You can leave a job -- and you can leave a job badly. Thad Matta took the second route.
That's not a hanging offense. Matta, who left Xavier for Ohio State on Wednesday night, hasn't become a jerk or a sleaze overnight. But for the time being he has become the person who left Xavier badly, and that's a lot worse than being known as the dignified, trustworthy coach we thought he was ... and we think he probably still is.
|Thad Matta should have chosen his words more wisely when talking about the Ohio State job and his future at Xavier.(AP)|
Last week, asked about his potential interest in the Ohio State job, Matta told The Cincinnati Enquirer: "I'm not a candidate. It's that plain and simple."
If only Matta had quit there. Coaches in his shoes -- happy in one job, yet intrigued by another -- often issue vague statements meant to comfort one employer without closing the door on another.
Matta's above comment did leave plenty of wiggle room, but the hammer he followed with was lowered to leave no doubt about his intentions. He was a Xavier man, plain and simple, based on what he told the paper next:
"I'm not a very public person, so nobody's ever going to know how happy I am at Xavier," he said. "Our players have three (A-10) rings in three years. We've been to the round of 32, round of 32 and Elite Eight (in the NCAA Tournament). I'm sitting here and I probably have one of the longest contracts in the country. I love that."
Indeed, Matta's contract at Xavier was good through the 2012-13 season, the result of his 78-23 record in three seasons and the ensuing outside interest that record has generated. Matta had been approached before, and nothing had happened. Ohio State's reported interest in him looked to be more of the same.
Looks can deceive -- but basketball coaches should not. Vanderbilt's Kevin Stallings understands. So do Rice's Willis Wilson and Penn's Fran Dunphy. They didn't stand on a soap box and declare their allegiance to their current schools while their involvement in the Ohio State search was being reported. They either stayed out of the press or admitted their involvement.
Had any of them been Ohio State's choice, none of them would have left their old job badly.
Matta left badly, though it could have been worse. Worse would have been leaving Xavier with no clear successor, and on July 7 -- one day before the most critical recruiting period of the year begins -- that's about as bad as it would get. Instead he leaves behind assistant Sean Miller, 35, who has been ready to run his own program for several years and probably will get his chance at Xavier.
The big winner in all this is Ohio State, which salvaged its slow-moving, indecisive search by landing a young coach who does win and doesn't cheat.
Thad Matta is still that coach -- young, winning, clean. But he's not quite the Prince Charming we kind of thought he was.
That's his fault. He left badly.