Matta walks away from Georgia, and that's OK

posted by Bruce Hooley -

Thad Matta came close to accepting the Georgia job before backing out at the last minute

I’m happy Thad Matta turned down the Georgia basketball job.

And I’m sad, too.

College basketball needs more guys like Thad Matta.

It’s had too many liars and cheaters like Rick Pitino.

It has too many shady characters like Bruce Pearl and John Calipari.

The sport is so corrupt even some guys I thought were good guys, like Tom Izzo, have disgraced themselves lately.

If college hoops has any chance of cleaning up its act, the return of Thad Matta to a fast-and-loose league like the Southeastern Conference would certainly help.

But I like Matta too much to wholly endorse his return to the sport, given the physical condition he was in when he left Ohio State and how thoroughly burned out he seemed at the end.

The cheating in college basketball, the cesspool of AAU basketball circle that a coach must swim in to recruit elite players, visibly sucked the joy out of Matta.

And if you saw him and remember him from his early days at Ohio State, it hurt you to watch Matta labor to walk, sit, stand and coach in the torment of on-going back pain that traced to a botched surgery in 2007.

And if you remember how opposing coaches used his health against him near the end of his time at OSU, you don't want Matta to have to deal with that in the SEC or anywhere else. 

I remember a time early in Matta’s tenure when Ohio State played on a Saturday night.

Monday afternoon, a bleary-eyed Matta sat for an interview and said he’ gotten two hours sleep the night before.

I wondered, why?

Matta said he’d flown to New England on Sunday morning to scout several players. After watching games throughout the afternoon, he changed his late, direct flight to Columbus to an earlier connection through Philadelphia so he could get home an hour earlier than originally scheduled.

But instead of that change working out, Matta’s plane was directed into an extended hold over Philly because of an Eagles NFL playoff game at Lincoln Financial Field.

That delay caused Matta to miss his connecting flight to Columbus.

He wound up arriving home just before 6 a.m. and headed straight to the office to begin work on that week’s practice schedule and game planning.

I asked him why he didn’t simply send his assistant coaches to New England to scout for him.

Thad looked at me like I’d grown a third eye in the center of my forehead.

“If they’re going to play for me,” Matta said of the recruits he scouted, “then I need to see them myself.”

I don’t know if his body will allow him to work like that any more.

I don’t know if, after winning as much as he did at Ohio State, if Matta burns inside to devote as much personal energy to doing those extras that separated him from the competition at OSU.

It sounded like maybe the answer to one, or both, of those questions was, no.

If so, there’s nothing wrong with that.

I want Thad back in the sport.

But I want him back only if he’s able to be the kind of coach he was when he stepped to the podium on the day of his hiring in Columbus and said, “I’m here to win a national championship.”

Matta didn’t quite get that done at OSU.

But he’s the best the Buckeyes have ever had in his job.

And even if he never coaches another game anywhere, that’s a pretty enviable career accomplishment.

PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES

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