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Wednesday, March 21, 2007
Coaches are masters of preparation, creatures of habit

By Pat Forde
ESPN.com

Thad Matta takes a 32-win Ohio State team into San Antonio this week. His Buckeyes are deep, athletic, offensively explosive, defensively resolute, physically mature and mentally tough.

Thad Matta
Thad Matta's mouth usually has a stick of gum in it.
In other words, there are a lot of very good reasons why the Buckeyes have won 19 straight to get to this point.

But judging from Matta's behavior, it could all go to hell in a heartbeat without a stick of chewing gum.

Before every game, he has to have a piece of Juicy Fruit or Orbit -- "I don't know which one he chews currently," associate head coach John Groce said -- presented to him by a team manager. Matta has to unwrap it himself, then wad up the wrapper, then shoot it into the trash can behind the bench.

Every game. Without fail. Lest the Earth split open and swallow him on the spot.

Or maybe it's the tie choice that has kept the Buckeyes rolling. Before each game, Matta's daughters, 8-year-old Ali and 6-year-old Emily, have to pick out dad's neckwear.

"Sometimes it might not match," Groce said. "But if it doesn't, that's OK."

At this point, Matta would wear a maize-and-blue tie if his daughters selected it. There is no going against the established ritual.

"He is the most superstitious person I've ever met," said Xavier coach and longtime friend Sean Miller. "It's really bizarre."

Matta might be bizarre, but he is not alone.

It is one of the great inconsistencies in sports: coaches are preparation freaks and slaves to superstition at the same time. Creatures of habit and cravers of control, they want to influence every moment and mannerism that may (or may not) affect an outcome.

Baseball is the karma capital of all athletics. But college basketball coaches aren't far behind.

They study film looking for weaknesses in the opposition the way the Warren Commission studied the Zapruder film for evidence of a second gunman. They pound scouting reports into their players' noggins like nails into two-by-fours. They draw up dozens of inbounds plays, waiting for just the right time and the right defense to use each one.

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Yet if you look around this Superstitious 16, you'll find coaches who can barely function without running a gauntlet of repetitive behavior up to tip-off.

Oregon coach Ernie Kent dispatches a manager to buy him a box of popcorn from the arena concession stand before games.

North Carolina coach Roy Williams has made spitting into the Mississippi River a famous omen of good fortune. He was an assistant with the Tar Heels when they did it in New Orleans before winning the 1982 national title. He was the head coach at Kansas when the Jayhawks loogied into the Mississippi in St. Louis while advancing to the Final Four. He and the Heels lined up to expectorate again in St. Louie in 2005 on their way to the national title. (Not sure what Roy is going to do this time, stuck in East Rutherford and then, if luck holds, in Atlanta. Neither is spittin' distance from the Mighty Muddy.)

USC coach Tim Floyd always has something in his hands during a game. Used to be something rolled up (fellow by the name of Wooden used to do that with a fair amount of success). Now it's a note card.

Georgetown's John Thompson III must drink a yellow Gatorade before boarding the team bus to a game, and he uses only blue markers for drawing up plays during a game. Woe unto the manager who presents him red drink or a black pen.

Butler coach Todd Lickliter has to exercise a few hours before every game. That's hardly unique in a profession full of physically fit men -- except that Lickliter has to do it outside. No matter the weather. If you've seen Butler's travel schedule -- Milwaukee, Detroit, Cleveland, Green Bay -- that has to include a few flirtations with frostbite.

Upon leaving for every road trip, Tennessee's Bruce Pearl walks down the aisle of the team bus and fist bumps everyone. When the Volunteers moved their weekly media luncheons into a bigger room at Thompson-Boling Arena and immediately went on a losing streak, Pearl demanded (and got) a return to the smaller venue.

These guys work insane hours in order to leave nothing to chance -- then beg for a break from chance, just in case the hard work isn't enough.

And Matta is the No. 1 seed of this Superstitious 16.

The guy was born for this profession -- the son of a man who coached 39 years in serendipitously named Hoopeston, Ill. Thad has been a winner from day one as a college head coach, racking up seven consecutive 20-win seasons at Butler, Xavier and Ohio State. But if you think the 39-year-old's 180 career victories show he has a gift for coaching, you're wrong.

It's gotta be the shoes.

Tim Floyd
Tim Floyd always has something in his hands while he paces the sidelines.
When he was Matta's assistant at Xavier, Miller remembers his boss tying his shoes "in the same place on the court, at the same time, every day in practice." And Matta didn't do it because his laces were untied. He'd untie them himself, then retie them.

Former Xavier manager Pete Gillespie said it went beyond even that. To something almost obsessive-compulsive.

"He would take the laces completely out and make sure they were completely even," Gillespie said. "Every time, every loop.

"He's an excellent coach, an excellent motivator, an excellent recruiter. He's just over-the-top superstitious."

That wasn't the only practice ritual. Miller said Matta would count the flags in the Xavier gym for every member of the Atlantic 10 every day, in the same order.

In addition to the game-time gum, Gillespie said Matta had to have a Coke at his side after halftime.

"We carried it to the court and poured it into a cup next to him," Gillespie said. "If the game was close he might not drink it, but he always wanted it there."

And then there are the pregame meals. Win once, and the meal will be the same the next time. And the next time. And the next time...

When Xavier went on an unexpected tear through the A-10 tournament in Dayton in 2004, including a shocking rout of unbeaten St. Joseph's, you better believe the Musketeers ate at the same restaurant every night.

"Dominic's," Groce recalled. "It was excellent. But even if it wasn't, nobody was going to complain."

Throughout that same A-10 tournament, Gillespie remembers Matta having the managers wash his T-shirt and socks every day so he could wear them again the next game. Four days, one shirt, one pair of socks. At least they were laundered.

Matta's obsession with karma is now trickling down through his staff. Groce admits that he's been eating a whole lot of pregame ribs during Ohio State's current streak.

What does your wife think, John?

"She thinks I'm crazy."

A lot of people think Thad Matta is crazy, too. But he is also 32-3 and prominently placed among the Superstitious 16.

"You know what?" said Gillespie. "If you're winning like he is, don't change a thing."

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.