Matta's energy matches his meteoric rise
Ohio State's Thad Matta has enjoyed a meteoric rise to the top of the college coaching profession, writes Andy Katz.
ATLANTA -- Thad Matta ran back into the Georgia Dome on Sunday afternoon. He had already headed to the bus, but he needed to hustle back for a scheduled interview.
He held a Starbucks' cup with some sort of caffeinated beverage.
Do you think he really needs any more stimulants pumped into his system?
"Somebody once told me that my kids are high energy and I don't really get that," Matta said.
He laughed. I laughed. How could you not? Matta is about as high energy as it comes in the coaching business and it's no wonder that his meteoric rise in the profession has been at warp speed.
He has Ohio State in the national title game in only his third year as coach. He spent one year as a head coach at Butler, his alma mater, leading the Bulldogs to an NCAA first-round win. Then, he raced over to Xavier for three seasons, which included an Elite Eight appearance and a near miss against Duke. And then it was a dead sprint up to Columbus to turn around the Buckeyes.
It shouldn't come as a shock that Matta's famed gum spitting, pickup and put back in his mouth routine happened within the time constraints of the notorious five-second rule, during the Buckeyes win over Wisconsin to claim the Big Ten title. He's that fast in everything he does.
Matta doesn't stop moving in practice or on the bench. He is always up, down, challenging his players, chomping on gum, sweating.
"Twice a practice, if I think they need a pick-me-up," said Matta of how often he jumps into the drills. "I told them, 'I'm getting too old at 39 to bring that energy and enthusiasm to practice.'"
Oh yeah, that age thing. There's no way the average person would look at Matta and believe he's 39. Sure, the receding hairline doesn't help him out. But just watch him, or even sit with him and you see just how much energy is in this man.
When does it stop, slow down?
"June," Matta said laughing. But he's not really serious because in July he is as much of a maniac. He's as intense a recruiter as there is in the profession. Getting Greg Oden, Mike Conley Jr., Daequan Cook and David Lighty was as much about Matta's effort as anything else.
"These guys are winners," Matta said. "They find ways to pull through. We love recruiting guys who are from winning programs. The four freshmen competed for state titles on the same day. I'm not sure that's ever been done [by a recruiting class]."
Of course Matta made it to both games in Columbus and Indianapolis last year by hopping on a plane. Did you think he would miss that? He's too fast to miss out on something that special.
But where does that drive come from? Well, Matta couldn't ignore hoops growing up in Hoopeston, Ill.
"My father was an athletic director and coached a lot of different sports from football to basketball to track and I got to be a part of it," Matta said. "I would see the winning locker room, the losing locker room and as a little kid sat in on coaches' meetings. I'd listen to coaches talk about practice and talk about what happened afterwards and it was an invaluable experience for me."
He didn't know it then, but he can now appreciate how much he learned in that environment. He grew up, he said, in a town where everyone was friendly and everyone knew who you were. All of that molded his personality, which is an inviting one. Once you talk to him, you see that (especially after he catches his breath).
Matta's moves were made with precision, never leaving his comfort zone and of course smartly surrounding himself with quality talent, none more special than Oden and Conley. He could be coaching Oden in his final college game Monday night.
Matta can't get over how special it was to coach Oden this past season. He had to coach two teams, one without Oden as he rehabbed an injury to his right wrist, and one with the developing power player. Throughout it all Matta was impressed by Oden's leadership, like saying in the locker room after beating Georgetown on Saturday that the Buckeyes needed to get redshirt transfer Kyle Madsen (Vanderbilt), who under NCAA rules couldn't be in the locker room.
Will this be it for Matta and Oden?
"I don't know, I don't think Greg knows," Matta said. "We had one conversation and that was we would talk about it after the season and I don't think Greg has thought about it more than that and it's evident by his GPA and what he's doing academically."
As for Conley, Matta said his (and Oden's) coach at Lawrence North High in Indianapolis -- the legendary Jack Keefer -- told him the point guard would be the best player Matta would coach.
Watching him run the Buckeyes toward the Final Four in this tournament makes that a prophetic statement.
"I felt all along he would be a tremendous player and he hasn't let me down," Matta said.
But before Matta left the interview room, before he raced out to the bus and continued on his dead sprint toward the end of a magical season, he halted for one last question.
What would it be like if he cut down the championship net against Florida on Monday night?
Matta actually paused for a second and said, "If it happens, one thing that I will try and smack myself and say is, 'Stop for a second, look around and enjoy.'"
Good luck with that.
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.
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