Friday, May 04, 2001

Matta is always on job

Lifelong love of the game instilled by his father

By Neil Schmidt
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Having just accepted the Xavier basketball coaching job Wednesday night, Thad Matta worked his cell phone the whole drive home to Indianapolis. He was strategizing with his assistants about which players to target for XU's two remaining scholarships.

        “It's already starting,” wife Barbara said.

        Here, that is.

Barbara Matta and daughter Ali.
(Ernest Coleman photo)
  Born: Thad Michael Matta, July 11, 1967
  Hometown: Hoopeston, Ill., near Indiana-Illinois border
  Family: Wife Barbara, daughters Ali (born Jan. 14, 1999) and Emily (Dec. 7, 2000)
  Favorite movie: One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest
  Favorite TV show: Seinfeld
  Favorite band: U2 (Matta has tickets for next week's show in Indianapolis)
  Last concert: Hootie and the Blowfish in Oxford
  Book currently reading: Peak Performance
  Hobbies: Tries to run five miles a day during the offseason and three miles a day during the season
  Superstitions: Eats same meal before a game until his team loses, then changes
  Heroes: Father Jim, a high school teacher, coach and athletic director for 39 years who retired last year; Abraham Lincoln: “The guy was rejected so many times in life and just kept persevering.”
  What makes you laugh: Dry humor
  If you could have dinner with one person: Pat Riley, Miami Heat coach: “I think he's the best at what he does.”
  If you weren't coaching: “I've never thought about that.”
        For Matta, it's a question of when it hadn't started.

        At 33 the ninth-youngest coach in Division I, Matta is almost three decades into his career pursuit. He aspired to coaching even as a kid, when he included it among the lifetime goals he wrote on his bedroom wall. He grew up in Hoopeston, Ill. — Hoops Town - the son of a career high school coach and athletic director.

        When Jim Matta took little Thad and older brother Greg up to the Hoopeston-East Lynn High School gym, they'd bring their toys while Dad worked in his office. He'd leave a basketball out on the court for them.

        “The first few times, they'd play with their Batmobile, then pick up a ball toward the end when they got bored,” Jim Matta said. “Eventually, they started forgetting the Batmobile and playing ball the whole time.”

        Thus began the love affair. Thad started tagging along with his dad to basketball games, soaking it all in with wide-eyed wonder.

        “He has a knack for watching things and figuring them out,” Jim said. “We'd leave the gym, and he'd tell me everything that (happened) on the floor, how the guys had their shoes tied, how they were supposed to pass it one time or another. Just seeing things.”

        Greg became an all-state player at Hoopeston, and Thad followed suit. (Their father did not coach them in basketball). Thad led the Cornjerkers to two consecutive Class A state tournament appearances.

        After finishing his playing career at Butler, Matta began his climb in the coaching profession. He went to Indiana State, then Butler, then Miami U., then Western Carolina, then Miami again, then Butler again. And now to Xavier.

        “We've moved six or seven times,” Barbara said. “I've got (moving) down to a science.”

        Matta's common refrain is that he has never worked a day in his life. It's just that basketball is what he loves to do, and there's no better way to do it all day.

        “It's a love,” said John Groce, one of his assistants. “It emanates from his being 24/7.”

        It's not the X's and O's that fixate him, although Matta will think up new plays while cutting the grass or watching TV and call Groce in excitement.

        It's the relationships. Matta's first message Thursday to his Xavier basketball team was, “We will form a team that is a family.”

        The words Groce uses to summarize Matta's methods: Communication. Confidence. Trust. Relationships.

        “He's so good with people,” Groce said. “That's his biggest strength: The players will die for him, and he'll die for them.”

        Matta is intense and driven — “I have a burning desire to be successful” — but the characteristic he most notes is being goal-oriented. Almost six years ago, he wrote down a goal of being a Division I head coach by the age of 33. He got the Butler job last spring at 32.

        “If I didn't know where I was going, I know for sure I was not going to get there,” he said.

        One of Matta's most familiar messages is: If he can identify what each player wants, and helps each player achieve those goals, his players will help him achieve his.

        Matta's goals now?

        “He wants to get to a Final Four here,” Barbara Matta said.

        Matta and his friends say his only focus besides basketball is his family. Matta calls Barbara “the greatest attribute I have,” and he said he has gained perspective in his life with the births of daughters Ali, 2, and Emily, who turns 5 months old Monday. He reads to his daughters at bedtime. He is fanatical about his lawn care.

        “During this time for thinking (about the job offer), he has mowed and mowed and mowed,” Barbara said, laughing. “Our green grass is now brown from no rain and all his mowing.”

        But he admits he struggles not to be consumed by his sport. His father agrees, having pleaded with his son to get away from it occasionally.

        “He never quits,” Jim said. “He has been successful, so it's not all bad. But we tell him, "Relax, and make sure your (players) get to relax, too.'”

        Matta says he's getting better. He describes coming home after a tough loss this winter and hearing Ali's footsteps, then her sprinting to meet him at the door.

        “It was one of those moments to remind you, "There are other things in life more important than the score of a basketball game,'” he said.


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