Winning isn’t enough
With Thad Matta and Bob Stoops heading to the sidelines, here’s your reminder that winning doesn’t satisfy our tastes in 2017
If you’re a fan of institutional winning, this has been a punch in the gut kind of week.
On Monday, Ohio State announced that longtime head coach Thad Matta would not return next season. On Wednesday, Oklahoma head coach Bob Stoops suddenly announced he was retiring after 18 seasons leading Sooner Nation.
This sucks. College athletics is a worse entity without these two men coaching in their respective sports. On a professional level, this week’s breakup of two longtime and successful head coaches shows how quickly the mindset of major college athletics is changing and trying to cater to the millennial generation. On a personal level, and as a longtime Ohio State fan, I hate how Matta is being kicked out without a proper farewell. It’s almost like two Final Four appearances, countless NBA draft picks and a decade-plus of national relevancy doesn’t mean a damn.
Matta’s firing and Stoops’ retirement represent what has to be the unofficial ending of one era and the public blessing of a new one.
Winning isn’t enough. If you’re not the CEO of your personal and school brand, then what you do in the field of play becomes irrelevant. How else can you justify the changing of the guard in both situations?
In the eyes of athletic directors everywhere, consistently winning conference championships and contending for national titles does not equate to success in today’s college sports landscape. That’s exactly what this week’s takedown says.
Thad Matta and Bob Stoops just wanted to win, and this week they were officially penalized for it (Oklahoma claims Stoops retired on his own terms, but I have my doubts about that).
Matta and Stoops represented the paradigm of success in college sports — navigating the waters of recruiting and consistently winning while balancing the delicate act of being ambassadors for their respective universities. All they did was win in the most competitive era in college athletics history. Butler and TCU weren’t serious contenders when Bob Knight and Barry Switzer ran the show 30 years ago.
Let the resumes speak for themselves.
Both coaches hold the winningest records in their schools’ histories. Both coaches inherited programs that were in disarray and resurrected them back into the national conversation. Both coaches generated pro talent. Both coaches had their teams on national television every week.
They were loyal soldiers too. Matta and Stoops had countless opportunities to leave and make more money at other schools but decided to stay put and build a legacy in Columbus and Norman.
What more could you ask for?
When Matta arrived at Ohio State in 2004, the Buckeyes had posted losing records in six of the past 11 years and were on NCAA probation due to recruiting violations. Matta changed the narrative of the program by recruiting the likes of Greg Oden, Mike Conley, Jared Sullinger and D’Angelo Russell. Not only did he bring future NBA stars to Columbus, but he also had a penchant for finding great college basketball players such as David Lighty, Jon Diebler and Aaron Craft. I loved those guys, and I know Ohio State fans were grateful for them too.
Stoops was no different. When he showed up at Oklahoma in 1999, the Sooners had suffered through three consecutive losing seasons as the program was falling apart. He came in and won right away. He coached two Heisman Trophy winners, produced countless first-round picks and also turned overlooked players like current Sooners quarterback Baker Mayfield into bonafide stars.
So, what happened? It’s simple. Matta and Stoops “got old” and fell out of touch with the realities of college coaching — you have to win social media and create a public perception of yourself that is of “godly” or CEO stature.
In order to last, you have to be more than a winner — you have to play a character of yourself too.
It’s why coaches like Jim Harbaugh and John Calipari are “successful” by today’s college coaching standards. They want you to love them almost as much as they want to win, so they find ways to get on your TV and in your phone constantly. They’ll do what’s necessary to keep your attention. Matta and Stoops didn’t adapt to the changing forces that were sweeping college athletics, and they didn’t really care to either.
When Matta was fired on Monday, it got me thinking of a quote he gave to the The Ringer back in November about his social media approach, or lack thereof.
“I don’t understand that world,” he said after a funny picture of him went viral last season. “They’re saying this had so many hits, and I’m like, ‘Explain to me what a hit is.’ I don’t understand.”
To be clear, Thad Matta didn’t get fired and Bob Stoops didn’t retire because they weren’t social media savvy, but it does feel like they were beginning to get lost in the shuffle. Both men were incredible coaches, but neither of them were going to “row the boat” or tweet funny pictures of themselves at the Star Wars premiere. That’s just not who they are. It’s the reality we have to accept, but it’s sad to see them be faulted for it in a way too.
Millennials have short memories, so if Lincoln Riley or OSU’s next coach wins the national title in a season or two, we’ll quickly forget about their predecessors. But as someone who has had the privilege of watching the best run in Ohio State basketball history, I can’t help but think that Matta got shafted on Monday.
He wasn’t someone who liked to draw attention onto himself; he just did his job better than almost anyone else, and that wasn’t enough.
That leaves a bitter taste in my mouth. I hope it does for you too.