ST. LOUIS – His staff wanted him to stop. They interrupted his impromptu media gathering with “Last question, guys” or “We’ve gotta stop, guys.” But Tom Izzo wouldn’t stop. He talked and talked. It was late Saturday night, Michigan State’s season was officially over, the players were boarding the bus, and Izzo was huddled in the back of the locker room, frustrated, tired and ready to be blunt.
He was blunt about the defeat. And he was blunt about his critics. He said this season was “the hardest of my career,” despite going 26-7. He likened it to “root canal.” He called some of what he’d had to deal with “ridiculous” and said over and over that MSU basketball wasn’t North Carolina, Duke or Kentucky basketball, and people had no right to expect certain parallels. “If those schools lose a player, they just go out, shake a tree, and a few new ones fall off. I have to go on a four-year recruiting binge.”
He sighed. He bit his lip. He spilled his thoughts then wondered if he should. Tom Izzo, honest to a fault, was about as unhappy as a guy who made a Final Four could be. And while he pleaded, “Do me a favor, don’t write that I’m feeling sorry for myself,” you did find yourself wondering, why was Izzo so tortured, and what ever had he done to have to feel this way?
Here are many of the questions he was asked, and the brutally frank way in which he answered.
Why do you say this was your hardest year?
“You know … we were 21-5 and apologizing for everything. I think that’s all I did was apologize all year.”
How does that change?
“Two things I gotta get straightened out at Michigan State. One is I want to have a program everybody expects the world from. But I also want everyone to understand that it’s not Kentucky or Duke or Carolina. It’s not there yet. It ain’t gonna be there for 10 years – and that’s if we can continue this. We’re not gonna snap our fingers and get recruits. … “
But if those schools miss a conference title or lose early in a conference tournament, they get criticized, too, right?
“Sure they do, 100 percent. And if they lose a player, they go rattle a tree and a couple new guys fall off. If I lose a couple players I go on a four-year recruiting binge to try and nail one down. That’s what I’m talking about. I envy those programs and that’s what I’m aspiring to be, but that, in Mike Krzyzewski’s case, that’s 30 years of work.”
Are you saying you couldn’t enjoy this season the way you wanted to?
“This season has been hard to enjoy. I mean, 26 wins, I’m sure that that’s got to be in the top 10 in the history of the school, and it felt like root canal, you know?”
Are you angry about that?
“Yeah, a little bit, to be honest. … It makes you wonder where you’re going. I hate to say this, but 26-7, we ain’t gonna be a lot better than that because there’s not many teams a lot better than that. And our schedule next year is probably worse than this year. …
“I’m gonna have to take a little time off. I’m confused. I’m confused about scheduling. I’m confused about what to say at the start of next year, what expectations to present.”
As Izzo continued, you felt both sympathy and hesitation from the gathered reporters. For one thing, he was clearly talking about certain members of the media, and the knee-jerk response is to defend those in your business. On the other hand, it was sad and puzzling to see a man who had been so celebrated the past seven days seem so persecuted now. Izzo is generally liked, and a man in pain is a sympathetic figure.
Many of Izzo’s briny comments no doubt lay in the sting of the loss to North Carolina in the national semifinals, a game, it was clear, that Izzo felt was within reach if his team did in the second half what it had done in the first. Izzo lamented his team’s letdown, and the injury to Alan Anderson that plagued MSU’s comeback chances. He cited his mentor, Jud Heathcote, who sometimes found it hard to console his team after an NCAA tournament loss, because he knew how few chances even the great schools get.
More from Izzo’s rambling conversation:
Has there really been as much criticism of MSU as you perceive?
“Put it this way, when I have people at major colleges and major TV networks asking me, What is wrong with everybody up there? Why is everyone so down on your program?’- that makes me think that maybe I’m not off the wall here. … “
Didn’t the negative sentiment turn around at the end?
“It only turned around because we did some incredible things. But if we had lost last week, would it have turned around? I mean, we were still gonna be 24-7. Would it have turned around?”
Do you feel like you’re not enjoying the job the way you should?
“That’s probably a large part of it. And that’s not me, you know? It’s not me not to enjoy it. It’s not me to bunker down. Everybody’s happy that I quit listening to talk radio but that’s not me, I’m a sports guy, that’s who I am, that’s what I am. If I was a stockbroker I’d read the Wall Street Journal, but I’m not. I am who I am and I don’t want it to be this way, so I’ve got to adjust and figure it out, but … I sure don’t want to feel bad for being what we are this year or for playing like we did.”
Maybe you’re being too emotional about all this?
“Sure, but that’s my strength. I don’t want to be the other way. … My emotion, that’s all I have. I’m not that good! I’m dead serious. My passion for the game and for the players, for the school, for the community, that’s what I got.”
Do you think the critics need to cut you some slack?
“I don’t want slack. I don’t want slack from anybody. I want the truth. If you feel our program is not very good, then you write it. But bring the goods. You know, I tell my players every day you say whatever you want to me, but you bring the goods, OK? …
“I’m confused because I hear this a lot: Well, you set the standards. Well, you expect them” to be great. “Like trying to blame me for” the criticism. “That’s ridiculous, too.
“You’re damn right I set the standards. You know what the standards are next year? Go undefeated. That’s what I set every year. But if we fall short, I can understand it. If a team is better than us, if a guy gets hurt, I can accept it.”
In time, you imagine, Izzo will cool down. Losing hurts, at all levels, and so do missed chances. If Izzo could have beaten North Carolina, he would have pounded home a trifecta of superiority over three schools – Duke, Kentucky, North Carolina – that he feels are one notch higher in national perception.
“I’ve said it 100 times,” he said. “You are judged on what you do over time. The meat and potatoes is when a player’s dad’s dad played at your place. I mean if I asked you to name five schools that were tradition rich in basketball, it wouldn’t take you long to say Kentucky, Duke, Kansas, North Carolina, UCLA, right?”
Do you think it would be better for you in the NBA?
“Ah, every job has its pluses and minuses. I don’t think the grass is greener. I just have to do a better job of handling it and dealing with it.”
Do you consider going to the NBA?
“You know what? I really don’t. I don’t know if I’d be a good NBA coach, even if somebody gave me the opportunity. I don’t know what I’d say. I won’t be phony. I won’t say I never have an interest, but I’m not thinking about that at all.”
Even though you’ve been mentioned for several jobs, including Detroit?
“People have said stuff about a lot of different jobs to me. Personally, I hope Larry Brown coaches 10 more years in Detroit, because I think he’s great for the game. Secondly, I had one real opportunity where a job was really offered.” It was with the Atlanta Hawks, after the 2000 national championship. “Otherwise, everybody has to have a college guy on their list. I think I’m the college guy they throw up there. It doesn’t mean I’m a real candidate.”
Do you think you are simply destined to feel like an underdog? Is that your personality?
“I don’t know. I’ve been the favorite a few times. I kinda liked it.”
With that, Izzo shrugged, said good-bye and was escorted away. Was it defeat talking? Frustration? Fatigue after 10 seasons on the job? Likely it was all three and more.
The world will look brighter for Tom Izzo in a few weeks, especially if he uses that time to get away somewhere. It is a draining and dizzying business, this big-time college basketball, and never more than in the back of a losing locker room when you’ve fought for every yard and fallen a few inches short.
Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Also catch “Monday Sports Albom” 7-8 p.m. Mondays on WJR.