And so he stays. The most hotly debated topic in basketball ends with Tom Izzo going nowhere. He is “here for life” he now declares.
But he is not the same.
What Izzo went through the past 10 days will shadow him for months if not years. It was nothing less than a total soul examination: Who do I want to be? How will I be remembered? How important are the things I say are important?
The questions may be over now for Spartans and Cavaliers fans, but the wondering will not end for Izzo, no matter what he says. He will think and think again about the reported $30-million offer, a chance to coach LeBron James, one of the greatest talents in NBA history, a chance to see the NBA Finals without two decades of trying.
The words you heard suggest: “I did the right thing.” But the question in his head will be: “Did I do the right thing?” Retirement issues really matter at 55
Here then, for what it’s worth, is my take on that one.
Forget the fact that most college coaches do not do well in the NBA. Forget the fact that Izzo has four decades in the business and not a day in the pro ranks. Forget all that. Had I consulted Izzo, here is the first thing I’d have told him:
In 30 years of sports writing, I’ve never met a happy NBA coach.
I’ve met funny ones. I’ve met wisecracking ones. I’ve also met nervous wrecks, hand-wringers, pessimists, worrywarts and defeatists.
There is something about coaching younger and younger players – who get richer and richer – that leaves older men in an agitated state. Chuck Daly, who dubbed himself the Prince of Pessimism, rightly stated that NBA coaches “are hired to be fired.” The job is a ticking clock. Sooner or later you’re going to get the ax – even if you win a title.
That’s the one thing Izzo has in East Lansing that he could not duplicate in the pros. He is not there to be fired. He has earned a lifetime career – and now, apparently, he has one. He likely will retire at Michigan State. And at 55, where you will retire becomes a real issue.
It is, I suspect, part of the reason Izzo chose to stay. Sure, taking a huge check and maybe coaching LeBron is glitzy, appealing, lots more spotlight.
But when that’s ended – and it would end; if you don’t think so, go check how many NBA coaches are still in the same spot five years later – then what? Does Tom Izzo want to be a guy looking for a new city and a new team at 60 or 63? Does he want to leave the stage one day meekly, searching for a cable TV gig, because nobody is interested in hiring him anymore?
That’s a very real end in the NBA. College coaching means more than the pros
Now consider Michigan State. Izzo not only is beloved there, a legend, he affects people. He molds young men.
He’d be molding nobody in the NBA. He’d be lucky if he got them to take their headphones off.
There’s a reason ex-NBA players don’t come back to visit coaches the way ex-college players do. College is life-forming. You make memories. The NBA you make money. It’s a business, a players league where players rule, and I believe LeBron is just beginning to swing his weight around. Once he gets his new contact, whatever team he plays on is HIS.
For that reason alone, the best-case scenario for Izzo still had drawbacks, namely, he’d get LeBron, but he’d be working for one of the richest athletes on the planet, not the other way around.
Now the haunting question: Will he ever get another chance? Not like this one. Most teams only need a new coach because they’re lousy. Besides, the biggest attraction for Izzo was the Cavs owner, Dan Gilbert, a Michigan State guy who looked up to Izzo and likely wouldn’t have fired him no matter what for at least a while. He’s not likely to find that profile again.
But something’s lost and something’s gained in every decision we make. Izzo lost a shot at the NBA, but he gained a wave of respect from his already loving supporters, he gained a firmer foothold on a college coaching legacy, and he gained perspective that comes from putting yourself through the soul-searching ringer.
But, most importantly, he kept a grip on a word that has defined him from the beginning and will now, apparently, define him to the end.
Contact MITCH ALBOM: 313-223-4581 or email@example.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).