Thad Matta was finished with coaching. It was April 2022, and the 54-year-old former coach was vacationing on Florida’s Marco Island—literally on the beach—while the NCAA Final Four was going on in New Orleans. Not that the college basketball calendar mattered much to him anymore.
He was five years removed from an unceremonious split with Ohio State University, where, over 13 seasons as head basketball coach, he had won five conference titles, made nine NCAA tournament appearances and two Final Fours, won Big Ten Coach of the Year three times, and amassed a school-record 337 wins. The divorce was abrupt and complicated: The student-athletes had suddenly stopped responding, five top-rated recruits left the program, and for the first time since Matta’s first season, the Buckeyes had missed postseason play. But underlying all of that was the fact that Matta’s own body had simply betrayed him.
For years he’d suffered through back discomfort. But in 2007, a botched surgery to alleviate that pain left him permanently disabled, his right foot dragging when he walked. He was unable to put on or take off his own shoes and socks, useless to follow his daughters at cross-country meets, confined to a special chair when coaching his players. He had gritted through a decade of bus rides, recruiting flights, and long days and nights in the film room, his office, and on the bench only to be cut loose. If Ohio State was done with him—or basketball in general, for that matter—so be it. “It was time,” he says. “It was just time.”
It took four years after his firing for Matta to even get close to basketball again, when in March 2021, he accepted a job as associate athletic director for Indiana University. But as far as returning to coaching and limping up and down the sideline, Matta was less than enthusiastic.
Then his phone rang.
On the other end of the line was Barry Collier, Matta’s former coach and boss as a fledgling assistant at Butler. Collier was now longtime athletic director for the Bulldogs, and he wanted to know if Matta thought it was time to come home.
GREG ODEN was in Columbus, Ohio, when he heard that his former coach had accepted the position of head coach of Butler men’s basketball. For Oden, the announcement came “out of the blue.”
He was surprised because, as a student manager for Matta’s 2016-17 Ohio State team, Oden had had a courtside seat for his mentor’s demise. He witnessed what had once seemed destined to be a Hall of Fame coaching career gradually diminish over the course of a season before burning out. He saw the mental and physical toll it took on his friend. And perhaps more than anyone, Oden understood how Matta felt in that frustrated, defeated moment. That’s because at the precipice of his own promising basketball career, Oden’s body had turned on him, too.
Even before he had helped launch Matta’s coaching trajectory by becoming the highest-rated basketball recruit in Buckeye history, Oden was pegged for mega-stardom. He was National High School Player of the Year, a two-time All-American, and Mr. Basketball USA at Indy’s Lawrence North High School. More than that, he was being featured on ESPN and written about in Sports Illustrated; widely hailed as the next LeBron James; a court-smart, quick-stepping 7-foot, 250-pound force of nature who was bound to make an immediate impact at the highest levels of the game. After one season at Ohio State, during which he was named first-team All-Big Ten, Portland made him the No. 1 overall pick in the 2007 NBA Draft.
Then, little more than a month before his scheduled NBA debut, Oden was sidelined with a microfracture in his right knee. He missed the entire season. The following year, he left his first-ever professional game with a foot injury after 13 minutes. Two months into his third campaign, he injured his left knee and was hauled off the court on two stretchers strapped together to fit his massive frame. It was, for all purposes, the end of his playing career before it began. The next four years were a blur of surgeries, a failed comeback attempt, and a very public arrest for punching his ex-girlfriend. That’s when he got a call from Matta inviting him back to Columbus to be student manager. “I was in a bad place mentally after the arrest,” says Oden. “I didn’t know which way my life was going. Coach Matta’s was the call that got me back around the game and back to college to finish my degree.”
The move back to Ohio also put Oden on a path to being a coach. He was a graduate assistant for the Buckeyes when Matta called again last April offering Oden a position as Butler’s director of basketball operations. More than a job offer, Matta was inviting his protégé back home to Indy, where together the two of them could try and start the second act of their respective careers.
MATTA NEVER wanted to leave Indy in the first place. He remembers walking through Hinkle Fieldhouse in 2001, during his first season as a head basketball coach at his Indy alma mater, on his way to the office of then–athletic director John Parry. He stopped at a framed photo of the arena’s namesake, who had coached the Bulldogs for the better part of five decades. “I told myself, I’m not leaving,” says Matta. “I’m going to be the next Tony Hinkle.”
At the time, it was an audacious claim. Matta had been a two-year starter as a player at Butler, a team co-captain his senior year. After graduation and a quick detour at Indiana State, he spent three years as an administrative assistant under then–head coach Collier, before leaving for his first full-time assistant coaching gig at Miami of Ohio. In 1997, Collier brought Matta back to be his top assistant. Together, they led the Bulldogs to three straight seasons of 20-plus wins and three consecutive postseason berths—the first time that had ever happened at Butler.
The success carried Collier to a head coaching job at the University of Nebraska in 2000. Parry named Matta as Collier’s successor. “I thought he would get the job—if he hadn’t, I definitely wanted to take him with me to Nebraska,” says Collier. “To succeed at Butler, you’ve got to recruit well and develop the individuals. I think he was a really good recruiter. It’s one thing to believe that the school you’re recruiting players to is a great place; it’s another to have lived it. Thad has lived it as a Bulldog. He’s always loved Butler, and the longer he’s been associated with the school, the deeper that love has become.”
Matta believed that feeling was mutual, especially after a rookie season that saw his Bulldogs finish with a school-record 24 wins, a Midwestern Collegiate Conference season and tournament title, and Butler’s first NCAA tournament win since 1962. He was named MCC Coach of the Year. His wife had just given birth to their second daughter, and after paying homage to Mr. Hinkle’s shrine, Matta walked into Parry’s office looking to negotiate a long-term deal that would keep him at Butler at least until his youngest child graduated from college a Bulldog. But it was not to be.
“The meeting didn’t go well at all,” says Matta. “At the time, I was told that I hadn’t proven myself. They only offered me, I think, four years or something. I came out and was like, My God, I think I need to go.”
So when Xavier approached that offseason with an opportunity to coach in the Atlantic 10 Conference, a clear step up from the little MCC, Matta took the gig. He moved his family out of their dream house in Indy to a new home in Cincinnati. Looking back, he says he has no regrets, and if he did at the time, it certainly didn’t impact his performance. He immediately led the Musketeers to three straight 26-win seasons and consecutive conference titles in 2002 and 2003. They made the NCAA tournament all three years, advancing as far as the Elite Eight in 2004. He was also a finalist for the 2002-03 Naismith National Coach of the Year Award.
That was enough to draw the attention of major programs, including Ohio State, which was emerging from a scandal involving improper benefits being given to players, a clear NCAA rules violation. The school had fired its previous coach over the affair and was looking for someone young, with a clean record to pick up the pieces. From Matta’s position, this was more than just a promotion, it was a chance for the Hoopeston, Illinois, native to coach in the Big Ten, the conference he grew up watching. The Buckeyes announced Matta’s hiring in July 2004.
In his first year at Ohio State, Matta cleaned up the mess left from the NCAA ruling fallout, even though the team was banned from postseason play, and won 20 games, including an upset of top-ranked and undefeated Illinois. In 2005-06, the Buckeyes won the Big Ten. Meanwhile, Matta set to building the program’s future. This was going to be a new test of his recruiting expertise. At schools like Butler and even Xavier, the task was to find players who had been overlooked by bigger schools, usually raw talent that could be developed over the course of four years. But to compete at the highest levels, teams in the Power Five conferences gamble on blue-chip prospects with the knowledge that, if they are as good as advertised, they’ll jump to the NBA after only a year or two. This meant that coaches had to repeatedly reload year after year to stay on top. Complicating that situation was the fact that in 2005, the NBA instituted a rule requiring all players to be out of high school for a year before entering the league. That meant even prep stars who might be NBA-ready were now fair game for college coaches.
Matta responded by landing the second-highest-rated recruiting class in college basketball, the so-called “Thad Five.” He got commitments from in-state natives David Lighty and Daequan Cook, and junior college transfer from North Carolina, Othello Hunter. But for the crown jewels of the class, Matta went back to Indianapolis, where he had been scouting two AAU and high school teammates since his days at Butler. One of them was Mike Conley Jr. The other was the top prize in the country, Mr. Basketball himself, Greg Oden.
INDY HAS always been where Oden fits in. Obviously, that’s no easy feat for someone 7 feet tall, let alone a 7-foot-tall teenager who is hyped as a future basketball Hall of Famer before he’s old enough to drive.
Mark Titus grew up in Brownsburg and played AAU ball with Oden from middle school on. He remembers how quickly the circus of scouts, coaches, and media started following Oden’s every step. “With the snap of a finger, we went from playing in front of just our parents to gyms packed to the gills with people to see Greg and [Conley Jr.],” says Titus. “It was a whirlwind for him and for me too. My friend was being pulled away from me. We’d go on these trips, and he suddenly wasn’t as available as he used to be. People were always noticing him, always bothering him when we’d go out to eat. They’d come up to him for a photo or an autograph.” By the time Oden got to high school and the hype machine reached critical mass, just about every student at Lawrence North knew the big man. But in those hallways, Oden could tower over the masses and not be hounded—even when ESPN or other national media invaded to chronicle his every move. He was allowed to just be the quiet bookworm he wanted to be. He was allowed to just be Greg. The same went for Lawrence and even much of the larger city in the places where he and his mother, brother, and closest friends would frequent. Strangers would obviously notice him, even shout out his name, but then they’d move on and let him be.
Perhaps that’s part of the reason why Oden was drawn to Matta, someone he had been familiar with and seen in the crowd at AAU games from the earliest days when the coach was still at Butler. Matta certainly possessed the Hoosier sincerity that Oden had grown to appreciate. “Once you meet the guy, his personality, his humor, and his storytelling are second to very few,” says Oden, looking back. “He’s genuine.” For instance, whenever Oden would call Matta, he’d introduce himself as “Greg Oden from Indianapolis.” Matta would quickly reply: “Who?”
Columbus wasn’t Indy, but it was close, both literally and figuratively. By bringing in Conley Jr., Oden’s teammate at Lawrence North; Cook, whom Oden and Conley had played with in AAU (both stars and coveted recruits in their own right, by the way); and Titus, who enrolled and walked on to the Buckeyes, Matta had, in effect, transplanted a piece of Oden’s Indiana to Ohio. The rest was just two and a half hours west on Interstate 70. Still, Matta remembers Oden was reluctant to leave his comfort zone. “Greg called me the summer when he was getting ready to come to Ohio State and said, ‘Coach, I’m kind of nervous that the guys won’t like me,’” says Matta. “I told him, ‘Greg, if they don’t like you, I’ll get rid of them.’”
Oden’s “one-and-done” year at Ohio State wasn’t eye-popping from a statistical standpoint. He didn’t even play until December due to a wrist injury he’d sustained his senior year of high school. But he still averaged a double-double, was still an All-American, and, further, it was the flashes of greatness he showed in his time, particularly during the Buckeyes’s NCAA tournament run to the finals, that really excited NBA front offices. He had a game-saving block in the Sweet Sixteen win over Tennessee, and 25 points and 12 rebounds in the championship loss to Florida. Before he would solidify his own greatness as head coach of the NBA’s Golden State Warriors, Steve Kerr wrote of Oden on Yahoo Sports: “[He] is a once-in-a-decade–type player, and if a team has any chance of getting him, it has to hang on to that chance.”
After the NCAA championship game, Oden announced he would enter the 2007 NBA Draft, in which the Portland Trailblazers picked him first overall, ahead of future Hall of Famer Kevin Durant. Before Oden’s first practice, he signed a contract for four years and $22 million. But while the world saw it as the next step in Oden’s inevitable rise, Matta knew better. He knew that Oden was largely doing this because he felt he had to. He didn’t want to go.
PORTLAND, OREGON, is 2,263 miles from Indianapolis, city center to city center. But today, when Oden talks about the loneliness he experienced almost immediately upon arrival in the NBA, he’s not referring to geographic isolation or even the awkwardness of being a painfully shy 19-year-old showing up to prove himself among grown men on the world’s biggest hardwood stage. He’s remembering what it was like to be sidelined from your life because of injury.
When a professional athlete is hurt, not only are they not playing, they’re not participating. While their teammates are practicing on the court, they are in the training room getting checked out or in the gym rehabbing. While the team is traveling nonstop to and from away games, the injured stay home. During that missed rookie season, Oden had nothing but time to dwell on his misfortune and fret about his future alone. “I was lonely and missing family,” he says. “It definitely got to me sometimes—more than few times.”
Oden has been open about his use of alcohol and painkillers during this period of his life, to ease the physical pain, the loneliness, and, eventually, the creeping notion that by not living up to the impossibly high expectations heaped on him since he was in middle school, he was letting everyone down. Adding to the frustration was the fact that, when he was able to step onto the court, he was showing promise. In 2008-09, his belated rookie season, Oden had 16 double-doubles, averaging about nine points and seven rebounds in 61 games. But four days after setting a career high with 20 rebounds, he chipped his kneecap, which sidelined him for three weeks during the season and led to his second surgery. Just 21 games into the 2009-10 season, the team announced Oden’s year was over due to another knee surgery. He renegotiated his contract. Three more knee surgeries later, the Trailblazers waived him.
After a year of rehabbing his physical injuries, Oden caught on with the Miami Heat in 2013-14. Playing alongside LeBron James, the wunderkind to whom he was once compared, Oden played in 26 games, including three playoff games in which he pulled down a single rebound. After the season, the Heat let his one-year contract expire.
That summer of 2014, Oden called Matta one night after midnight. He told his old coach that he didn’t think he could do this anymore. Matta invited him back to Columbus to volunteer on a summer tour with the team, but Oden backed out. Weeks later, police responded to a 911 call from Oden’s mother’s house in Lawrence. Oden told the cops that he had hit his then-girlfriend after an argument. He later pleaded guilty to felony battery and got probation, a fine, and an order to attend counseling.
This time, Matta called Oden, urging him to come back to Columbus, to come back to basketball. This time, Oden followed through.
[pullquote align=”left” caption=”Butler basketball head coach Thad Matta”]”[Greg’s] IQ was always so good as a basketball player. I knew that he could teach the game. And I love him being around the guys. Greg has seen everything, from the top to the bottom. For him to be as humble and even-keel as he is, it blows my mind.”[/pullquote]
WHILE MATTA watched the prolonged heart-wrenching downfall of a favored pupil from afar, he also had a basketball program to run and a reputation to uphold.
On the backs of Oden, Conley, and company, he had launched Ohio State basketball into the national spotlight. But only two of the Thad Five, Hunter and Lighty, stuck around for an encore Buckeye season. The next year’s team missed the NCAA tourney altogether and ended up winning the NIT. Since this was officially Matta’s first full-time tenure of more than four years at the same school, the gift for recruiting talent that Collier had spotted more than a decade prior was about to tested again.
He passed. The buzz from the Thad Five created some momentum that Matta was able to carry over from year to year for the next decade. Oden and Conley Jr. were followed by a cavalcade of McDonald’s High School All-Americans (Kosta Koufos, William Buford), future first-round NBA draft picks (B.J. Mullens, Jared Sullinger, and D’Angelo Russell), and others who would eventually work their way into the league or play professionally abroad (Dallas Lauderdale, Jon Diebler). And they weren’t all one-and-done guys; many were three- and four-year student-athletes whom Matta was able to develop, like Evan Turner, who was only a four-star recruit that left after his junior year at Ohio State to be drafted second overall by the 76ers.
Matta characterizes his recruiting approach as specializing in guys “who don’t want to be recruited.” In other words, they just wanted to be treated like a human being. “As a recruit, you could be talking to him, and 20 minutes go by and he’s hardly talked about basketball,” says Diebler, who played four years for Matta between 2007 and 2011 and is now Matta’s director of recruiting at Butler. “It’s not just about basketball. He cares about his players as individuals. And that’s why former players continue to talk to him, continue to come back and support him and the culture he develops.”
Of course, a great selling point of any program is sustained success, which seemed to come easy to Matta. Through it all, he maintained the same laidback approach as a coach that he brought as a recruiter. “He’s one of the worst yellers I’ve ever seen,” says Titus, who played four years for Matta between 2006 and 2010. “He can yell, and his face will turn red, but you don’t trust it. You’re so used to him being a lovable guy. He’d drop-kick a ball, and it’s almost funny. I’d have to hide my face in my jersey. He wasn’t there to get you to fall in line. He was there to help you become the best version of yourself. That made you respect him.”
But as the years went by, and Titus returned to Columbus to visit, he noticed a change in his former coach. “My freshman year, he’d be diving after loose balls to make a point to his players about not hustling,” he says. “After I graduated, there’d be times during halftime of games when he’d be laying on his back trying to figure out how he was going to make it through the rest of the game.”
Matta had had back issues that dated back to his playing days at Butler. In 2007, a surgery that was supposed to fix the issue instead left his back as messed up as ever and with a “drop foot” on his right side that required a metal brace to help him walk. He never made excuses, in public or private. He didn’t have to—he was winning.
That changed quickly in 2015-16, when the team still won 21 games, but finished seventh in the conference and missed the NCAA tournament. Worse, that offseason, four players from a 2015 recruiting class that had ranked fifth in the nation left after their freshman year for other schools. A fifth just quit the team altogether before being arrested on misdemeanor charges of public intoxication and criminal mischief. The next season, what was left of the Buckeyes won only 17 games, finishing 10th in the Big Ten. “I saw players not gravitating to the guy that I’ve known,” says Oden, the student manager for that final season. “The younger kids that didn’t appreciate the type of coach that he is and the type of motivation he used. It definitely felt like selfishness in the players. He was still trying to be Thad, to teach them how to play the game the right way and put them in the best spot to get them to wherever they wanted to go in life. It just wasn’t clicking. And it seemed like it beat him up.”
After his firing, Matta moved back to Indianapolis, to a house not three minutes from Butler’s Hinkle Fieldhouse. But he didn’t even want to look at a basketball.
IT’S EARLY November 2022, and the light of a waning afternoon streams in through the windows of Hinkle Fieldhouse. Matta walks through the glass door of the Butler men’s basketball offices, past a miniature billboard with his picture next to bold white type: WELCOME HOME, THAD MATTA. The ever-present brace beneath his black running pants notwithstanding, the 55-year-old coach walks briskly, with purpose, still wet from a post-workout shower and ready to get to work at 3 p.m. practice.
Matta’s abstinence from the game lasted little more than a year. He couldn’t resist checking in on Butler basketball, as he had done periodically throughout his career in Cincinnati and Columbus. After a couple years he even entertained some offers to coach, but none was a fit. When he accepted the front office job in Bloomington last year, Collier took notice, though he had no opening for his old protégé at the time. When the Bulldogs parted ways with head coach LaVall Jordan at the beginning of April, Collier figured he’d give Matta a call. “Anytime you get the chance to hire a Hall of Fame coach who’s got a bunch of gas in his tank, you do it,” says Collier. “I had never discussed the job with him and had no idea if he’d take it. But you don’t do something for 20 years and not like it a lot. Beyond that, he loves Butler, and he knows Butler.”
As Matta enters the gymnasium cacophonous with bouncing basketballs, squeaking sneakers, and shouting student-athletes, he’s aware he’s stepping into a completely different job from the one he left. Butler is no longer a barely mid-major MCC program vying for the only bid that its conference will get to the Big Dance. It is now a nationally recognized brand and member of the Big East conference—more like Ohio State than the Butler of 2001. The many banners that have been hung since his departure, including two NCAA tournament runners-up, attest to the new expectations.
Matta won’t try to live up to them by himself. Following behind the head coach, Oden ducks his head through the doorway and onto the Hinkle hardwood. He’s carrying a stack of papers, one-sheet rundowns of practice, and he hands a few of them out to some alumni who have been invited to observe. They all smile in recognition and a few exchange fist bumps with the Hoosier celebrity, happy to see him. Oden says that’s indicative of most of his interactions since returning home to Indy, where his support group now extends beyond family and friends who knew him when. “The people who recognize him in Indy, it’s different,” says Titus, who has gone out to dinner with Oden since the return. “Part of the reason he loved Ohio and he loves Indianapolis is because they are the two places where no one cares how many points he scored in the NBA. They’re all strangers, but they talk to him like he’s a native son. It’s an understood thing: You fist bump and move on.”
But Oden isn’t here to hide or even just get on with life. He’s here to coach, to help these players succeed, and, he hopes, one day follow in the path of his mentor. Matta didn’t hire him out of pity; he believes his friend is wise beyond his 34 years. “His IQ was always so good as a basketball player,” says Matta. “I knew that he could teach the game. And I love him being around the guys. Greg has seen everything, from the top to the bottom. For him to be as humble and even-keel as he is, it blows my mind.”
Neither is Matta here as some sort of coach emeritus, easing into his sunset years. He wants to get Butler back to winning, a tougher ask in the Big East than in the MCC. But just because he’s driving toward the future doesn’t mean he doesn’t feel nostalgic for his beloved alma mater. Interestingly, he thinks back to the promise he made himself in front of the portrait of Tony Hinkle, that he’d be coach here when his newborn daughter graduated. As it turns out, that daughter is scheduled to walk with her degree from Butler this spring.
“These guys go out in the world, and they see success and failure,” says Titus. “But either way, as you get older, where you want to be is around your people.”