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Commentary: Ohio State made the right decision to fire Thad Matta at the wrong time

Coach Thad Matta calls to players. OSU beat Purdue, 63-61, in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament March 13 at the Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Credit: Shelby Lum / Photo editor

Coach Thad Matta calls to players. OSU beat Purdue, 63-61, in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament March 13, 2014 at the Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Credit: Shelby Lum | Former Photo Editor

There is never a perfect time to fire the winningest coach in a program’s history. There’s no easy way for Ohio State to move on from the man who took the Buckeyes to the brink of winning their first national championship since 1960.

But, the timing of Monday’s firing of now-former coach Thad Matta is particularly bad for OSU.

Teams have moved on from the 2016-17 season, are transitioning to the fall and, if necessary, they made a coaching change months ago. No head coach has been hired by a major Division 1 school since New Mexico tabbed Paul Weir as its leader on April 11.

The inopportune swap is not lost on OSU Athletics Director Gene Smith, who sat next to Matta at a press conference to announce the end of the three-time Big Ten Coach of the Year’s tenure in Columbus Monday.

“No time is optimal, but obviously this time is not the best,” Smith said. “So I need to be sensitive to what I’m dealing with in this window of time.”

Since OSU is late to the coaching carousel, it won’t have to jockey with other schools for hot-shot up-and-comers or established coaching talent on the market.

But is that a good thing, or does it mean that the coaches who check off both “talented” and “available” boxes do not exist any more? Could the Buckeyes have won over former Dayton coach Archie Miller, who decided to leave the state of Ohio to take over the Indiana program? We’ll never know because OSU’s job wasn’t open when the former Flyers coach was listening to the Hoosiers’ pitch.

Established coaches and potential candidates such as Arizona’s Sean Miller, Wichita State’s Gregg Marshall and Virginia’s Tony Bennett are each heading successful programs and have turned down offers from major schools in the past. Given OSU’s lackluster roster and the reality that basketball will never be the university’s most important sport, a fit in Columbus for these coaches is not obvious.

Exciting, young coaches such as Xavier’s Chris Mack and Butler’s Chris Holtmann could stay with their programs for another season – both of which bring back talented rosters – and hope to attract a head coach offer from a higher profile school than OSU.

Whoever sits in Matta’s former chair in the fall will have a tough job. With just 10 scholarship players, including a former walk-on, and major recent roster turnover, the new head coach

But, it just takes one person to say yes. That’s where optimism should set in. Despite the recent struggles, OSU is still appealing, and there’s an obvious place to start: at the bank.

Only two Big Ten coaches – Michigan State’s Tom Izzo and Michigan’s John Beilein – made more than Matta in 2017. But if you thought OSU might be cash-strapped as it is buying out Matta’s next three seasons, think again.

The athletic department is flush with cash. It is spending $43 million on building a student-athlete development center and $49.7 million on a wrestling facility, and will also be building an arena for volleyball, gymnastics and fencing. They are also reportedly considering building a hockey arena.

If OSU thinks it can hire someone to replicate Matta’s success from his first decade as the Buckeyes coach, it would pay up to do so.

At Monday’s press conference, Smith said that he didn’t intend to relieve Matta of his duties when the two met on Friday. If that’s true, the pressure is on for him to act quickly and bring in someone who can find the success on the court that has escaped the program in recent years.

Only time will tell if the Buckeyes whiffed on their opportunity to find a worthy replacement for Matta in a timely matter. Perhaps Smith has a master plan to land Miller, Villanova coach Jay Wright or Oklahoma City Thunder coach Billy Donovan.

But, maybe he doesn’t.

Sometimes, even if the correct decision is made but the window of opportunity is missed, the result is a disappointment. OSU might learn the hard way.

Colin Hass-Hill: hass-hill.1@osu.edu and Twitter @chasshill

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