It wasn’t maybe the most inspiring of starts.
Rob Matula, a young, first-year head coach for the Talawanda High School boys basketball team, lost his first seven games – several in nail-biting, heartbreaking fashion.
Fortunately, he had a friend to call: Greg Richards.
“I remember him coming to my house and I was just all tore up, thinking that I was never gonna be a good coach,” Matula said, 17 years later.
Richards was, then and now, the head coach for the Mason boys basketball team. Matula had served as his assistant coach the year before.
“He definitely had to coach me up,” said Matula with a laugh. “I can remember it like it was yesterday. I said, ‘I don’t think I can do this. I think I made a mistake.'”
Richards helped ease his friend’s doubts. He had dealt with his own challenges only a couple of years before, replacing his mentor at Mason, Gary Popplewell.
“We lost a couple tough ones early,” Richards said. “I was the same way. I was calling (Gary). I was calling people, like ‘What do I do?’
“I think everybody’s been in that situation at one time in their life.”
Talawanda won its next game, and it was the beginning of a long coaching career of success for Matula (Talawanda, Sycamore and the last decade with the Mason girls program). And it was the start of a remarkable role Richards has played as the base of one of Cincinnati’s most impressive coaching trees in any sport.
Seven of Richards’ former assistant coaches have gone on to varsity head coaching jobs. There’s Matula; Scott Kerr, who has coached at Mariemont, Clark Montessori and now is the head coach at Purcell; Casey Popplewell, who served as the boys head coach at Monroe before returning this year to Mason as the JV coach; Chris DeLotell, head boys coach at Anderson; Andy Keimer, head coach at Cincinnati Hills Christian Academy; Mike Arlinghaus, a former player for Matula at Talawanda, assistant for Richards and now head coach at Waynesville; and Rob Reis, the new Loveland boys basketball coach.
Throw in Curt Bly, too – the Mason head baseball coach who previously served as a Comet basketball assistant.
Richards’ influence is everywhere.
“It’s great for these guys,” Richards said. “It’s more about them than it is me. They’ve been ready. They’ve been established. They’re the guys interviewing for the jobs. I think these guys deserve a lot more credit than I do.”
Perhaps, but they all point back to Richards.
“I think with, obviously, the success of the (Mason) boys program there, I think it allows younger coaches to kind of see what needs to be done,” Matula said. “And I think Greg allows a great deal because he’s a very loyal man and he has a lot of trust. He allows the coaches underneath him to coach and be their own coaches and develop.”
DeLotell has seen Richards’ coaching style from a variety of perspectives – as a player (Mason class of 2005), an assistant and now an opposing coach.
“I had a great relationship with him as a player and it certainly wasn’t because he played me a lot of minutes,” said DeLotell, laughing.
“He cares about people, his players and his assistants. I think the relationships part of it is certainly the first thing that attracted me to going into coaching. As a head coach now, I feel like it’s by far the most important element of the job for me, and I think I got that from him.”
One way Richards encourages his assistants is to give them the reins during summer leagues, DeLotell said. Whereas many varsity head coaches retain control of their team during summer games, Richards has his assistant coaches calling plays, making substitutions, all of it.
“He’s not about moving people (on staff) just to move them because they’re young and they’re someone’s nephew, son or played in his program,” Matula said.
“With each of his coaches underneath him, he has a plan. He wants them to have the experience of coaching the freshmen or JV to be able to run their own team.”
The relationships extend beyond the court too. Richards was the best man at DeLotell’s wedding. The Richards and Matula families go on spring break together.
“We just developed a bond not only as coaches but as friends,” Matula said. “Our families are extremely tight. I would call him a brother because of the last 27 years.”
Richards has ushered Mason through an incredible three decades of change from small farm town to bustling metropolis – as a player in the 1970s, to six years as an assistant coach to 20 years as head coach.
“I was born and raised here. We’ve come a long way,” Richards said. “I remember coaching junior high. We were a small AA team back then. Now we’re the biggest school in the state of Ohio.”
Matula and Richards still trade notes about each other’s teams, just like the old days. The entire Greg Richards coaching tree can rely on each other for support. The whole group gets together each year in the preseason for a scrimmage.
“We get a little scrimmage scheduled, bring all the former assistants who are head coaches now together,” Richards said.
“That’s always a lot of fun.”