Former Ohio State head coach Thad Matta stood at center court the Schottenstein Center, looking around at close to a capacity crowd during halftime of No. 16 Ohio State’s 72-62 loss to Syracuse on Wednesday.
A banner in Matta’s honor had just been unveiled, showcasing his five Big Ten titles, his four Big Ten tournament titles, his two Final Four appearances and his 337 wins as a head coach, an Ohio State record.
As he looked up at the banner, hanging directly next to Evan Turner’s No. 21, which was retired in 2016, Matta was emotional, standing with his wife and two daughters.
“I’m not sure I deserve to have that banner up there, but since it is, what the hell, let’s keep it,” Matta said to the crowd.
But that was an aspect of the honor Matta did not know was going to happen. Ohio State head coach Chris Holtmann had reached out to his predecessor about being honored, not with what it would entail.
Even after his team’s 10-point loss to the Orange, Holtmann wanted to make sure, in the short amount of time he had with Matta prior to the game, that it would be a special day for the former head coach.
“I hope it was a great night for him because, as I mentioned, he and his family are deserving. It sounds like he got a great ovation. I’m sure he appreciated the unveiling of the banner,” Holtmann said. “That had to be special for he and his family.”
Matta said, when he was coaching, he would always study who was in the rafters, look at the legacies that those players, the coaches brought to the programs of which they were a part.
When he found out he was being placed in the rafters of the Schottenstein Center, he said he was at a loss for words.
“Tonight’s probably the greatest honor I have ever received at the exact same time as one of the most humbling experiences I have ever had in my life,” Matta said. “I think back to all the people I have seen in rafters and to do it at a place where I didn’t got to school, quite honestly, it means the world to me.”
However, even after being let go from his job as head coach prior to the start of the 2017-18 season, Matta said he has no harsh feelings toward Ohio State, calling athletic director Gene Smith, who helped with the ceremony on Wednesday, a friend.
As he was honored for his collegiate coaching career, Matta had his opportunity to reminisce, something he said he could not do when he was in a head coaching position.
“We had a great run here,” Matta said. “When you are coaching, you remember the losses. When you are not coaching, you remember the wins.”
For senior guard C.J. Jackson, one of three players on Holtmann’s roster to play under Matta, it was a good moment for the team and for the university as a whole.
“Having Thad back is just surreal for a lot of the fans and us guys that played for him, just to see him again,” Jackson said.
When he talked about the state of the Ohio State program, what it has accomplished in the short time Holtmann has been a head coach, Matta was effusive with praise.
He said Holtmann has done a great job, not just with coaching, but integrating former players and running the program with many of the same ideas him and his staff were trying to accomplish in their tenure.
“What he has done in that regard is second-to-none and everything he is doing at Ohio State, I could not be happier in terms the fact that he’s here, the job he is doing and the job he’s going to continue to do,” Matta said.
In March, Matta rejected an offer to become the next head coach at Georgia, saying Wednesday it was not the right fit for him despite loving the campus. However, Matta did say he had been watching basketball more seriously this season, but did not specify whether he would return to coaching.
Physically, the former head coach, who had suffered with multiple health issues in his final seasons with the Buckeyes, said he is feeling great.
“Something has to go wrong because I feel too good,” Matta said. “I’m not going to apologize to people for being happy. I feel really good and blessed to do what I did.”
No matter whether Matta coaches again or not, his name, his accomplishments will be hanging for Holtmann to see, for the players to see, for the fans to see.
To show what he built in his 13 seasons as the head coach at Ohio State.
“Columbus is such a great city. Ohio State is such a great institution,” Matta said. “It’s always going to be a part of who we are.”