clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

A look back at Ohio State's 2004 basketball coaching search

Ohio State's basketball program is in remarkably better shape than it was 11 years ago, but it's easy to forget how close it never came to happening...

Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

There's a sort of "what have you done for me now" culture that permeates sports at all levels. No matter the accomplishment or success, fans will eventually clamor for more, especially if they go just a short time without a major success.

With that in mind it's easy to forget that 11 years ago, Ohio State basketball was in bad shape. Really bad shape. Dealing with the scandal and firing of Jim O'Brien, Buckeye fans were left with a program that had always played second fiddle to football and ran up a track record of 35 years of mediocrity.

The opportunity to hire a new coach gave athletic director Andy Geiger a chance to right the ship and further cement his legacy after having found football savior Jim Tressel just three years earlier. We know now that eventually Thad Matta would get the job and what's followed should be considered a golden era of OSU basketball, or at least, the best era since the late 1950s, early 1960s.

But how close did it come to not happening? What if Matta had passed on the job and stayed at Xavier, as he initially expressed his desire to do? What if Ohio State didn't even interview him? The June firing of O'Brien and hiring timeline didn't do OSU any favors, but let's look back at some of the other candidates at the time and realize how lucky OSU got.

From reports at the time, we know that at least two other candidates interviewed with Geiger and his search committee at least twice and in person:

Kevin Stallings - The Purdue alum with assistant coaching stints in West Lafayette and Kansas had successfully built his own program at Illinois State. He would move on to become the head coach at Vanderbilt in 1999 and as of 2004 he had overseen a good team, but one that hadn't quite made it over the hump - reaching the sweet 16 that season for the first time. Since then, we've seen much of the same from Stallings - good Vandy teams, but not quite good enough to be considered elite.

Still at the time, and given what we know now, Stallings was definitely the most realistic and best option for Ohio State had they failed in their pursuit of Matta.  Stallings is undoubtably a good coach, but certainly not dynamic.  It's hard to imagine his ceiling at OSU being much higher than Fran McCaffery level Iowa teams.

Willis Wilson - Don't remember Wilson? You're probably not alone. Then the coach of Rice, the Indiana native had spent 13 years with the Owls despite failing to ever guide them to postseason play.  Although coming off a career best 22-11 campaign, Wilson's candidacy is perhaps the best indicator of the dire status of Ohio State basketball at the time.

Wilson would last through the 2007-2008 season at Rice, bottoming out with record of 3-27. He caught on as an assistant to Josh Pastner at Memphis for a couple of years before once again becoming a head coach at Texas A&M - Corpus Cristi, where in four years he's taken a team from 6-24 to 20-14

I think it's pretty safe to a say OSU dodged a major bullet here if Wilson was every truly a serious candidate.

Outside of Wilson and Stallings, there were other notable candidates associated with the job:

Fran Dunphy - It's hard to imagine Dunphy anywhere outside of Philadelphia, but from all reports Dunphy at minimum participated in a phone interview with the Buckeyes. Back then, he had built Penn into a Ivy League powerhouse and after a few more NCAA tournament appearances he would bolt for Temple where has succeeded in following John Cheaney with the Owls as a solid program.

Dunphy has, and had, the reputation of great x's and o's guy, but it's difficult to imagine him in Ohio and the Big Ten. Recruiting against the likes of Tom Izzo, Bo Ryan, etc over the years would likely have proven a challenge and I think we can safely say Dunphy might not have been the dynamic answer Buckeye fans were craving.

Jim Cleamons - Cleamons played for the Buckeyes from 1968-1971 and served as an assistant coach from 1983-1987. After two forgetful seasons as the head coach at Youngstown State in the late 80's, he carved out a career, and really made his name in coaching ranks, serving as an assistant to Phil Jackson during the Chicago Bulls' first championship run.  He took over a young, but talented Dallas Mavericks team in 1996 only to last a season and a half.

Cleamons deserves respect for his contributions as a player and coach at OSU and likely understands what a special place Columbus can be, but it would have been a big reach to put him in charge of the program in 2004.  Having had most of his success an an NBA assistant - including most recently for the Knicks, he's probably more suited for that role.

Bobby Knight - Whether or not Knight was ever a serious candidate is up for debate. What we do know is at the time the Orrville, Ohio native and member of 1960 national champion Ohio State basketball team publicly expressed interest in the job.

in 2004, Knight had been the coach at Texas Tech for three seasons following the fiasco that was her termination from Indiana.  It's quite possible that Knight was motivated to return to Columbus based on his love for his alma mater, but it's also very likely he was clamoring for another chance to stick it to the Hoosiers on a more regular basis.  In the end, it wasn't enough to catch Andy Geiger's interest.

With his legacy - both good and bad - already cemented, Knight was definitely the most high profile candidate for the OSU job and many Buckeye fans would have happily greeted the General home, but it's difficult to imagine OSU would have had the same type of success had they moved in this direction.

Knight would have four more unproductive years in Lubbock before handing over the head spot to his son, Pat. Nepotism, especially in the coaching ranks, always tends to have some flaws. Pat Knight proved overmatched at Texas Tech and was out after four years.

In the end, Geiger got his number one target from the start and Matta made the trip up I-71 to make Columbus his new home. What's followed has included two Final Fours, five Big Ten regular season titles, four Big Ten Tournament titles, nine NCAA tournament appearances, seven All-American players, as well as Matta becoming the winningest coach in Ohio State basketball history. Seems like things have worked out pretty well.

With all his success, Matta has raised the bar of expectations at OSU.  While probably always a football school, we can now say basketball at least matters in Columbus.

Failing to make it past the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament the past two years has left some fans questioning whether Matta and his staff have grown stale and maybe the time for another change is on the horizon.

Despite his own physicial hardships, Matta has remained loyal and committed to Ohio State. One need only back just over a decade to understand how far this program has come.  Let's hope that the OSU's next coaching search isn't for quite awhile, but when it does they'll be in much better shape. And let's just hope they get as lucky as they did in 2004.