here to compete or to get the participation trophy? If he can’t be provided the adequate resources to do the job properly, then we have choices to make: accept losing or think about what whether we are able to have the sport at the appropriate level. Now, if you’ve read my stuff, the choice is easy: don’t cut sports but let’s make it viable. And that likely means more money, better facilities, better coaching.
And that means, well, lots of people kicking in more. And a commitment from #RUAthletics.
It is a matter of redirecting the culture, of raising expectations. It isn’t an easy or quick process. But maintaining the status quo isn’t necessarily the answer either.
Ask Gene Smith.