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Myron Medcalf, ESPN Staff Writer 134d

Ohio State made a mess of parting ways with Thad Matta

Men's College Basketball, Ohio State Buckeyes

If they were wise, every athletic director pondering a coaching change to reboot a program would have taken notes on Ohio State's abrupt, messy and awkward Monday news conference announcing the end of head coach Thad Matta's tenure with the Buckeyes.

Athletic director Gene Smith and The Ohio State University provided a beautiful blueprint ... of what not to do when relieving a longtime coach of his responsibilities.

They're two months late.

The best recruits of the 2017 class are signed. And nothing about an early June coaching switch screams stability to the coveted prospects in 2018 and 2019. Plus, most of the elite coaching candidates -- Archie Miller, anyone? -- found new homes or locked up classes too sweet to abandon months ago.

So why not remove Matta after his 17-15 season? And why would the school ask Matta to sit there while his (old) boss told the college basketball world he just wasn't the man for the job anymore? Smith could have handled that part alone and, out of respect, the school could have offered Matta a chance to speak at a later date.

The official news release stated Matta "will no longer be the head men's basketball coach," before listing Matta's accomplishments, which include two Final Four appearances and five Big Ten titles. In the news conference, Matta detailed his ongoing health issues with his feet and back, problems he suggested spawned negative recruiting efforts by opposing coaches.

"I went through a year where I couldn't walk," Matta said during the news conference. "Couldn't take my shoes off after a game."

Matta spoke like a man who needs rest.

But Smith, arguably the most powerful athletic director in collegiate athletics and the commander of a $167 million budget, per USA Today, told a different tale.

He cited the recruiting challenges Matta had in recent years and the overall decline of the program.

"Recruiting is the lifeblood of the program," Smith said.

Yet, the scattered news conference failed to identify the details of what Matta and Smith actually discussed prior to Monday's announcement.

Smith admitted, however, he approached Matta with the decision and did not give him the option of coaching in 2017-18.

Smith's true, unspoken message during that 30-minute news conference?

We're The Ohio State University and we're better than this.

And that's fair.

Matta, by most accounts, is one of college basketball's nice guys.

But that doesn't matter. College basketball is a business.

Ohio State didn't build the $115 million Value City Arena in 1998 to field teams that win 17 games and miss the NCAA tournament in back-to-back seasons. The Buckeyes had won just one NCAA tournament game since 2013's Elite Eight run. They hadn't signed a five-star recruit, according to ESPN.com's rankings, since 2014, the year D'Angelo Russell led the program.

And it has been 10 years since Greg Oden, Mike Conley Jr. and Daequan Cook led Ohio State to the national title game during the 2006-07 season. Matta, who hadn't made any program-altering moves this offseason, had no magic button to shift his team back to prominence.

You can make the argument Matta didn't deserve to stay. But he certainly deserved a better exit. Instead, he sat on a dais in Columbus and called Smith "my friend" about 10 times on Monday afternoon, while his friend told the gathered media he'd never given Matta a chance to fight for his job.

"It's time," Smith repeated throughout.

Perhaps this is best for Ohio State, Smith, Matta and the future of the program.

But a June 5 announcement and news conference complicated a difficult situation, one the school could have resolved in April.

Two months ago, Ohio State would have had more time to identify the best successor. Two months ago, Matta would have known his fate and avoided life on the road as a recruiter, attempting to enhance a program he would soon lose. Two months ago, the current players and assistant coaches would have had the proper opportunity to contemplate their futures.

Smith wants to win, however, and winning demands tough choices.

Perception matters, too.

Late in the news conference, a reporter asked Matta if he'd still have his job if he was 100 percent healthy.

"Yeah," Matta said. "Probably."

In that moment, Smith could have rescued his friend. He could have backed his claims that his health affected his performance and status. He could have stepped in and acted like a concerned colleague instead of a hired auditor who'd just chopped up a company's bloated budget.

There was room for more humanity in that 30 minutes. Empathy, perhaps, after Matta answered that question.

But Smith just sipped his coffee and didn't say a word, leaving us all with this cup of confusion about the timing and execution of Monday's announcement and news conference.

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