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TO BE MSU’S COACH, IZZO LED SPARTAN LIFE

In the lower bunk slept a 3-year-old boy. He wore pajamas. He kept his miniature cars nearby. This was his room, and he had a toy chest and a closet for his baby clothes. In the upper bed slept his roommate. A grown man.

A guy named Tom Izzo.

You want to talk intensity? You want to talk sacrifice? Forget the NCAA tournament. Let’s talk about the bunk bed. The sports world may be abuzz about Izzo’s coaching as he steers highly touted Michigan State into the madness of March tonight. You should have seen him back then, in his first stint with the MSU program. Intensity? Sacrifice?

Try bunking with a 3-year-old.

“He needed a place to stay, and I needed help with my son because his mother had passed away,” says Bill Rademacher, who took in Izzo back in 1983.

“Did he pay rent?” Rademacher is asked.

“Well, he had to tell his share of bedtime stories, let’s put it that way.”

Now, you have to picture this. Here’s Izzo, a 28-year-old gym rat out of Northern Michigan. He’d been an assistant coach at his alma mater, but for two years, he’d been dropping by Michigan State to try to somehow get on the staff. He wanted to work with Jud Heathcote. He wanted it so badly, that he didn’t care about the ridiculously low money then paid to graduate assistants
(only $7,200 annually for an 80-hour work week).

In fact, Izzo wanted it so badly that, for his first interview, he showed up with a broken jaw, suffered during a softball game a few days earlier. He and Heathcote met for a few minutes, Jud staring at this strange young man with his mouth wired shut.

“What did he say to you?” I ask Izzo now.

“Aw, you know Jud. Mostly it was, ‘What the hell are you saying? I can’t understand a damn word!’ “

Dinner with the team

Not surprisingly, Izzo didn’t get the job. And he didn’t get it the next year, either. But finally, Heathcote relented and gave him a chance. Graduate assistant. Welcome aboard.

Desperate for cheap housing, Izzo moved in with Rademacher, then an assistant on MSU’s football team. Or should we say he moved in with Rademacher’s 3-year-old son, Billy?

“I remember I got the top bunk,” Izzo says, laughing, “because he couldn’t climb that high.”

Izzo did his roommate duties, which included cleaning up the toys. Meanwhile, to make ends meet, he ate meals with the team at the training table. He took whatever dinner invitations he could get. (“People said they invited me over to keep me alive.”) And at night, he came home to the sleeping child, the toy trucks, and the top bunk.

The following year, Izzo moved in with a former team manager. They split the rent and saved their pennies, but on $7,200 a year, you can only save so much. Izzo was running out of cash.

He tried to hide it. He liked being a part of the Spartans — even though his lifestyle was so, well, spartan. Never mind that he still wasn’t doing any real coaching, that he mostly went through endless hours of film. He was learning from a master. He wanted to stay.

“He tried to hide his financial situation,” Heathcote recalls, laughing over the phone from his home in Spokane, Wash. “He tried to dress nicely, things like that. But let’s face it. Less than $8,000 a year?

“Only reporters can live on that.”

Finally his big break

By his third season, Izzo was getting desperate. Low on funds, he moved back on campus, into student housing for married couples. He wasn’t married (how many dates can you get when your roommate sucks his thumb?), but they let him live there anyhow.

“They preferred that to seeing me on the street,” he says.

He sold his car, a sporty Camaro, and bought a clunky Olds Omega ’88 for
$1,500. He lived off that money, but it only carried him a while. Pretty soon he was broke again.

“After that year, I told him it was time to get a real job,” Heathcote says.
“He had exhausted his savings. He really didn’t want to leave — but when a job opened at Tulsa we said Tom, you gotta take it.”

Izzo did. Reluctantly. He went to Tulsa, got his first paycheck — a little more than $400 — drove to a shopping mall and went nuts. “I bought pants, shirts, all these things I hadn’t bought in years,” he says, laughing. “I was like an animal released from a cage.”

The rest of the story Spartans fans know. Izzo quickly returned to East Lansing (when a position opened on Heathcote’s staff) and he waited eight years, turning down head coaching offers elsewhere, until Jud retired and he took over the team. Now he’s a coach-of-the-year winner and his Spartans are favorites to make the Final Four.

The story of college basketball, some say, is in the high gloss showdowns being played in this tournament. Wrong. The real story is in the early days of the people involved, in the consuming passion that makes them move anywhere, live anywhere, eat anything, as long as they’re a part of the game.

The real story is in that bunk bed, which is long gone, in that little boy — who is now in college — and of course, in the memories.

“I wouldn’t trade those days for anything,” Izzo says. “They make you who you are.”

And if you doubt it, one final footnote:

“What was the name of your condo development?” I ask Rademacher.

“Dream Lake,” he says.

But of course.

To leave a message for Mitch Albom, call 1-313-223-4581 or E-mail albom@freepress.com

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