EAST LANSING — Twice a year, rain or shine, frozen cold or unseasonably warm, twice a year, for all these years, he has had this game circled somewhere inside his head. Beat Michigan. Beat Michigan. It was like a rap drum line, relentless, unforgiving; when it finished it started over. Beat Michigan. Beat Michigan. It wasn’t always his voice. It was alumni. It was fans. It came from that place in the heart where people take sides, yours, mine, us, them, our school, their school.
Twice a year.
No wonder Jud Heathcote was jumping and kicking and punching imaginary demons in the air Tuesday night. His career has been charted by these showdowns, Michigan vs. Michigan State, two schools, 60 miles apart yet forever on the other side of the fence. And this was his last battle in the war, his 38th game in the rivalry. He began when Jimmy Carter was a president, not a poet. When it was over, Jud would say, “It’s not as big a game for us coaches as it is for the people around us. . . . ”
He would also admit, “I sure didn’t want to lose it.”
So it was, that in the final seconds Tuesday, you could see Jud’s heart in his throat. Grab the ball! Somebody! Three of his players, Daimon Beathea and Shawn Respert and Eric Snow, were in a desperate hardwood diving match with Michigan’s Ray Jackson and Jimmy King, the ball slipping through their hands, sliding down on the floor as the bodies leapt for it, tripped, thudded, and still the ball escaped, rolling, rolling. Somebody grab it!
Michigan did, and had one chance to win. The Wolverines came down the court, yellow shorts flapping. Jackson worked free, got the ball and fired from three-point range. . . .
“I thought it was good when I shot it,” he would say.
He was wrong.
The arena exploded.
“We really wanted this. Everybody’s going crazy in the locker room,” Quinton Brooks said after the Spartans swept the state rivalry and kept their Big Ten title hopes sharp, 67-64. “Even Coach is going crazy.”
“How does Jud go crazy?” he was asked.
“He yells,” Brooks said.
Twice a year. Not the same; still insane
“You know, it really has changed over the years,” Heathcote said now, in his dressing area. Outside, the fans were still going crazy, and his players were cooing over their current dominance over the hated Wolverines.
Jud, who will retire with an 18-20 career record versus U- M, flopped on the couch. “Back eight or nine years ago, we had all week to prepare for this game. It was Michigan week.
“We always had shirts made up special for the game, where our players wore the Michigan player’s name and number during practice. And we’d make up T-shirts that said things like ‘No More Fab Five’ or something.
“We still do that, but these days, with the schedule, you play a game on Sunday and you turn around and have to play your arch-rival on Tuesday. It’s not the same as having a week to build it up.”
He sighed. It is not the same. And yet by tip-off, it is still insane. And Heathcote, a true college coach, knows the sound. He remembers Washington and Washington State. He remembers Montana and Montana State. In nearly every cross- state college rivalry there is one school that the other sees as the first child, better-loved, privileged, given more toys, more resources, a school where the rich kids go, a place where they wouldn’t know a good party if it came through the window and bit them in the butt.
“Oh, back in Montana the schools hated one another, just hated one another. It was big there . . . and it’s big here.”
Out in the tunnel, you could still hear echoes of people cheering. After Jackson missed that shot, MSU fans stormed the court, they were unstoppable. Heathcote, in his wisdom, quickly slipped to the side and escaped, rather than try the middle and get crushed.
“Oh, I’m too smart for that, now,” he said, “and too old.”
Twice a year. Played ’em twice, beat ’em twice
This is a wonderful story. Heathcote, who took a backseat to an upstart group called the Fab Five, now gets his closing scene in good light. He has done a fine job of coaching a superstar, Respert, and a supporting cast that plays over its head. He has them believing they can do anything.
Hey. They beat Michigan twice this year. How many players on each bench have been courted by both the Spartans and the Wolverines? Over the years, Heathcote has maneuvered against Johnny Orr, Bill Frieder, Steve Fisher, trying to reel in the state’s top talent. Jon Garavaglia, who played Tuesday night, was wooed by both schools. He chose green. Willie Mitchell, who played Tuesday night, was wooed by both schools. He chose blue. Year after year.
“What do you remember most about these games?” I ask Heathcote.
He looks far away and talks about the 1986 team, with Scott Skiles, “we won twice that year,” and he remembers when Earvin Johnson played in these things and he remembers “Rumeal Robinson hitting a hook on his way to the lockers that beat us. . . . “
And now he remembers Tuesday. Last battle. A fine win.
It will be strange to have this game next year without Heathcote. And yet, that’s the thing about rivalries, you don’t own them, you rent them for a while. And if you’re lucky they let you root around their attics and maybe write your name on the walls.
Across the hall, in the U-M locker room, Jackson, the senior, had just played his last Michigan-MSU game, too. He comes from Texas. Didn’t know a thing about this rivalry four years ago. Here’s what he said Tuesday:
“It’s a part of me now. I’ll remember this rivalry forever.”
Or at least twice a year. Coach or player, student or fan. You just can’t help it. Isn’t that the best part?