Twenty eight years ago, Tom Izzo hung up the phone, sat down, and cried.
He had just been informed that a high school star named Chris Webber, whom he had been recruiting for years, had chosen archrival Michigan instead.
Izzo wasn’t even the head coach at Michigan State then, just the top associate to a firebrand named Jud Heathcote. But he cried over losing Webber. It mattered that much. In his mind he wondered what would happen next.
Here’s what happened next: Webber went to two Final Fours with Michigan, but came home empty. Izzo replaced Heathcote as the head coach at MSU, in 1995, and this weekend is in his eighth Final Four, with one championship in the trophy case and another in his sights.
“You take steps,” says Izzo, 64. And it is time to take another. He no longer cries over losing a recruit.
And he no longer belongs in the one-title club.
Two Timer. That’s the goal this weekend. A lot of college hoops coaches have one championship ring — some famous, some just fortunate. But two NCAA titles — like two Super Bowls — moves you into another room, with plusher carpet and mahogany walls, just nine other coaches around the table, including Dean Smith, Hank Iba, Rick Pitino, Denny Crum.
“It’s like being in a big fraternity or a small one,” Izzo admits. “This is one time you wanna be in the small one.”
Izzo belongs there. If he won’t say it, I will. And given the other coaches in this Final Four in Minneapolis, none of whom have made it this far before, you could argue he’s the favorite to get it done.
But wishing doesn’t make it so.
“You know, I called Gene Keady (the former longtime Purdue coach) after Purdue lost (in the Elite Eight) because he’s a good friend,” Izzo says. “And every time I get to a Final Four there’s a part of me — I don’t know if ‘embarrassed’ is the right word — but I just think Gene was one of the great coaches in our profession. He did it the right way. And his teams never got to a Final Four.
“And (last weekend) they just missed again. How do you lose a game like that?”
You lose it on a freak play, a strange rebound, a rare pass, a hurried shot. In all levels of basketball, you can lose a game that way.
But in March Madness, you — and your players — not only lose the game, you lose a title shot, a year’s worth of work, maybe even a legacy.
You want to know what keeps Tom Izzo up at night? It’s not missing out on a Chris Webber.
It’s what direction the wind will blow this time.
Nassar … and the year that followed
Izzo can walk you through every near-miss game of every tournament he ever reached. But there are a few of us who still remember when he was wiping spit from Jud Heathcote’s tirades. He is no longer that loyal energizer assistant, or even the kinetic Tasmanian Devil he was when he took three straight teams to the Final Four from 1999-2001, winning his title on the second try.
Izzo’s hair, once shaggy, has thinned now. His eyes carry bags. He has a voice only a throat surgeon could love. And in three and a half decades, he has seen almost everything. There’s less steam and more sigh coming from his engines.
But then, familiarity breeds many things. And Izzo knows, by being the anti-Larry Brown, staying in one place for 36 years, that he doesn’t get the welcoming press conference or the honeymoon phase. He’s expected to be excellent. He usually delivers.
But it’s not lost on him that this week he is the pride and savior of our local sports scene — the Red Wings, Tigers, Pistons and Lions have no real chance at a title — and yet only last year, he was feeling a national finger wag when MSU was under scrutiny for the Larry Nassar crisis.
Stories painted MSU as a school out of control, first for Nassar’s predatory abuse, but also for improprieties among former players in the football and basketball programs. At one point, an ESPN report put photos of Izzo, Nassar and Mark Dantonio side by side, under the title “Hidden Secrets.” It was inappropriate, many felt, if not flat-out irresponsible, as there is no stretch of anger to justify such a connection.
But Izzo couldn’t really speak his mind. He probably broke the skin on his lower lip from biting it so hard. And now, even with the platform of a conquering hero, having knocked top-ranked Duke out of the tournament, he refuses to lash out.
“What happened here was horrific or worse,” he says of the Nassar scandal. “But there was one man who caused a lot of those problems. And you know, it did blanket over all of us. And I guess in a leadership position, which I think I am in, I’ve gotta accept that responsibility.
“All I can do is learn from it. All I can do is try and better myself and, maybe as important as anything, better society. Because a lot of these things are social problems. And so that’s kind of been a new mission for me. I’m not gonna hide from it. I’m gonna learn from it.”
Aaron Henry. Gary Harris. And a phone call
Izzo is a bit less gracious to the social-media chorus that attacked him for berating freshman Aaron Henry during the first-round game against Bradley, after Henry wasn’t getting back on defense. Once again, most of that vitriol came from people who don’t know Izzo, don’t follow his style, don’t know how intimately he gets involved with his players, and the love behind the volume that never goes away.
Think about it: when was the last time you heard a former Spartan complain about Izzo’s intensity? On the contrary, it’s a love fest. Heck, Gary Harris, the former Spartan and now Denver Nuggets star who helped recruit Aaron Henry to MSU, called Izzo that night.
“He goes, ‘Coach, I love you,’ ” Izzo recalls. “He goes ‘I was watching, and I jumped up at the TV myself (at Henry’s laconic play). And I laughed and said ‘You should tell Aaron that sometime.’ And he goes, ‘Coach, I just got off the phone with him. I’ve been talking to him the last 20 minutes!’ ”
Youth and a changing world
That incident speaks to another reason why Izzo deserves a second ascension to the medal stand. For all his years on this job, he’s perpetually starting over. With sophomores and even freshmen jumping to the NBA, he endures more turnover than a washer-dryer.
“Whenever I go and speak to a company, I’ll say ‘You know, your job is better than mine in some ways — and my job is better than yours in other ways — but there’s one thing you better know about my job: in yours, every year you get older, some of your clientele gets older with you,” Izzo says. “Every year I get older, my clientele stays 17 to 22. And that is a very difficult thing to deal with.”
No matter how hard he coaches, no matter how smart he gets, he can’t age his kids with him. They are often 20, 19, sometimes even 18 years old. Things are going to happen.
“I get a kick out of some people on TV that say when you’re 18 you’re a man — you should be able to make your own decisions,” Izzo says. “Hell, I was 35 and still calling my dad saying, ‘What do you think about this? What do you think about that?’
“It’s so absurd. Just think of being in college now. I gotta sit there on a daily basis and tell my guys what to tweet, what not to tweet, what to say, what not to say. … We have made 18-year-olds into grown men, but 18-year-olds are not grown men. And if somebody’s insulted by that, so be it. Cause I sure wasn’t.”
Lessons from the past
But all right. In fairness, these are all issues any college coach faces. It’s just that Izzo has been facing them a long time in the same place. He won’t tell you he’s the best coach in basketball. In fact, he says there are a number as good or better.
“I mean what — because I’m now 2-11 against Mike Krzyzewski in the Twitter era where everything is about today — does that mean I’m better than him?” Izzo says, laughing. “Um, no, it doesn’t.”
So a second NCAA title, like Jay Wright or Billy Donovan has, isn’t because Izzo is owed it. But he does need it. Getting to the last weekend eight times means you have a good program. Capturing it all means something else.
“I’m gonna try to win this time,” Izzo said, when the media asked him what he’d do differently this Final Four. It was a funny but telling comment. I ask him what he meant by that.
“Well, I push my players, so I was trying to push myself,” he says. “Let’s face it. We’ve been to seven and we’ve won one. So what do I do differently? I’m not superstitious. I’m not gonna wear a certain tie or arrive at a certain time.
“But I am gonna say what did I do wrong (the last times)? Was it something I could have controlled? Was it too relaxed or too intense? I’ve called coaches. I called Geno Auriemma (the UConn women’s coach) believe it or not. I spoke to Nick Saban. If Bo Schembechler was alive, I’d be calling him!”
Time to join the smaller fraternity
And now the big stage is here. Again. It’s been a long, strange road between his last Final Four (2015) and this one. He lost his father. The whole Nassar scandal. The Spartans were eliminated in the first round (2016) when his team was a championship favorite. There’s been Denzel Valentine, Jaren Jackson Jr., Miles Bridges — all NBA first-rounders, all without a title.
And now there’s this weekend, the Spartans coming in having conquered Zion Williamson and the ballyhooed Duke Blue Devils. Izzo says this group is one his favorites. He says they are closer than most, that they have a chemistry, that there is laughter and spirit and a leadership from Cassius Winston that you can’t manufacture.
Even the final points in the Duke win came from a play that Izzo says Winston actually called in the huddle. Izzo had just gotten done grilling senior Kenny Goins about a shot that Williamson blocked.
“I said ‘Man, we told you he could jump. Why didn’t you pump fake?’ ” Izzo says. “He says “Coach, he was 15 feet from me! I never thought anybody could do that!”
Nevertheless, with the game on the line, Izzo blessed a play that put the ball right back into Goins’ hands. And with Williamson again coming after him, this time Goins adjusted, put a higher arc on it, and swished it through for the decisive points.
Two Timer. Goins did it better given another chance. And Izzo is looking to do the same.
“I love this group,” he says, but in fairness, he says that about most of his teams, and he certainly said it about the 2000 team that won his only championship. Should the 2019 Spartans finally push him into that smaller fraternity, he’ll likely confirm what the old song says, that love is better the second time around.
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