Master salesman Matta keeps OSU on top despite steady NBA attrition
Matta has incorporated quirky tactics in his recruiting over the years
OSU annually loses underclassmen to the NBA, but Matta always replaces them
This year's fresh face at OSU: Jared Sullinger, a 6-9, 280-pound force of nature
In 1997, Scott Robisch was an all-state high school player from Springfield, Ill., and Thad Matta was an ambitious assistant coach at Butler. Butler coach Barry Collier badly wanted Robisch, a 6-foot-11 center who would have been a big signing for the Bulldogs.
Robisch seemed out of reach. Matta had done everything within NCAA rules to woo Robisch, who was leaning toward Oklahoma State. Finally, Matta said, "Scott, my wife is pregnant. If it's a boy, I will name him Scott.''
Nice, but as Matta recalls, "I already knew we were having a girl.''
Robisch signed with Oklahoma State. Two years later, he transferred to Butler.
Matta covered the usual recruiting bases over the years as an assistant coach. He used the entire recruiter's catalog: Daily for three weeks, he got up at 4 a.m. and drove from the Butler campus in Indianapolis to East Lansing, Mich., just so a hotshot recruit would notice Matta's car in the lot when the kid got to school. As an assistant at Miami (Ohio), Matta once spent considerable time writing the number "3'' on pieces of paper, then cutting out the threes and stuffing them in an envelope. He sent hundreds of 3s, so when the sweet-shooting recruit opened the envelope, all the little 3s would sprinkle out.
Matta didn't lose his recruiting zeal when he transitioned from assistant to head coach. He has always programmed the radio presents in his BMW SUV to hip-hop stations, so when he's hauling around recruits, they can punch up the stations and think the coach is cool. In the recruitment of Greg Oden, Matta once told the coveted big man, "I will add on to my house if you come to Ohio State.''
Why would Oden care about that?
"I was doing anything I could,'' Matta said.
Matta is entering his seventh season at Ohio State. He has won 156 games and got to the national title game, even though every year the Buckeyes seem to donate an exorbitant amount of quality goods to the NBA and beyond. Since Nov. 9, 2005, the day Matta formed The Thad Five -- a recruiting class that consisted of Oden, Mike Conley Jr., Othello Hunter, Daequan Cook and David Lighty -- the wonder in Columbus always has been how good the Buckeyes could have been if all five had stayed on campus. Imagine that quintet along with Evan Turner and Kosta Koufos -- on the same team.
Matta has different wonders. Such as: How do I keep replacing these people?
Matta's top returning scorer for the upcoming season is a 6-5 guard named William Buford. As a freshman, Matta recalls, "Buford would score six of our first eight (points) and I'd find myself thinking, 'He's gone.' I'm not thinking about what defense we should be in. I'm thinking about how we're going to replace Buford.''
In 2007, Ohio State lost the national title game to Florida -- then freshmen Conley, Oden and Cook left for the NBA. In '08, Matta brought in Koufos to replace Oden, and he left after a year. Hunter stayed two years. Turner left last spring, after three seasons.
A coach could get a complex.
"It would make it easier to say, like in football, 'I've got this guy for three years,''' Matta said.
Instead, he keeps selling the program. Matta keeps working it, the way he does that single hunk of gum he chews every game. Ask him how, he says what they all say: Matta sells the school. Matta sells the program. Matta says his players "have fun'' at his urging. He recalls taking high school seniors Oden, Conley and Cook on a campus tour one especially beautiful spring day. It was warm. The coeds were out in force, looking the way coeds do on warm, spring days.
"Coach,'' Matta recalls Cook saying, "this is (bleeping) college.'' Matta agreed. He said his eyes popped, too, as much as Midwestern eyes are allowed.
Matta likes playing the folksy farm kid from the aptly named Hoopeston, Ill. He claims not to know what Twitter is. He says "gosh.'' Matta says the older he gets (he's 43 now), the less in touch he is with the culture of the players he recruits. "When I'm mad at them, I make them listen to country music,'' Matta says.
OK. But why do they come to Columbus to play basketball? Matta might be living his Big Ten dream, but he's still doing it in Woody's shadow. Hoping to lure more students to home games, the university is moving its faculty and administrators from their center-court seats to behind the baskets. Students now will get the plum perches. This is never an issue when Jim Tressel's team plays.
Despite many rival coaches telling recruits that Ohio State is a football school, Matta is able to bring in top players year after year. This year it's Jared Sullinger, a 6-9, 280-pound force of nature who was rated either the best or second-best prospect in the country last year. Sullinger wasn't a hard sell: His brother played at OSU and is from Columbus.
He'll join Buford, who didn't leave, and Lighty, the last of the Thad Five. The Buckeyes will be solid, again, even as good players come and go like the harvest. Matta knows who to sign, and how to charm them.
"I became a better coach the day I had my own children,'' Matta says. He cites Christmas as proof. He remembers Christmas Day now. Frequently, he takes an hour or two to celebrate it. "When I was a young whippersnapper, I used to think, 'Who cares about Christmas?''' Matta says
"Sometimes, you still make that mistake,'' a reporter suggests.
"Yeah,'' Matta concedes. "I do.''