Sonny Fulks
Sonny Fulks
Managing Editor

Sonny Fulks is a graduate of Ohio State University and pitched four varsity seasons for the Buckeye baseball team from 1971 through 1974.  He furthered his baseball experience as a minor league league umpire for seven years, working in the Florida State League (A), the Southern League (AA), and the American Association (AAA).  He has written for numerous websites and outdoor publications, and for the past ten years has served as a regular columnist and photo editor for Gettysburg Magazine, published by the University of Nebraska Press.  Widely knowledgeable on that period of American History, Fulks is a frequent speaker on the Civil War at local roundtables throughout the Midwest. He and wife Mindy have two grown children and live in Covington, Ohio.

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The manner in which Ohio State changed basketball coaches this week wasn’t smooth, and it left many with the impression that change for the sake of change is no change at all.  That being the case, here’s some reasons why I’m going to miss Thad Matta.

There was a lot of talk Friday in Columbus about basketball.

Er, rather…there was a lot of talk in Columbus about a new basketball coach at Ohio State University, just five days after athletic director Gene Smith ‘eased’ Thad Matta to the curb after 13 seasons, five Big Ten championships, two Final Four appearances (2007, ’12), an NIT championship (2008), and in March of 2015 Matta set a school record for career coaching wins, at the time, with 298.

Yet, he was fired this week for reasons of 1) poor health, 2) recent poor performances, and 3) an inability to recruit.

Now they’re not stupid at the corner of Lane and High, and frankly, the only reason of the above three that has any traction is the fact of poor health, and a botched back surgery a few years ago that left Matta in constant and excruciating pain, with little hope for improvement short of physical rebirth.

And by the way, there’s nothing short of childbirth that’s worse than back pain.  I know.  It’s called sciatica (in my case), and there are days when I’d trade it for popping out a set of triplets!

But poor performances?  He finished 17-15 this winter with a team that was undermanned and underwhelming, and yet pulled off eye-opening wins over Michigan State, Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin in the heart of the conference schedule.

And is not basketball (and most sports) a cycle?  What goes around comes around…except for Duke and North Carolina?  You’re only as good as your players, and players come and go.  Which brings this discussion to recruiting.

United Building Materials is proud to sponsor coverage of  OSU baseball on Press Pros Magazine.

United Building Materials is proud to sponsor coverage of OSU  on Press Pros Magazine.

His inability to recruit goes hand in hand with high school basketball in the state of Ohio.  Because, if you’ve been to the state tournament recently…who have you seen that made you say, “Ohio State’s got to have that guy”?  And on a national basis, seriously, what would make top recruits WANT to choose Ohio State over Duke and North Carolina, or Kentucky?  Basketball, more than football or any other sport, tends toward ‘what have you done lately’ in the minds of top prep talent.  Because if you’re that good basketball success and profile helps you get out of 8 am classes and on to the riches of the NBA quicker (D’Angelo Russell), thanks to the NBA’s one-and-done policy.

Which brings the matter back to the way it was handled, which in the minds of some was poorly, owing to a pattern already established by Gene Smith.  On local radio this week, one called Smith’s management style, “ready, shoot, aim”.  My own view from the balcony is that he manages the farm better than he manages the individual crops.  That meaning, football pays all the athletic bills at Ohio State and they don’t make moves this way in football.  They hire and fire differently with the other sports.

Which brings us to the manner in which former Butler coach Chris Holtman ended up being hired on Friday to replace Matta, himself a former coach at Butler, the state of Indiana’s third choice in basketball, following IU and Purdue.

Is he another Brad Stevens, who left Butler four years ago to take the Celtics job?  Could be, I guess, if you’re thinking that everything that comes out of Butler is carbon-copied.  But he (Holtman) could be another Thad Matta, too, which only plays to the argument that basketball, for whatever reason, is not brain surgery, and anything but a sure thing.  There is that cycle.

But look, Thad Matta, for whatever the reason of his stepping down, deserved better…whatever better means with basketball at Ohio State.  One thing certain, it ain’t football and it never will be.  Ohio State IS NOT a basketball school, regardless of the stats they pander that lists them as leading the country in attendance during the Final Four years.  If you question this, go to a University of Dayton game when they play even Furman, and compare the atmosphere and energy to Value City Arena on any given night.  At UD basketball is “WHAT” they do.  At Ohio State basketball is “SOMETHING” to do.

And for the fact of people representing you, they hardly come better than Matta, who always had a genuine smile and handshake for those who recognized him and simply wanted to say hello.  He regularly sat court-side at the state tournament games, and you can’t say that about Urban Meyer…who’s hardly known for his personality and warmth.  Ask Matta for an autograph and he’ll say, “to whom”.  Ask Meyer (if you can catch him), and you’ll get, “I’m on my way to meet someone.”

Matta developed a relationship with our Press Pros colleague Greg Hoard during their years together when Hoard covered Xavier basketball in Cincinnati.  Matta never forgot, and asked frequently when we bumped into each other at tournaments or at post-game press conferences, “How’s Hoardie?”  Remember, where football is taken out of the equation, Ohio people like things like that.  It brings ’em back.  Matta could recruit people even if he came up short on ‘diaper dandies’.

Sonny_thumb0216This is what was lost this week, what many didn’t realize, prior to Thad Matta being fired.  That he really was a good guy, a good coach, and a great ambassador for Buckeye basketball – which by the way, is going to get to the Final Four about once in every twenty five years, historically.  Do the math, and study the records – Fred Taylor, Eldon Miller, Gary Williams, Randy Ayers, and Jim O’Brien.  We know by now that they were all interchangeable;  and Taylor won the only NCAA title in the history of the school…57 years ago!  You’d think someone would have turned up roses since then, before Thad Matta.

But like Matta, they all labored in the shadow of Woody Hayes, Earle Bruce, John Cooper and Urban Meyer.  They always will!

So Thad, thanks for the memories and best wishes with the back.  As it turned out, like every other basketball coach at OSU, we hardly knew you.  Not like we should have.

And pity Chris Holtman.

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