Tom Izzo has guided Michigan State to eight Elite Eights, six Final Fours and one national championship in 19 seasons in East Lansing.
Robert Beck/SI

If Tom Izzo left Michigan State, who would take over the Spartans' top spot? Leading candidates include Arizona's Sean Miller and Spartans assistant Dwayne Stephens.

By Brian Hamilton
July 08, 2014

The Successor Series will examine who might replace some of the biggest head coaching names in college basketball when they inevitably leave their posts. It is intended as pure speculation -- fodder for discussion in the long hoops offseason. That said: Down the line, we reserve the right to claim we knew it all along.

Tom Izzo, Michigan State

Record: 468-187

NCAA titles: One (2000)

On an almost annual basis now, there's the question of how much patience the ultra-competitive Izzo has left for the college game. Each year, he is linked to NBA teams, and each year he returns to Michigan State for more, recharged during the summer and driven by the expectations and doubts about his roster.

Still, Izzo will turn 60 in January during what will be his 20th season as the Spartans' head coach. His retooled approach to recruiting -- he has said he won't go all-in on elite prospects, as he did in a failed bid for Jabari Parker -- might keep him in East Lansing longer. But he won't be there forever.

His coaching tree is not littered with obvious candidates, as former assistants like Stan Heath and Brian Gregory have not thrived in head coaching gigs, while Indiana's Tom Crean probably wouldn't return to the program regardless. Izzo took over as the in-house hire when Jud Heathcote retired. Could someone on his staff do the same? Are the job and the stakes too big to trust to an inexperienced hand with a program that has won seven Big Ten titles and made eight Elite Eights since 1998? And if not, where does Michigan State turn?

If Izzo left tomorrow

Sean Miller, Arizona head coach. Miller probably would be at the top of the wish list for many high-profile job openings. There's nothing wrong with Michigan State shooting high, either, but the question is whether Miller would leave an arguably better-stacked program, especially after just agreeing to a lucrative new contract extension through 2019. Miller's teams at Xavier and Arizona have made three Elite Eights in the past seven years, but Michigan State would be counting on a Pennsylvania native, Pittsburgh grad and former head coach at an Ohio school having a burning desire to return to the Midwest.

Tony Bennett, Virginia head coach. The personable 45-year-old Bennett is a hot commodity after leading the Cavaliers to 30 wins and both the ACC regular season and tournament titles last year. Virginia ranked fifth nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency last season, per, and that toughness would travel well to East Lansing. (Ranking 346th nationally in adjusted tempo might make Spartans fans cringe, but then slow play isn't a foreign concept in Big Ten country.) The possible speed bumps: Bennett is a Wisconsin native with intensely personal ties to a Big Ten rival – his father, Dick, coached the Badgers from 1995-2001 – and he just inked a seven-year extension with Virginia. Contracts are made to be broken, of course, but Bennett might not return to the Midwest given his job security in Charlottesville.

Dwayne Stephens, Michigan State associate head coach. He's a Ferndale, Mich., native. He played for the Spartans. He's been a Michigan State assistant for 11 years. Most recently, he was credited with developing Draymond Green and Adreian Payne into NBA prospects and various outlets have deemed him one of the nation's best at talent acquisition (Michigan State has pulled in eight four- or five-star recruits since 2010.) So given all that, is Stephens basically an Izzo Redux? Recall that Izzo is a Michigan native who was a longtime assistant and Heathcote's associate head coach before being elevated to the top job. It's a bigger leap for the program to take now than in 1995, to be sure, given its increased prominence. But if Stephens' public persona begins to evolve – and it might need to – that might be the surest sign he's being groomed to repeat history.

Long shots and long-range plans

Shaka Smart, VCU head coach. Another virtually automatic name to come up in the rumor churn following an Izzo departure. Smart is a Wisconsin native who listened to but declined to pursue opportunities with Illinois and Marquette in recent years. Michigan State offers more than either of those Midwest schools. It might be more difficult for the 37-year-old Smart to turn down the Spartans, but he can afford to be picky, especially with a contract at VCU that essentially rolls over to 2028. Would he want to assume the burden of following Izzo?

LaVall Jordan, Michigan assistant coach. Would it be treasonous for Jordan to come into his own under John Beilein in Ann Arbor and then jump to the hated Spartans? Quite possibly. Jordan is probably situated better to slide over into Beilein's seat or take another Midwestern gig. (He was a finalist at Butler before Brandon Miller was hired.) But he's an Albion, Mich., native and helped get the likes of Darius Morris and Trey Burke ready for the NBA.

Eric Snow, Florida Atlantic assistant coach. Snow played at Michigan State and for 13 years in the NBA, then was the director of player development at SMU under Larry Brown before being tapped as an assistant with Florida Atlantic in May. The 41-year-old Snow would likely have to succeed as a head coach somewhere, though, before taking over in East Lansing.

Mark Montgomery, Northern Illinois head coach. Montgomery played at Michigan State and served as a Spartans assistant under Izzo from 2002-11. He also won a combined 10 games in his first two seasons with woebegone Northern Illinois before making what qualified as a leap in DeKalb: A 15-17 record in 2013-14. To be a viable replacement, Montgomery likely has to win bigger with the Huskies and then again at one more stop.

Steve Wojciechowski, Marquette head coach. He'll have to succeed at Marquette, of course, but he has the resources to do so at a program that spent more than $10 million on men's basketball in 2012-13, per U.S. Department of Education data. If that happens, Wojiechowski makes sense on several levels. He has the charisma and confidence to run a big program; he'll presumably have relationships built in the Midwest; and he probably wouldn't be cowed by following a legend, since the former Duke point guard and longtime assistant would certainly be happy to take over for Mike Krzyzewski in Durham.

Archie Miller, Dayton head coach. This Miller would have to continue to win huge at Dayton after taking the Flyers to the Elite Eight last season, and perhaps do the same at another stop, too. But he's just 35 years old, which means he has the time to put himself in position as a viable candidate.

Saul Phillips, Ohio head coach. The 41-year-old Phillips is Midwest through and through. He played at Wisconsin-Platteville and made assistant coaching stops at Wisconsin-Milwaukee and Wisconsin before landing at North Dakota State, where he took over as head coach in 2007 and won 61.5 percent of his games. He left for Ohio after directing the Bison to the third round of the NCAA tournament this March; but if he wins big in Athens, and, potentially, at one more stop, he might be a dark horse candidate down the line when Izzo calls it quits.

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