COLUMBUS, Ohio — It didn’t have to be this way for Ohio State and Thad Matta.
The Buckeyes — and specifically athletic director Gene Smith — could have decided right after the 2016-17 season that enough was enough. Matta had missed the NCAA Tournament two consecutive seasons, and recruiting was getting worse instead of better. Truthfully, it’s hard to envision Ohio State making the postseason next season, too.
In some cases, that’s enough. But this was more complex. Ohio State’s downturn coincided with the worsening of an ailment stemming from a botched back surgery Matta had in 2007. Furthermore, Matta is the program’s winningest coach of all time. Coaches crave security, and the optics of ousting the top coach in program history after two unacceptable seasons (though the overall decline was bad) might not have played well in a coaching search.
Matta and Smith met, and the two believed they had an understanding of what needed to be done, and had faith that Matta could do it. On the day Ohio State played in the Big Ten Tournament, Smith released a statement supporting Matta and announced he’d be back for the 2017-18 season.
It seemed like the right thing to do, even as Ohio State drifted further from national prominence. Matta would get one more season to right the ship, and if it didn’t work out the solution would be obvious and there would be less of a clamor that he was treated unfairly.
Then came the offseason from hell.
The night Smith backed Matta, Ohio State lost to Rutgers. The Buckeyes didn’t get a spot in the NIT, so that game ended their season.
Center Trevor Thompson declared for the NBA draft and didn’t withdraw, even though he has virtually no chance of being drafted. Fellow big man David Bell transferred. Class of 2018 4-star recruit Darius Bazley de-committed, saying, “they didn’t even make the NIT.”
JaQuan Lyle, probably the team’s best returning player, was arrested in May. When the news came to light, Ohio State announced that Lyle had actually quit in April and the school had never bothered to announce it.
While all of this was happening, the team swung and missed on every remaining recruit and graduate transfer it had targeted to help stop the bleeding.
Smith’s faith had been misplaced, and staring at the same recruiting success (or lack thereof) for the next year wasn’t an option — especially if Matta began to carry the air of “dead man walking.”
“I felt confident after the season,” Smith said. “Once Thad and I sat down, we had a good plan going into the summer. Recruiting is a major part of that plan. We weren’t winning the battles in recruiting that I thought we might have a chance to win, as he did.”
When Smith called in Matta for a previously scheduled chat on Friday, he said it became apparent during their conversation that a change was needed. Matta apparently didn’t fight him on that.
The timing isn’t ideal. Most coaches Ohio State might want are in great positions. Archie Miller, long assumed to be the most likely replacement, was hired by Indiana this offseason. His brother, Sean Miller, could have the No. 1 team in the country next season at Arizona. Other coaches may balk at leaving their teams in June, putting their current employer in an even worse spot than the Buckeyes find themselves.
But it comes down to a simple truth. Ohio State would have been worse off keeping Matta, given everything that’s happened and how things are trending. Losing Matta is no longer the blow it might have been five years ago, and Smith believes the school is in a good enough position to hire a quality replacement even from a disadvantaged position.
The demand to win means making hard decisions and fixing mistakes before they become worse. As recently as March, Smith thought the situation was salvageable. By June, it was clear that was no longer the case — and that any further delay could harm the program.
“He could have been a nice guy [and not fired Matta], but his job is to run this program,” Matta said.