Thirteen years ago, Rick Pitino faced much the same choice that Tom Izzo is facing right now. Pitino was 44 years old, he had just taken Kentucky to two straight NCAA championship games (winning once, in 1996), and the Boston Celtics were dangling $50 million in hopes Pitino would take over their franchise. What's more, the Celtics were coming off a 15-67 record and had a good chance to land Tim Duncan with the the top pick in the upcoming NBA draft.
You all know what happened: Instead of winning the lottery and getting the first pick, the Celtics ended up with the third and sixth picks. Four years later, Pitino resigned in the middle of the season with his team struggling to a 12-22 record. A few months later, he was back in college coaching at Louisville.
Izzo and Pitino are good friends, but when I spoke with Pitino on Wednesday evening, Izzo had yet to call him and ask for advice. That led Pitino to believe the blog-fed rumors that Izzo had decided to leave Michigan State to take over the Cleveland Cavaliers were not true. So I asked Pitino what Izzo would ask if he did call: What should he do?
"My advice to him would be, if you're really happy where you are, then it doesn't make any sense to mess with happiness," Pitino said. "Happiness is more important than money. Happiness is more important than a new challenge. Also, you're on the threshold of making the Hall of Fame. If he called me, I'd tell him, 'Tom, put yourself in a seat belt and stay at Michigan State.'"
That's excellent advice -- and that is what I believe Izzo will eventually decide.
There are some very good and obvious reasons Izzo should take the time to consider the Cavaliers' offer. The first, of course, is money. From what I am being told, the reports that the team is offering around $6 million per year are largely accurate. That's a lot of coin. Another obvious incentive is the chance to coach LeBron James. Pitino alluded to a third reason -- the desire for a new challenge. Izzo has already won an NCAA title and been to six Final Fours. Nowhere to go from there but down. Finally, there's Izzo's friendship with Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert, an MSU alum. If you're going to coach in the pros, you want to be sure the owner has your back.
So yes, Izzo should listen and he should ponder. When he does, he'll quickly counter every one of those reasons. Yes, $6 million is a lot of money, but so is $3 million, Izzo's annual salary at Michigan State. He has turned down gobs of money from the NBA before, so it's hard to imagine that would drive him now.
Nor is there any guarantee he'll coach LeBron any more than Pitino had a guarantee that he'd coach Duncan. The Cavs and other NBA teams can't bid for LeBron's services until after July 1, and there is no way Izzo would let his decision drag out that long. He's way too classy for that.
The desire for a new challenge would be understandable, but without a guarantee that LeBron would be there, taking the Cavaliers job wouldn't be a challenge, it would be a fool's errand. "If he takes over Cleveland without LeBron, he's going to end up back in college like the rest of us," Pitino said.
I also don't believe any of the speculation that Cleveland is going after Izzo to placate James. There is no connection between LeBron and Izzo of the kind that exists between LeBron and John Calipari, via agents William Wesley and Leon Rose of CAA. And as far as Gilbert's ties with Michigan State go, Izzo would be doing the man a favor by turning him down. Things would be a little uncomfortable at Gilbert's next reunion if he robs his alma mater of its most iconic employee.
My sources at Michigan State told me that Izzo has actually been talking with the Cavaliers for more than a week now, but the story has only broken in the last couple of days. It reached a fever pitch on Wednesday when a couple of blogs erroneously -- and irresponsibly -- reported that Izzo held a meeting with his players to tell them he had accepted the job. Izzo did meet with his players in the coaches' offices on Tuesday, but only because he knew they were following the story through the media and wanted them to hear what was going on directly from him. I'm told he also spent part of the meeting talking about what everyone was doing to get ready for next season, when Michigan State's Final Four roster will return largely intact, making the Spartans a preseason top-3 choice.
"The meeting was so informal, it really didn't even strike me as something that was newsworthy," one participant told me. "All he was looking to do was say, 'Hey, people are going to call you guys so here's what's going on.' I can understand why he'd want to listen if somebody offers you that kind of money, but my gut instinct tells me he's going to stay."
My gut instinct tells me the same thing. There's no reason to rush through this process, but at the end of the day Izzo is too smart to mess with such a good thing. So by all means, Tom, take some time. Give it some real thought. Then do the smart thing and stay where you're happy.