Into the Matta-Verse

Thad Matta stands on the sidelines during his time as head coach of Ohio State. On April 3, Matta was announced as the next head coach of the Butler men’s basketball team. Photo courtesy of insidethehall.com.

HENRY BREDEMEIER | MANAGING EDITOR | hbredeme@butler.edu 

In a 72-hour period, the Butler men’s basketball program traded one alumni turned coach for another. On April 1, a press release from Associate Athletics Director/Communications John Dedman announced that head coach LaVall Jordan and the program had “parted ways.” Just 48 hours later, Dedman sent out a new release, announcing that Thad Matta would return to Butler as head coach. Matta will be introduced to the Butler community at Hinkle Fieldhouse on April 6 at 2:30 p.m.

This quick change came as a shock to some. There was speculation that Jordan would be let go after back-to-back losing seasons, but the program waited nearly three weeks after the last game to cut ties. Reportedly, this was because of a clause in Jordan’s contract that lowered the buyout if he was released after April 1, which caused backlash among fans and journalists alike, accusing Vice President/Director of Athletics Barry Collier of putting finances above basketball decisions.

This became even more pronounced after multiple players expressed discontent online about the decision, and promising freshman Simas Lukosius entered his name into the transfer portal hours after the news broke. However, once Matta was announced to succeed Jordan, much of the discontent about Jordan’s departure dissipated.

Nick Gardner, Butler radio color analyst and former member of the Butler men’s basketball team, said he felt an immediate buzz surrounding the hire.

“You look at just the last few men’s basketball coaches, they’ve been younger, you know, up and coming really good coaches, but they didn’t have the resume at the time of the hiring that coach Matta does now,” Gardner said. 

Thad is back

Matta, 54, has served as a Division I head coach for 17 seasons – at Butler, Xavier and Ohio State – and amassed a 439-154 record and 13 NCAA Tournament bids. Despite only one previous season as the head coach at Butler in 2000-01, Matta’s connection to the university and the basketball program runs deep. 

Matta spent three seasons playing basketball at Butler from 1987-90, serving as one of the team’s captains in the 1989-90 season – Collier’s first season as head coach. After graduating in 1990, Matta spent a year as a graduate assistant at Indiana State before returning to the Butler basketball program as an academic coordinator and administrative assistant from 1991-94. Matta moved onto an assistant coaching role at Miami of Ohio for the 1994-95 season, then to Western Carolina for one season, and back to Miami for the 1996-97 season. After three years away from Butler, he returned to the program as an assistant coach under then-head coach Barry Collier. 

Sally Wirthwein, Butler alumna and Hinkle historian, said that when Collier left Butler to take the head coach position at Nebraska in 2000, there were mixed feelings among the fanbase. While Wirthwein was excited for Collier and saw Nebraska’s interest in him to be a validation of how far the program had come, there was a sense of unease about the future. But then, Matta was chosen to succeed Collier as head coach. 

“It meant we again had a coach who had been raised in the ‘Butler Way,’ understood what it was about,” Wirthwein said. “So there was this nice continuity. But again, not quite certain what was going to happen next.”

What happened next was one of the most successful seasons Butler had seen to date. Gardner, who was a freshman walk-on in Matta’s only season as head coach in 2000-01, remembers Matta and the team setting lofty goals for the season before it started. 

“Our goal was pretty clear,” Gardner said. “It was, you know, to win the league, to go compete for an NCAA championship, but we also wanted to win 24 games, because that was the school record. And that was something that was discussed. That was a marker that we wanted to attain. And we did.” 

Matta and the Bulldogs ended the regular season with a 23-7 record, winning both the Midwestern Collegiate Conference regular season and tournament title and securing an automatic bid to the 2001 NCAA Tournament. The Bulldogs were a 10-seed, looking to win its first NCAA Tournament game since 1962, and were matched up against 7-seed Wake Forest. The celebration started early, as Butler jumped out to a whooping 43-10 lead at halftime. Wirthwein remembers attending that game in Kansas City and said the experience was surreal. 

“We’re sitting there and – I’d have to go back and look at the stats – but we hit a crazy number of threes in the first half, I wanna say eight threes,” Wirthwein said. “It’s like, the basket was giant. Like everything they threw in that direction went in … Everything that could’ve gone right, went right.” 

In the end, Butler pulled off the 79-63 upset and tied the school record for most wins in a season – 24 – reaching the mark the team set before the season. The Bulldogs lost in the second round to the eventual runner-up Arizona Wildcats, but the program had finally gotten the elusive Tournament win.

After the season though, Matta left Butler to take the head coaching position at Xavier. Gardner described the situation as a “whirlwind,” but said eventually the team had to move on and put their focus on the new goal: advancing to the Sweet 16 with head coach Todd Lickliter.

Matta, on the other hand, had instant success at Xavier. In his three seasons as head coach from 2001-04, Matta led the Musketeers to the NCAA Tournament every year, winning two Atlantic-10 regular seasons titles and two Atlantic-10 tournament championships during his tenure. 

After the 2004 season, Matta moved from Cincinnati to Columbus, taking the helm of the Ohio State basketball program. Yet again, success and NCAA Tournament berths followed. He led the Buckeyes to nine NCAA Tournament appearances from 2004-17, including two Final Four appearances in 2007 and 2012. Matta’s Buckeyes won five regular season Big Ten titles and four Big Ten Tournament titles. 

Matta is the winningest coach in Ohio State basketball history. Based on his success in 17 seasons as a head coach, Gardner is excited about Matta being hired back at Butler for a second stint.

“I think it’s exciting,” Gardner said. “I don’t think there’s any doubt about it when you’re able to bring a coach with the resume that coach Matta has, obviously the ties, the connections to the university. It speaks for itself. I mean, his records are unbelievable. I think a lot of times people overlook how much he won and all the stops and how successful he was at Ohio State.” 

In the press release announcing Matta’s return to Butler, Matta expressed his excitement to come back to campus and coach at Hinkle Fieldhouse once again. 

“Butler is a special place, one that Barb, Ali, Emily and I each chose as our school,” Matta said. “I’m grateful for the opportunity to return to Butler and lead our men’s basketball program. There is a solid foundation in place and I’m confident that Butler will consistently be among the top programs in the Big East. I can’t wait to attack the work we have in front of us and to be back on the sidelines at Hinkle Fieldhouse.” 

The LaVall fallout

Among all of the players, coaches and managers in the team photo of Matta’s lone season as head coach in 2000-01, seven have become Division I head coaches and two have become assistant coaches. One of them is none other than a team captain of that season, LaVall Jordan. 

In a Butler Collegian article by former Sports Editor Will Haskett, published on March 29, 2001, Matta is quoted praising the ability and leadership of Jordan after his playing career had come to an end. Matta is quoted saying, “LaVall will make money off basketball.” 

And make money he did. After graduating from Butler, Jordan spent two years in the G-League with the Huntsville Flight, before heading into coaching full-time. Jordan started as an assistant at Butler under head coach Todd Lickliter in 2003, and when Lickliter left the program in 2007 to take the job at Iowa, Jordan followed. Lickliter was fired by Iowa in 2010, and Jordan took an assistant coaching position at Michigan under John Beilein, where he stayed for six seasons, helping the Wolverines advance to the National Championship Game in 2013.

In 2016, Jordan became the head coach at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. After just one season, Jordan was hired in June 2017 to replace Chris Holtmann at Butler, who ironically left Butler to replace Matta at Ohio State. 

Jordan had early success at Butler, leading the team to a win over No. 1 Villanova in his first season, as well as an NCAA Tournament win. In the 2019-20 season, Jordan’s Bulldogs, led by Kamar Baldwin and Sean McDermott, went 22-9 in the regular season and were briefly ranked No. 5 in the AP poll, the highest a Butler team has ever been ranked during the regular season. However, the season was cut short due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and that Butler team never got the chance to play in the Big East Tournament or the NCAA Tournament. 

After not having a chance to capitalize on the success of the 2019-20 team, Jordan’s Bulldogs finished five games below .500 in each of the past two seasons. This past season, Butler finished with a 14-19 record, the most losses a Butler team has had since the 1989-90 season. 

In the release announcing Jordan and the university would be “parting ways,” Collier explained the difficulty of the decision.

“These decisions are never easy, but are incredibly more difficult when it impacts a high-character Bulldog who has represented our university so well for many years,” Collier said. “I want to thank LaVall for his dedication to our program, and we wish him and his family all the best moving forward.” 

A member of the 2021-22 men’s basketball team, who asked to remain anonymous, explained in an email to The Butler Collegian his reaction to Jordan being let go.

“This decision did not come as a surprise, nonetheless, I was devastated to hear such a great individual be fired from the University,” the player said. “In terms of notice, I was informed the same time as the public, however, this might have been different for returning players.“

The player went on to explain what Jordan and his leadership meant to him. 

“LaVall is a great individual and a great leader,” the player said in the email. “Through ongoing adverse circumstances, he not only kept his composure, but was gracious to his team and staff. Very few coaches would’ve handled this situation similarly. In addition to this, he genuinely cared for his players as individuals; he framed basketball in the larger context of life.” 

This player was not the only one to be saddened about Jordan departing the program. Hours after the announcement, freshman standout Simas Lukosius followed Bryce Golden and Mike Parker into the transfer portal. Chuck Harris sent out a tweet that read, “Pain.” Jayden Taylor tweeted a broken heart emoji following the announcement, but on April 5 posted on Instagram indicating his intention to return to Butler. Butler’s lone 2022 high school recruit, Connor Turnbull, announced that he would be reopening his recruitment, but told Butler basketball reporter Lukas Harkins that returning to Butler is “100% still an option.” 

The day after Jordan was let go, he posted a letter on Twitter, thanking Butler, the players, coaches and their families and fans of the team.

“My family & I will always value the relationships formed with so many fantastic people at Butler,” Jordan wrote, in part. “We’ll be forever grateful and will be cheering for the Bulldogs in the future. We are praying for God’s next assignment for us.”

The state of Butler basketball

Now that the head coaching change is official, it is time for Matta to build his staff and team for the 2022-23 season. According to David Woods, IndyStar Butler men’s basketball beat reporter, Matta has brought in Kevin Kuwik to be an assistant coach. Kuwik has spent the past five seasons as an assistant coach at Davidson and previously worked under Matta at Ohio State as a video coordinator and as the Director of Operations at Butler under Brad Stevens.

While the importance of Matta’s staff should not be understated, there is a lot of work to be done with the roster. With seven graduates, players entering the transfer portal and Turnbull re-opening his recruitment, Butler only has seven players who are set to return to the program. Matta and his staff will have to utilize high school recruiting in addition to the transfer portal – which currently has over 1,000 players – to fill out the roster. 

In a video released by the Butler men’s basketball’s Twitter, Matta recognized he can’t have a set style of play until the roster has been filled out. However, he said fans can look to his past to see the type of basketball he likes to put out. 

“Obviously playing hard is not an option, we’re gonna play extremely hard,” Matta said in the video. “But with that, I want us to play really smart basketball … I’m gonna have to coach in a style that is conducive for our players to be successful. With that said, watching my teams in the past, I love to play uptempo, we’ve primarily been man-to-man, we have played some zone, but I want our guys up to touch, I want our guys being as disruptive as they possibly can defensively.”

While the immediate future of the Butler men’s basketball team is uncertain, Gardner believes that hiring a big-name head coach like Matta has the potential to elevate Butler’s standing in the Big East.

“I think number one, it brings in – not that there was any lack of credibility – but it brings an instant cachet and credibility to Butler University men’s basketball at a time again, in the Big East when you’re competing against, you know, some high-level coaches, some high-level schools, where you’ve got to try to distinguish yourself,” Gardner said.

Likewise, Wirthwein explained her excitement for Matta’s return and the upcoming season.

“The choice of Thad, at this moment in time, is an exceptional choice,” Wirthwein said. “I think … it’s captured everybody’s imagination and I’m really excited for next year. Really excited.”

The Butler University Athletic Department declined to comment further on parting ways with LaVall Jordan.

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