EAST LANSING — So this is what Jud Heathcote does in the thick of the supposedly pressure-packed Big Ten title chase: He finds out one of his secretaries is pregnant, but she didn’t want to tell him because things are so busy right now. The next day, Jud comes stalking out of his office and begins to circle the woman, sniffing like a dog.
“Does Lori smell funny to you?” he asks the other office workers.
“Well, my wife said she was fragrant.”
“Yeah,” he says, still sniffing, “I think that’s what she said. Fragrant. Lori, is it true? Are you . . . fragrant?”
Well. What did you expect? He would walk around like a nervous wreck? Just because the big showdown with Michigan is tonight at the Breslin Center? Just because he lost arguably his best player, senior guard Kirk Manns, because of a stress fracture over the weekend? Just because, after a preseason of no expectations, people are suddenly figuring that his Spartans can and maybe should win the Big Ten basketball title?
You obviously don’t know Jud Heathcote. But then, who really does? On the menu of this sports-hungry state, he is the “oh, yeah” coach. Sparky, Chuck, Jacques, Fontes, Bo, Perles, Fisher . . .
And — oh yeah — Jud Heathcote.
“I’m better off that way,” he says, sitting in his half- unpacked office inside Breslin. “The less attention I get, the less mistakes they find.”
Well, that’s Heathcote. Always a kicker. Always a line to knock himself down a peg. Congratulate him on his longevity, and he says, “Yes, my 100th birthday is coming up.” Thank him for an hour-long interview, he says, “Yeah, but I wasn’t very good, was I?”
It is the mark of a man who refuses to blow himself out of proportion. You see it in the way he dresses. You see it in the way he recruits. You see it in his face when he laughs and his head shakes and his mouth curls in that funny downward smile, like the painted lips of a clown.
You see it here, in his office. Against one bare wall is a stack of boxes. Against another is a framed magazine cover of Magic Johnson — back when he was Earvin — leading Michigan State to Jud’s first and only national championship. No thick leather. No rich wood paneling. No marble desk. The carpet is green, the walls are white (real surprise, huh?) and on the bookcase is giant blowup of Heathcote. It’s a nice photo. Except someone has glued a yellow paper mustache and goatee over his face.
“My office staff,” he says, delivering the kicker, “they keep me humble.”
Wait a minute. Isn’t that Michigan’s job? You know. The BIG SCHOOL in Ann Arbor? So dominant have the Wolverines been in recent headlines, that Heathcote may have wondered if anyone remembered which highway went to East Lansing.
FRIEDER QUITS U-M FOR ASU
BO NAMES FISHER U-M COACH
U-M WINS IT ALL!
Yeah. Jud has been here the whole time. Coaching. Frieder bolts, Jud keeps coaching. Illinois gets in hot water, Jud keeps coaching. George Perles stirs up a big power struggle. Jud keeps coaching.
It’s his blessing and his curse. He doesn’t throw chairs. He doesn’t get caught offering sports cars to recruits. On a stage full of Bobby Knights and Jim Valvanos, a guy like Heathcote, the son of a schoolteacher, a product of the Pacific Northwest, a gritty, hardworking, poke-you-in-the-ribs-with-an- elbow kind of guy, tends to get defined only by comparisons.
And in recent years, the comparisons were almost always with Bill Frieder, the turbulent, dizzy and often controversial coach at U-M.
“The knock was always that Bill was the recruiter and I was the coach,” Heathcote says now. “It was unfair, but Bill brought it on himself. He would talk about writing letters to recruits at 4 in the morning. You know why he did that? Because he couldn’t sleep at night. I can sleep at night, so I get up and write the same letter at 9 a.m. and nobody talks about it.
“Or the phone calls. They wrote how he called recruits during halftime of his games. But you know why? Because he couldn’t sit still. He’s always got to call somebody. I make that same phone call after the game and nobody talks about it.
“Bill created an image like he was the greatest recruiter in the world. But by doing so, he almost begged for someone to say that his coaching paled by comparison.”
And that Heathcote’s recruiting would never be as good. Ah, well. If he had to come down on one side of the forest, better it be the coaching side. This recruiting stuff could be nasty business. Especially because Heathcote refuses to cheat, refuses to offer a dollar, refuses to make false promises —
“I can’t tell five separate kids they’re my No. 1 recruit, it’s just too dishonest.”
So be it. That’s not what coaching was supposed to be about when Heathcote decided to get into it back before the war. No, not the Vietnam war. Not Korea.
Keep going. You’re getting warm.
It was a town called Port Orchard, on the shore of Puget Sound, a ferry ride away from Seattle. There were mountains and cold rain. And there wasn’t any money.
“My father died when I was three years old,” Heathcote, 62, recalls. “My mother moved us to live with our grandparents. It was during the Depression. We all lived in the same house. Mostly what I remember is that I wanted to be a coach even then.”
At South Kitsap High, in the 1940s, Heathcote was pure athlete. Dirty knees. Bruised elbows. He starred in baseball and football, and was the center in basketball. The center?
Yep. His coach back then was a Norwegian man named Stener Kvinsland. A driver. A disciplinarian. He’s 76 years old now, long since retired, and in poor health. I got his phone number and called him in Washington. When he heard Heathcote’s name, his voice jumped. It’s been what, nearly 50 years?
“I remember Jud as if he were alongside me right now,” said Kvinsland. “Do you know, he wrote me a letter not too long ago? He told me I was his father figure when he was a boy, I guess because his father died when he was so young.
“And then, this is funny, at the end of the letter, he wrote, ‘You’re the reason I am a coach today. I don’t know whether I should thank you or not.’ “
Always a kicker.
And now, Heathcote is trying to deliver another kicker. A Big Ten title. This year. Can that really be the Spartans with a 22-5 record, in a virtual tie with Purdue and with a slight lead over defending national champion Michigan as they battle for the crown?
It’s them. And we shouldn’t be so surprised. You can take Heathcote for granted, but you can’t leave him there. Sooner or later he’ll come back and bite you. He did it with the 1978-79 championship team of Magic and Greg Kelser. He did it with the 1985-86 squad, where a troubled but brilliant guard named Scott Skiles took MSU to the NCAA’s Sweet 16 before a mysterious time clock shot them down.
And he’s doing it again. Despite losing center Mike Peplowski for a while to a knee injury. Despite the broken finger that sidelined Steve Smith. Despite Manns sustaining that stress fracture that may cost him the rest of the regular season. “We started out with a team we thought was strong and quick offensively but very suspect on defense,” Heathcote says, “and we end up with a very good defensive team that is very average on offense.”
You don’t make that kind of turnaround without good coaching. But then, you don’t stay at one school for 14 years unless you’re doing something right.
And you don’t win a national championship. Remember? Before the Pistons, before Steve Fisher, it was Heathcote who brought a basketball banner to this state. Maybe he has suffered for that. Expectations soared after his Spartans beat Larry Bird and Indiana State. “People expect you,” he admits, “to do it again.”
So maybe that’s why Heathcote seems to get publicity only when one of his players is a superstar (Magic) or in trouble (Skiles). Or maybe it’s because his Spartan excellence has come in spurts: two straight winning seasons, three straight losing seasons, four straight winning, two straight losing. Or maybe it’s geography? If it’s not football, East Lansing may be 60 miles and 60 minutes from being the top story with the Detroit media.
So be it. Jud will be the “Oh yeah” guy. He’ll joke with his office staff, he’ll take the bottom bunk bed to glory. Heathcote got into this business because he likes coaching kids. He is 62 and every once in a while, those kids come back and make it worthwhile.
“Last summer, we had the 10-year reunion of the ’79 championship team,” he says. “Do you know that everybody showed up? Every trainer. Every equipment manager. Every player. One hundred percent attendance.
“Afterwards, in a private room, all the team members got together. And someone said, ‘Hey, let’s make a toast.’ Well. Guys started saying things I couldn’t believe. Like: ‘This was the highlight of my life.’ ‘This was my greatest moment.’ “
“Did Magic say anything?”
“Oh, yeah. It was kinda funny. Earvin toasted everybody and said, ‘Man, this is the best time I’ve had in four years.’ “
The coach smiles. He thinks for a moment.
“You know,” he says, “whoever that woman was four years ago, she must have been something.”
Always a kicker.