Even now, it's kids' play

Stakes are higher, but Ohio State's Thad Matta keeps youthful love of game.

Published March 30, 2007

ATLANTA - For Ohio State coach Thad Matta, the dream of being a part, a big part, of March Madness was born in 1976.

He was 9 years old then, but he and his father, Jim, a high school coach in Hoopeston, Ill., were glued to the television rooting for Bob Knight's Indiana team as it capped an undefeated season with wins against UCLA and Michigan in the Final Four.

"That was kind of my beginning stages of following college basketball and following a great team," he said.

Now, he's got one of his own on that grand stage.

His top-ranked South Region champion Buckeyes (34-3) meet East Region champion Georgetown (30-6) Saturday at the Georgia Dome in one semifinal. Defending NCAA champ Florida plays last year's runnerup, UCLA, in the second game.

"I'm elated," Matta said after his team beat Memphis last weekend in San Antonio. Texas, to punch its ticket to the program's first Final Four trip since 1999 in St. Petersburg. "I take great pride in the kids and the work they put in. But we don't want to be a team that checks off (making) the Final Four and gets our rear end kicked. ... We've got to keep getting better."

That may sound trite, but that's vintage Matta. Now 39, he still has his eyes locked on the picture; the big picture. And that means completing the job and living out a dream a lifetime in the making.

"He has the final objectives in mind every day and the more talented a team is, the more he has that big picture in mind," said Xavier coach Sean Miller, one of Matta's closest friends. "It's just a phenomenal path he's been on and he's earned every step of the way."

Matta is surely the product of his upbringing. Hoopeston, a small town just west of the Indiana state line, has been more famous for its Sweet Corn Festival than hoops. A sign on the edge of town greets visitors with the promise, "People Who Care About You."

That's Thad Matta.

He exudes a genuine folksiness and charm that would do Andy Griffith proud. Even during the hectic, monopolizing schedule of the NCAA Tournament, he cordially walks and talks with a reporter even while being ushered away to another function.

"He just has a great way with people," Miller said. "Anyone who's been around him will tell you they enjoy being around him and he has a great way about him."

That came from his parents and his environment, but so did his passion for basketball.

"I was a kid raised in a gymnasium," Matta said, referring to his father bringing him to practices as a toddler in diapers. "I had the fortune of being in the winning locker room and the losing locker room, in practices, riding the team bus. There was no greater way to learn than be in those situations."

Although famously superstitious (Miller calls him "bizarre" in the way Matta must tie his shoes at the same spot on the practice court each day or has to be the last one off the team bus or stand next to the same player during the national anthem), Matta is a passionate optimist.

"He is so positive, it's incredible," said Memphis coach John Calipari, who heartily endorsed Matta for the Xavier job in 2001, the position that would launch him three years later to Columbus and the big stage that is Big Ten basketball.

"His demeanor really allows his group, his team and his staff, to have a lot of energy and continue to be at their best," echoed Miller, who worked with Matta at Miami of Ohio and then for him at Xavier for three years culminating with an Elite Eight appearance.

That's how you can convince a group of kids to keep working, keep fighting, even when the misdeeds of others led to NCAA sanctions that would keep you from playing in the NCAA Tournament - the situation he and his team faced during his first season at OSU in 2004-05. That team ended the regular-season with an upset of No. 1 and undefeated Illinois and finished 20-12.

That's how you go out the next fall and sign the most heralded class in the nation led by center Greg Oden and point guard Mike Conley, even though additional penalties could have been added for past violations.

That's how his team can be loose enough, confident enough, to come back from the brink against Xavier and Tennessee in this year's NCAA Tournament.

"What attracted me was the energy that he brings," said Oden, who was so struck by Matta that he might, just might, have played for him if Matta was still at Xavier. "You like to have a coach who brings just as much energy and works just as hard you do out there on the floor."

Matta learned from his father and then as a player, the effort and commitment you need to compete, let alone succeed. He's lived that as a player at Butler trying to improve, as a coach trying to prepare his teams or recruiting the best talent, as someone intent on staying fit.

"Off the court, he's just a great guy, a great person," Conley said. "I was kind of skeptical on how he would act when he coaches, that he might be a different person once you start to be coached by him, but he's still the same guy. He's out there making jokes and laughing. It's a fun game to him."

And has been since he was 9.

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Brian Landman can be reached at landman@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3347.