Corn, Canned Veggies & Matta

Hoopeston sounds like the perfect place to spawn anyone aspiring to a basketball career. Trouble is, the Illinois community’s name is a bit of a misnomer.

The tiny town on the border with Indiana was named for Thomas Hoopes, one of the men who donated land for a railroad crossing that helped Hoopeston farmers get their crops to market.

The self-professed “Sweet Corn Capital of the World,” along with its huge cornstalk sculpture in McFerrin Park and the fact that the high school’s nickname is the Cornjerkers, probably tells you all you need to know about the farm community of less than 6,000 residents. In 1875, the Illinois Canning Co. was established to can locally-grown vegetables. Three years later, the Hoopeston Canning Co. was incorporated, and it later became part of Stokely-Van Camp Inc.

Sweet corn and canned vegetables were about the only claims to fame for Hoopeston until 41 years ago today. On July 11, 1967, Mr. and Mrs. James Matta welcomed a baby boy into the world, a newborn the couple named Thad Michael.

Thad didn’t have to go far to obtain a love for basketball. His father was a coach and athletic director, and when he took Thad and his older brother Greg to work with him, he would leave a basketball out on the court for them. The first few times, the boys played with their other toys and ignored the basketball. Later, they would pick up the ball and dribble around only after getting bored. Soon, however, they began ignoring their other toys and began perfecting their dribbling, passing and shooting.

Greg became an all-state player at Hoopeston, and Thad followed suit a few years later. He was also an outstanding quarterback and one of his high school’s top pitchers until he chipped a bone in his back during basketball season of his sophomore year. He was forced to give up football and baseball, but returned to the hardcourt the following year, leading the Cornjerkers to back-to-back Class A state tournament appearances.

But it was the way Thad approached the game that set him apart. In a 2001 interview with the Cincinnati Enquirer, Matta’s father 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. He has a knack for watching things and figuring them out.”

Thad finished high school and enrolled at Southern Illinois, but left after his sophomore year to transfer to Butler. There, he became a two-year starter and served as team captain in 1989-90, finishing his career in sixth place on the Bulldogs’ all-time free throw percentage list.

The following year saw Matta kick off his coaching career with a graduate assistant post at Indiana State. In rapid-fire succession, he followed that with a three-year stint as administrative assistant at Butler before spending one season as a fulltime assistant at Miami (Ohio), Western Carolina and then back to Miami.

In 1998, Matta returned to Butler to serve three years as head coach Barry Collier’s top assistant, then succeeded Collier as head coach of the Bulldogs in 2000-01. That year, Butler posted a 24-8 record, won the Midwestern Collegiate Conference championship and advanced to the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

Matta left Butler after only one season as head coach to take over the program at Xavier, and he produced three consecutive 26-win seasons, a pair of Atlantic-10 championships and a trip to the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament in 2004.

On July 7, 2004, Matta accepted the head coaching job at Ohio State and proceeded to take a program reeling from an NCAA investigation and self-imposed postseason ban to a 20-victory season. Two years later, he guided the Buckeyes to the championship game of the NCAA Tournament, and last year won the NIT in what was widely considered to be a rebuilding year.

In eight seasons as a college head coach, Matta has a record of 207-66 (a .758 winning percentage) that includes four conference championships and at least 20 wins each year.

Coaching basketball seems to be Matta’s calling in life. A common saying he often repeats is that he has never worked a day in his life – it’s just that basketball is what he loves to do, and he can think of no better way to spend a day.

Obviously, the passion he has for his vocation shows in the end result.

HAPPY! HAPPY!

Also celebrating birthdays today: fashion designer Giorgio Armani; actress Mindy Sterling (Frau Farbissina in the “Austin Powers” trilogy); TV and movie actress Sela Ward; soap actress and wannabe dancer Lisa Rinna; dentally-challenged former heavyweight boxing champion Leon Spinks; Bon Jovi guitarist Richie Sambora (also the ex-Mr. Heather Locklear); Weezer bassist Scott Shriner; television actor Greg Grunberg (Matt Parkman on “Heroes”); Animal Planet nature guy Jeff Corwin; Cincinnati Bengals offensive tackle Willie Anderson; Houston Texans receiver Andre Johnson; Washington Redskins tight end Chris Cooley; and Grammy-winning rapper Lil’ Kim.

It is also the 58th birthday of veteran character actor Bruce McGill. You may not know his name but you definitely know his face. McGill has played such diverse roles as D-Day in “National Lampoon’s Animal House,” Jack Dalton in “McGyver,” Pedrosa in “Collateral,” Judge Harkin in “Runaway Jury,” and boxing promoter Jimmy Johnston in “Cinderella Man.”

NINETY-FOUR YEARS AGO TODAY

One of the Major League Baseball’s seminal figures made his debut July 11, 1914.

George Herman “Babe” Ruth stepped to the mound as a 19-year-old for the Boston Red Sox and notched a victory in his very first major league game. Ironically, the victory came when Duffy Lewis pinch-hit for Ruth in the ninth inning and scored the winning run.

Ruth would pitch in only five games for the Red Sox that season, getting sent down to the minor-league Providence Grays in mid-summer. But he was productive for the Grays, helping them to the 1914 International League pennant.

The following year, Ruth secured a spot in the Boston rotation and began what many believe was the greatest baseball career in the history of the game. In his first full season with the Red Sox, Ruth went 18-8 with a 2.44 ERA and also hit his first four home runs.

Despite winning 23 games in 1916 and 24 in 1917, Ruth’s hitting became so valuable that he became only a part-time pitcher in 1918, and he saw the mound only five times – all of them victories – after being traded to the New York Yankees in 1920. Of course, Ruth went on to become the game’s all-time home run king until Hank Aaron broke his record in 1974.

Ruth finished a 22-season career following the 1935 season with 714 homers, 2,217 RBI and a .342 batting average. As a pitcher, he compiled a 94-46 record with a 2.28 ERA.

Ruth became a charter member of the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1935 and left a legacy as not only one of the game’s most prolific sluggers but one of its finest pitchers as well.

AND FINALLY

** What exactly does Troy Smith have to do to earn a fair shot with the Baltimore Ravens? The team waited until it was eliminated from the playoffs last year before playing Smith, who turned in a creditable job at the end of the season – four games, 40 for 72 (52.6 percent), 452 yards, two TDs, no INTs. (His 79.5 quarterback rating was also higher than Eli Manning’s 73.9.) In April, after complimenting Smith on his offseason work, the Ravens rewarded him by drafting QB Joe Flacco of Delaware in the first round. Now, the rumor is that Baltimore is interested in Brett Favre if the future Hall of Famer decides to come out of retirement. Why did the Ravens even bother to draft Smith if they weren’t going to give him a chance to win the quarterback job?

** Speaking of Favre, former Denver Broncos star John Elway told the NFL Network that he empathizes with the second thoughts Favre is having about retirement. Elway also said that he is of the opinion that if Favre believes he can return to the NFL with a chance at a championship, he will decide to play in 2008.

** Good news for former Ohio State offensive lineman Shane Olivea. He has had his four-game drug suspension lifted by the NFL and will reportedly sign a contract with the Super Bowl champion New York Giants. According to reports, the lifting was the suspension was due to “a clerical error.” Olivea was suspended because he reportedly missed a drug test, but he appealed that decision, claiming he missed the test because he was in rehab. Olivea started 57 games in four seasons with San Diego, which drafted him out of OSU in 2004.

** Xavier seems to be the place to go if you’re a former Indiana basketball player. Several weeks ago, point guard prospect Terrell Holloway was released from his letter of intent to play at IU when the Kelvin Sampson situation exploded. Holloway decided to become a Musketeer instead, and now former Hoosier guard Jordan Crawford will join him at Xavier. Crawford, the younger brother of former Kentucky and now Los Angeles Lakers guard Joe Crawford, averaged 9.7 points, 3.4 rebounds and 2.3 assists per game last season as an Indiana freshman.

** Remember: When you step on the brakes, your life is in your foot’s hands.

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