Maybe he’d made a mistake.
Thad Matta couldn’t comprehend the noise. In his first Ohio State game after he’d accepted the men’s basketball job in 2004, more than 100,000 fans at Ohio Stadium booed their favorite team when it failed to convert on third down -- during its first drive of the season.
“It was a three-and-out,” Matta said about Ohio State football’s 27-6 victory over Cincinnati in 2004, “and 105,000 are booing and I’m going, ‘What did I get myself into?’"
Since then, Matta has enjoyed a strong run with Ohio State basketball, and the football team hasn’t waned either. Last year’s national title run enhanced the standing of Urban Meyer’s assembly and the entire athletic department.
So Matta -- and his colleagues at schools recognized for their powerhouse football programs -- views his colleagues on the gridiron as pillars, not overshadowing entities that force Ohio State basketball to sing backup. Perhaps that’s just politically correct rah-rah school pride, but the bounty clearly outweighs any challenges for Matta and other coaches in his situation.
“I think, without a doubt, the brand of Ohio State is incredible,” Matta said. “In 11 years, I’ve missed one kickoff. You see the passion.”
The growth of that brand expands the footprint of their respective programs. And that helps every sport, especially basketball.
Scott Drew has watched Baylor football blossom in recent years under Art Briles. The Bears’ football success has impacted basketball too. Pro quarterback Robert Griffin III visits practice and speaks to the team.
The school’s increased popularity -- connected to the football team’s progress -- has made it easier for Drew to walk into the family rooms of recruits throughout the country. They might not know much about his program, but they’ve probably watched Baylor battle Michigan State in the Cotton Bowl (voted the top game of the 2014 season by ESPNU) or face another opponent in a prime-time game. That’s a boost for his team’s profile, he said.
“It helps get your foot in the door of a recruit outside the region, no question,” Drew said. “It all feeds off each other.”
Added Florida State’s Leonard Hamilton about the impact of Florida State football on his basketball squad: “I don’t ever have to go and introduce myself.”
This isn’t 1953. That year, Bear Bryant left Kentucky for Texas A&M reportedly to get out of Adolph Rupp’s and Kentucky basketball’s shadow. That tussle shifted at schools around the country as college football exploded and gobbled everything in its path. Basketball coaches at a multitude of schools watched fundraisers raise money to build massive stadiums for football while they remained in outdated facilities.
The boon of TV and bowl money, however, has nullified those disparities on many campuses. Last year, the SEC awarded $292.8 million to its members, a record for the league. The Big Ten reportedly sent $32 million to its schools. Combine that with the millions that pour in through ticket revenue and booster money, and everybody eats.
“It’s a great help,” Oklahoma’s Lon Kruger said. “The atmosphere and culture of football weekend. We use it for recruiting. It’s all great. We love bringing prospects to campus with 85,000 in the stands.”
You won’t get a complaint from Tim Miles. Attendance for Nebraska men’s basketball jumped from 10,352 (38th nationally) in 2013 to 15,419 (eighth nationally) in 2014. That increase correlated with the opening of the $179 million Pinnacle Bank Arena.
Jahlil Okafor visited Nebraska after the completion of that facility, which also includes a vogue practice gym and team lounge. Okafor committed to Duke and helped the Blue Devils win a national championship. That’s not the point. He would have never traveled to Lincoln without that investment.
The city of Lincoln secured $355 million in bonds for a redevelopment project that included Pinnacle Bank Arena. Voters in favor of the move outweighed the detractors, 56 percent to 44 percent.
It’s easier to secure funding and resources from boosters, Miles said, when so many in the community value athletics. The collective attachment and commitment to Nebraska football makes for a larger pie that basketball gets a piece of too. The folks who approved the funding for that arena are the same people who have fueled Nebraska football.
“There’s no doubt that our football team does very well financially,” Miles said. “If I need a private jet for recruiting to go somewhere, the only reason I’m getting it is because football has been successful.”
Matta’s Buckeyes compete in the NBA-style Value City Arena. He’s secured commitments from some of the greatest college players of the last decade -- Greg Oden, Evan Turner, Jared Sullinger and D’Angelo Russell -- and won five Big Ten titles and four Big Ten tournament championships.
Competition with Ohio State football? Nah.
Matta and his Buckeyes drive in their own lane while working with their colleagues throughout the athletic department, including football. LeBron James, a strong Ohio State football supporter, practiced with Matta’s squad during the lockout a few years ago. He also speaks to the team each year.
There is room -- and cash -- for everyone. Why knock football out when you can join them?
“I think there are definitely advantages,” Matta said.