ST. LOUIS – Tom Izzo was sitting in his office, rubbing his eyebrows, shaking his head. This was a few days before March Madness and his team was still stinging from its early collapse in the Big Ten tournament. Nobody expected much from the Spartans then. And like a student who knows he has blown the quizzes and the midterm, all that remained for Izzo was the final exam. Failure or success hung in the balance.

“What do you think?” I asked.

“I think we’ll either disappear early, like a first-round loss, or we’re gonna surprise everybody.”

“And you? How are you handling it?”

“Ah, you know,” he said, his voice craggy, his smile fatigued, “maybe people just get tired of you after a while.”

It was the first time in all the years I’ve known Izzo that I could picture him announcing his resignation, taking a different job, maybe jumping to the pros. He looked worn out, squeezed, blanking on new ideas. People do get tired of coaches -“hired to be fired” is the expression – and despite his ringing successes at Michigan State, the three straight Final Fours, several Elite Eight appearances, and, of course, the national title, familiarity breeds contemptuous talk shows. The buzz was that Izzo, with this underachieving group, might be losing his mojo.

“It’s funny, when you’re winning, they say it’s your discipline, you run a tight program,” he lamented that day, “and when you don’t win, suddenly it’s, ‘He’s too tough on them.’ “

What a difference a few weeks makes. Now Izzo is being hailed again, for his toughness and his program, tossed in the salad with Roy Williams and Rick Pitino, great coaches by any measure. Of course, Izzo has as many national championships as the two of them combined and has a better postseason winning percentage and more recent success.

So why is he the third Beatle?

Because for some reason, around Michigan more than elsewhere, people still have Izzo on a short leash. All he has done by getting to tonight is provide a little slack.

Izzo surpasses his mentor

“I’d like us to be at the level where we’re not considered an impostor if we’re down for a year or two,” Izzo said this week. “You know, even Duke went to the NIT, but nobody ever said, ‘They’re imposters.’

“I’d like it to be legal to be down for a year. It is legal. It would be nice to be at that point.”

What you hear there is a man who wants people to say, “Relax, he knows what he’s doing,” a man who thinks he must keep proving his worth. Of course, Izzo brings some of this on himself. Despite his numerous Coach of the Year awards, he has never postured like the aloof, well-coiffed head figure, the kind with a driver, security man, and young, attractive assistant. Despite nicer suits and finer grooming, Izzo still has the air of an assistant coach, a skipper rather than an admiral.

And then there’s the Jud thing. Even though, after 10 years at the helm, this is clearly Izzo’s program, not Jud Heathcote’s leftovers, Izzo still seems almost deferential, crediting his mentor, pointing him out in the crowd, as if one day, the old guy will come back from a long hiatus and say, “Thanks, kid, I can take it from here.”

The thing most people forget is that Jud’s 1979 championship, behind Magic Johnson, was the last time MSU was even in a Final Four until Izzo took them 20 years later, his first of three straight appearances. Heathcote didn’t merely pass the torch. He passed it to the anchor leg. Izzo has gone faster and farther in a much shorter time.

Yet even Izzo can’t seem to shake the distant haze. “That 1979 Final Four was the first one I ever saw,” he said, nostalgically. “And who’d have believed, all these years later, that Magic Johnson and Greg Kelser would be calling me for tickets?”

Izzo has earned a down season

College basketball is a coaches’ game. The players try, they sweat and they fight, but the great ones, anyhow, are merely on exhibition season, a good spring, a lousy spring, they’re still going to the big leagues. The coaches, meanwhile, are the ones who lug their records around, like satchels on their backs. Season after season, when the fans come back, the college hoops star may be gone; the coach is still there.

So it is time, whether the season ends tonight against North Carolina or Monday, to let the cord off Izzo completely. He has earned the steering wheel. He has earned the dips that come with longevity. It is legal to have a down year. And it’s obvious, after this season, that “down” is a relative term.

Izzo doesn’t just belong in the company of a Pitino or a Williams, he leads it. He shouldn’t just be capable of beating Mike Krzyzewski and Tubby Smith, he should be expected to.

“People always say success changes you,” Izzo said. “But I don’t know, in my mind, I haven’t changed one iota. Maybe I’m wrong.”

No, he isn’t. And that’s most amazing of all. People get tired of coaches. But Spartans fans should worry more about the day when Izzo gets tired of them. They have a gem in hand right now; they should be mindful how they handle it. Even diamonds can be squeezed into dust.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).

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