Timing of Thad Matta’s Ohio State departure surprises high school basketball coaches

CLEVELAND, Ohio — Bob Krizancic headed for his car when his phone lit up.

The Mentor boys basketball coach received a text message from his son, Cole, with the news Thad Matta and Ohio State parted ways. The school and now former men’s basketball coach announced the decision Monday in Columbus.

“I’m shocked,” Krizancic said. “I thought he’d at least have another year. I know his health was bad, the back was bothering him mentally and physically.”

Krizancic is one of two Northeast Ohio high school coaches with a former player currently on the Buckeyes roster. Mentor native Micah Potter and former St. Edward standout Derek Funderburk are among nine scholarship players for next season.

Krizancic called the timing “bizarre,” and St. Edward coach Eric Flannery agreed. Just a week ago, Flannery exchanged texts with Matta about appearing in August at a USA Basketball clinic Flannery will conduct at St. Edward.

Flannery said Matta told him he would not be available because of a family vacation. Turns out, the vacation begins now.

“Even last week when we were talking back and forth about the clinic, he was getting back to me — which many coaches don’t always do,” said Flannery, one of many area coaches to regularly speak with Matta.

Count Villa Angela-St. Joseph’s Babe Kwasniak among them.

Kwasniak first met Matta when the Buckeyes recruited Carlton Bragg. Ohio State already had former VASJ standout David Lighty during its peak run to the NCAA championship game with Greg Oden and Mike Conley. Kwasniak admitted he didn’t like Matta at first, balking at an opportunity to accompany his father, Tedd, and former Beachwood coach Jason Pecjak to see Lighty practice.

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“I remember I told him, I’m just not a fan,” Kwasniak said he told Pecjak. “He told me, ‘You will be.'”

As Matta leaves Ohio State after 13 years, Kwasniak considers himself a staunch supporter.

For the same reason Flannery gave, Kwasniak said Matta returns every call or message. That remained the case for Kwasniak even after Bragg opted for Kansas.

“There were so many times I’d call him,” Kwasniak said. “He’d have no reason to answer me, and I can’t think of one time he didn’t answer or call me back.”

St. Vincent-St. Mary coach Dru Joyce said the same.

Garfield Heights’ Sonny Johnson added similar sentiment.

They all speculated: why now?

Part of the answer is the players Matta lost, including his entire 2015 recruiting class. Matta not only struck out on Bragg, but he missed Shaker Heights’ Esa Ahmad in 2015 to West Virginia and East Tech’s Markell Johnson last year to North Carolina State.

“The last couple of years for whatever reason I know he didn’t get some of the players he wanted,” Joyce said, “and that led to some of the struggles he had.”

Another former VASJ standout, 6-foot-8 Dererk Pardon, started every game at Northwestern and helped the Wildcats win their first NCAA Tournament game.

Ohio State, meanwhile, slumped to a 17-15 record.

“It’s not that he’s been losing,” Joyce said, “but you can’t be middle of the road. You’ve got to be good all of the time.”

The Buckeyes finished no better than fifth in the Big Ten since 2013 and missed the last two NCAA Tournaments. When Matta took over the program, he thrived on the recruiting trail. Oden and Conley were NBA-bound players he plucked from Indiana. In following years, Evan Turner and DeAngelo Russell came and went.

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Flannery concluded the changing conference landscapes and Ohio State’s football roots hurt its basketball staying power. In 2014, eventual two-time Ohio Mr. Basketball winner Luke Kennard picked Duke — not a football power — over his home state.

“If you’re winning the Ohio thing isn’t a big deal, but people go to that card when you’re not doing well,” said Flannery, who first met Matta when Ohio State recruited Delvon Roe in the mid-2000s.

Roe picked Michigan State.

“His job depends on the decision a 17-year-old makes,” Kwasniak said. “That’s pretty frightening.”

Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith said during Monday’s news conference the school will conduct a national search. Krizancic, Flannery and Joyce suspected the school has candidates in mind.

“They’re going to need somebody in there who can develop relationships with coaches in Ohio,” Flannery said. “I think they’re going to try and find somebody that has had success. One advantage they have is the facilities and money. But going back to the timing, it’s going to be difficult to find somebody in the middle of June. Recruiting is heating up and coaches are locked into contracts.”

Whatever happens, a slew of high school coaches said they hope Matta keeps returning those calls and texts.

Contact sports reporter Matt Goul on Twitter (@mgoul) or email (mgoul@cleveland.com). Or log in and leave a message below in the comments section.

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