INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Thad Matta’s first tenure as head coach at Butler lasted one season.
This time around, he’s hoping to stick around a little longer – with a familiar script that’s propelled the Bulldogs to unprecedented heights in the decade since his departure.
On Wednesday, more than 20 years after Matta left his alma mater, the 54-year-old former Ohio State basketball coach was re-introduced to a fanbase who embraced him for three seasons as a player, six seasons on the coaching staff and this one liner in his memorable season he the show.
It seemed like he never left.
“What I love about Butler is that Butler is old school in a new world,” Matta told the welcome car crowd gathered at the Hinkle Fieldhouse. “You get what you deserve here. You have to get out and you deserve it. That’s what I love about Butler University.”
The Bulldogs appreciate Matta too.
They like the fact that he’s a proven winner with a championship pedigree who has a deep understanding of Butler’s unwavering principles. Matta said Wednesday he coined “The Butler Way” a day after coach Barry Collier took the job in Nebraska, putting Matta in the line-up as a replacement.
“I had no idea The Butler Way was going to stay like this,” Matta said, eliciting laughter. “There is something special about a butler. When the call came I wanted to go back and be a butler guy again.”
This will be a very different situation than the one Matta inherited in 2000-01.
Back then, the Bulldogs were a burgeoning middle power. They achieved a then-school record 24 wins in Matta’s first and only season, won the Midwestern Collegiate Conference tournament title, and defeated Wake Forest for their first NCAA tournament win since 1962.
When Butler lost to Arizona in the second round and Matta went to Xavier, many thought the Bulldogs had peaked. But as Matta continued to win with the Musketeers and later at Ohio State, where he set a school record with 337 of his 439 career wins, Butler’s program continued to climb.
Though the Bulldogs went through five coaches and two conference changes over the next 17 seasons, they made 11 more NCAA tournament appearances — a run that included back-to-back national runners-up titles in 2010 and 2011.
Now Matta must rebuild a program that hasn’t appeared in an NCAA tournament since 2018, though they likely would have made it in 2020 when the event was canceled due to COVID-19 and haven’t been with the Sweet 16 in five years . Butler is also enduring its first consecutive losing season since 1988-90
So Collier, now Butler’s athletic director, fired his former player LaVall Jordan last week and replaced him with his former assistant two days later. Jordan, 42, was Butler’s first black basketball coach and is only the second coach the Bulldogs have fired in 96 years. Joe Sexson, Collier’s predecessor, was the other in 1989.
Collier believes Matta is uniquely qualified to restore Butler’s paths to success.
“We’ve been looking all over the world for a man like that and we found him across the street,” Collier said, referring to Matta’s house nearby.
Yes, Matta said, he’s had other offers as head coach over the past five years, but none have felt right. Also, there were ongoing questions about Matta’s health.
He agreed to leave the Buckeyes after 2016-17 over concerns that chronic ailments related to back surgery he had in 2007 were affecting Ohio State’s results. Matta used a higher chair to get through practice and games for several years, and his final season in Columbus, Ohio was the only time he failed to win at least 20 games.
Chris Holtmann then left Butler and was hired as Matta’s successor.
Matta, on the other hand, spent the next four years in retirement before joining Indiana coach Mike Woodson’s staff last spring. As his health improved, it didn’t take long for Matta’s competitive juices to start flowing again.
“People always asked me if I would come back and I always said I would if I found the perfect situation,” he said. “I didn’t know what the perfect situation was.”
Two days after Jordan’s sacking, Collier made the offer and Matta had no hesitation in accepting it.
Now comes the hard part.
While Matta has yet to decide whether to use the chair or prioritize hiring an assistant with head coaching experience should the physical ailments return, he does plan to edit the transfer portal to try and move players on Butler’s current roster to the Keeping campus and finishing the job he and Collier started all those years ago.
“I’ve done everything you can do as a coach except one – a national championship. I played for it,” Matta said. “I say that in terms of where the goal is and what the mission is. This program was at that level and that’s what we’re aiming for and that’s what we’re striving for.”
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