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Commentary: Gene Smith resets men’s basketball program, making hire a must-hit

Athletics Director Gene Smith announces national search for new head coach on June 5, 2017. Credit: Courtesy of 97.1 The Fan

In 2004, Ohio State’s Athletics Director Andy Geiger took a chance on then-Xavier head coach Thad Matta, a 36-year-old coach from Hoopeston, Illinois, to resurrect a men’s basketball program that was under scandal for paying players and coming off a 14-16 season.

The decision worked out.

Geiger wasn’t around for the 10 NCAA Tournament appearances, four straight Sweet Sixteens, five Big Ten championships, four Big Ten tournament championships, two Final Fours and a national runner-up finish. It was current AD Gene Smith who witnessed Matta turn the program into a national power.

Now, it’s Smith’s turn to get it right after hitting the reset button Monday with Matta’s firing.

At some moments, it felt like Matta’s time at OSU would never end. It took just three seasons for Matta to turn a 14-16 team into the national runner-up. Then, Matta solidified his program as an intimidating force with four straight seasons of at least 28 wins, one Final Four and a No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament. Now, just five seasons later, OSU is coming off a 17-15 season and undergoing a national search for a head coach.

It hurts. Firing a coach that has meant so much to a program is never easy for an athletics department. After all, this was a job Matta always thought of as a dream destination.

But when Smith has a national brand to protect and is bringing in the third-most revenue of any collegiate athletics program, sometimes the most difficult thing to do is the correct thing to do. That’s only if he hires the right replacement.

“No time is optimal, but obviously this time is not the best,” Smith said Monday. “So I need to be sensitive to what I’m dealing with in this window of time. So, I do not have a timeline. I’m going to do my best to search to find the right person that fits The Ohio State University.”

An optimal time for the move, if any, would have been once the season ended, before Archie Miller, the former Dayton coach and Matta assistant at OSU, took the Indiana head coaching job. But from what was heard yesterday, recruiting battles lost in the summer and an approaching July evaluation window were key factors in the decision to undergo a regime change, so the move shouldn’t be perceived as a delay of the inevitable on Smith’s part.

However, OSU is now in a spot where players are back on campus starting summer workouts without a head coach, creating more uncertainty for a program searching for a silver lining in an otherwise cloudy situation. And although Smith said yesterday that the assistant coaches are still employed, it doesn’t take a genius to understand that a new coach could change the entire staff.

It’s not uncommon for a high-major program to bounce back after hitting a reset button. One of Matta’s former assistants, Sean Miller, was able to bring the Arizona basketball program back to being national contenders after replacing legendary head coach Lute Olson, who retired after the 2007 season.

But it took two years of interim head coaches before Arizona hired Sean Miller. OSU doesn’t have that luxury. Arizona was still making NCAA Tournaments when Olson retired, whereas the Buckeyes are sliding downhill with grease beneath them and no incline in sight. The need for strong leadership after the most successful coach in program history is at an all-time high.

“Next season, I do not anticipate (having an interim coach), but anything could happen,” Smith said.

To revisit the Indiana situation, the Hoosier fan base is as passionate about its college hoops as any. Indiana thought it made the right move with its now former coach, Tom Crean. But consistency plagued his career in Bloomington, so the administration hit the reset button and elected to try out a younger coach eager for a jump to a premier program.

OSU did the same thing with Matta, except the identity of the program didn’t exist then. It was molded in Matta’s tenure. The program has name recognition — and the backing of LeBron James’ Nike brand — and it will need a coach with one as well to start this whole thing over.

Beginning his farewell address, Matta quoted The Grateful Dead, saying, “Sometimes the light shines brightly on me, other times I can barely see. Lately, it’s occurred to me what a long, strange trip it’s been.”

For Smith and the Buckeye program, that strange trip is just beginning.

Jacob Myers: myers.1669@osu.edu and Twitter @Jacob_Myers_25

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