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Xavier coach caught in denials

7/8/2004

Xavier's Thad Matta always was the perfect choice for the Ohio State opening.

Matta knew the state of Ohio after three successful years with the Musketeers, including an Elite Eight run in March. He had Midwestern roots and grew up a Big Ten fan.

Had Ohio State athletic director Andy Geiger called Matta on June 9, a day after he fired Jim O'Brien, then there would be no reason to be critical of the process or of Matta.

But Geiger didn't act that quickly, interviewing Vanderbilt's Kevin Stallings and Rice's Willis Wilson twice (as late as Tuesday), as well as interviewing Penn's Fran Dunphy and Lakers assistant Jim Cleamons. Geiger also called Texas Tech coach Bob Knight, an Ohio State alum, and told him the school wasn't interested.

Meanwhile, the way Matta handled pursuing the job in the past two weeks soured what could have been a home run for the Buckeyes.

Less than two weeks ago, Matta said he wasn't a candidate. But he was -- and his behavior has been the most puzzling.

Matta said on June 29th that he wasn't a candidate at Ohio State. He made that statement to Cincinnati Enquirer reporter Dustin Dow. Matta said Wednesday night that Dow asked him the question when surrounded by campers on the Cintas Center court floor.

Dow, however, told ESPN.com Wednesday that Matta gave the response at an earlier interview in Matta's office. Xavier sports information director Tom Eiser confirmed that he set up the meeting. Dow also said that the campers were a good 15 feet away from Matta when he did talk to him at night.

Matta also told ESPN.com the same week that he wasn't a candidate for the Ohio State job. ESPN.com asked Matta if he had interviewed with Geiger and given him a booklet on his coaching philosophies.

Matta replied he was staying at Xavier for the long term. And, once again, said "there's nothing going on here." On Wednesday, Matta admitted that he had interviewed with Geiger and handed him a booklet.

Matta also said that he didn't know he was going to Columbus for the interview until Tuesday night and that he didn't decide to take the job until 6 p.m. Wednesday. However, Stallings said Geiger called him at 3 p.m. and told him Matta already had accepted the job.

Eiser confirmed that Xavier athletic director Dawn Rogers didn't know Matta accepted the Ohio State job until 7 p.m. on Wednesday when she finally tracked down Matta. Matta said he kept Rogers aware of his status at every step.

"I told her that I'm not sure what I'm going to do if I get offered the job, but I am going to get on that plane (Wednesday to Columbus)," said Matta of his Tuesday night conversation with Rogers.

"I sat down with my wife and went through the pros and cons and saw this as one of the best opportunities in the country," Matta said of Ohio State. "It was an extremely tough decision. I didn't want to leave Xavier."

Matta signed a 10-year contract at Xavier in 2003. He said the reason he didn't say anything about his interest or interviews with Ohio State was to protect the school, the current players and the recruits.

Xavier assistant coach Sean Miller, who is expected to be the next head coach in a few days, said Matta wanted to preserve the recruits, too.

But the reality is that Matta didn't have that luxury. Pursuing a job comes with risks. That's why N.C. State's Herb Sendek and Marquette's Tom Crean chose not to pursue the job. They didn't want to run the risk of losing recruits if they didn't get the job.

Matta wanted to have it his way by looking at the job, still recruiting for Xavier and then deciding if he should take the job without jeopardizing the Musketeers' recruiting class. He might have pulled that off but he alienated those in the Xavier administration and in the Cincinnati-area media by denying his candidacy so definitively.

"This program was in terrific shape when we got here, and we're leaving it in better shape three years later," Matta said. "It's not easy to leave Xavier University but [going to another job] is all part of what we do."

Matta was extremely defensive about being branded untruthful Wednesday night. Eiser said Matta's behavior the past week was uncharacteristic.

Nonetheless, Matta is off to Ohio State, believing he made the right choice. He probably did, but he could have handled the process better. He made mistakes, the kind that he can't afford to in Columbus. Rebuilding the Buckeye program will be a chore, especially without Miller by his side.
He also has to rebuild some fences that were broken down in Cincinnati, which was his base in the state just 24 hours earlier.

Ultimately, it should work out now that Matta accepted Geiger's offer. But both parties lost a bit of integrity along the way to Wednesday's decision.

Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.