The last time Jud Heathcote switched jobs, he made sure the guy behind him got to take over. This was his thinking: You’re loyal, you work hard, you get rewarded in the end. He even delayed his exit a few days when he heard the big shots might pull a fast one on his assistant. They didn’t. The guy got the job: head coach, Montana. And Heathcote left happy. That was in the early
’70s, when a lot of people had different ideas about life.

Heathcote hasn’t changed. He has been in East Lansing 17 seasons now, teaching college kids how to play basketball, he has gone to the mountaintop and he has slogged through the mud, he has fought the wars and he has pulled out half his hair. And he still has the same philosophy: Be loyal, work hard, get rewarded in the end.

So it should surprise no one that when Heathcote announced there was a pot at the end of his rainbow — retirement — the most important thing to him was not his departure, but who got to stay behind.

“I’ve been working my tail off trying to get this done, and for the last three years I have been pointing towards Tom Izzo,” Heathcote said Tuesday, when he and Michigan State announced that Izzo, who sits next to Jud on the Spartans’ bench, would be the new men’s basketball coach when Heathcote hangs it up, most likely after his contract runs out in two years.

“There was no ultimatum. I am not being forced out. This was something I wanted to do,” Heathcote said.

“It’s not a message about me. It’s maybe a message to everyone else, that there is continuity in this program.”

And intelligence. He turned the tables on his foes

But then, Jud was always smart. He saw a negative, saw it being used against his school, so he grabbed it out of enemy hands and put it to work for him.

Jud is 65. In the coaching business, that’s Methuselah. And other schools know it. Lately, their recruiters were telling high school stars, “Michigan State? Well, you know Jud’s not gonna be around much longer. . . .”

Today, that’s all it takes to lose a kid.

So Tuesday afternoon, in one neat and tidy — if somewhat rushed — press conference, the Spartans chopped down that problem. They kept their current coach. They named their next one. No more rumors. No more mystery. They put two oars in the water and straightened the boat right out.

“It’s a big advantage,” Izzo, the new guy, admitted. “When parents send their kids off, they want to know who’ll be taking care of them.”

For the moment, the answer is: both of them. True, Heathcote is turning toward the sunset. He’s in good health and excellent spirits, but this is not a job you take to the grave, not unless you want an early one. He has won a national title, beaten the big boys both nationally and in the Big Ten, and if this just-ended season was a dim one (a first-round NIT loss), well, remember, Michigan lost in the NIT the year before it got the Fab Five.

“I still enjoy coaching, I still enjoy the challenge,” Heathcote said.

When I told him he was a very young 65, he laughed.

“I know. I’m going to run the Iditarod next winter. Without dogs. Just me.” Jud hands the reins to a Michigan State man

Will we miss him? Come on. You don’t watch a guy bang his head on the sideline for 17 years and not miss him. You don’t listen to a guy say things such as, “Coaching ultimately makes fools of us all, and I’m living proof,” and not miss him. But, hey, he didn’t die. He didn’t even quit yet.

What he did was take care of his own, the way most good coaches, it seems, insist on doing. Bo Schembechler would not leave Michigan until he knew that Gary Moeller would be his replacement. Heathcote now does the same for Izzo, a guy who has helped get MSU recruiting back to the big stage.

By the way, the reason the story came out Tuesday was that the news had begun to leak and MSU figured get it out in the open rather than wait till next week as planned. And now the man with the white hair (what’s left of it) can concentrate on a final goal, a few good seasons, and think about life after the whistle. He has seen an awful lot since he got there, watched Magic Johnson lead MSU to the NCAA title, watched year-round recruiting turn to four-month recruiting, watched players who thought about the NBA only in their junior or senior years turn to freshmen who arrive with the Mercedes all picked out. These kinds of changes, this kind of distance, can make any man weary.

“What will you do after coaching?” I asked.

“Rest,” Heathcote said.

A word about the new guy. Izzo. His is an industrious go- getter out of Iron Mountain, a small town where he worked his first jobs laying carpet and installing windows. He coached around the state, and began in East Lansing as a $7,000-a-year, part-time assistant. Now he gets the big seat. Other schools had been interested. He is off the list.

“This is Utopia for me,” he said.

Well, he has awhile before he gets the keys. May I suggest he study the man sitting next to him, for integrity, perspective, hard work — everything except hair tips. There might be critics who think the game has passed Jud Heathcote by. They don’t understand. The game passes everyone eventually. The good coaches leave a mark on it.

Jud Heathcote just took a stand for loyalty, for continuity, and for truthfulness with prospective players. You can see that footprint a mile away.

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