Football never far from Izzo's mind at Michigan State
INDIANAPOLIS (AP) When he first started coaching at Michigan State, Tom Izzo had a bold vision of success that extended well beyond what he envisioned for his basketball team.
''I dreamed of football and basketball winning a national championship together,'' he said.
Michigan State is one of the few schools that can talk about goals like that with any level of confidence. The Spartans are in the Final Four for the seventh time under Izzo, while Mark Dantonio has lifted the football program to arguably its greatest heights in about a half-century.
The prosperity of the two programs is a source of pride for Izzo, whose love of football has helped shape his approach to basketball - and the way he tries to promote Michigan State.
''He and I are good friends - we've been good friends since before I became the head coach here,'' said Dantonio, who has been in charge of Michigan State's football program for eight seasons. ''I've been with him throughout the season when he's had some struggles. When he's had them, he's talked to me, and when I've had them, I've talked to him. There are a lot of the same things that we share together in terms of the experiences at this level.''
Growing up on Michigan's upper peninsula, Izzo played both football and basketball in high school alongside future NFL coach Steve Mariucci. The two became college roommates at Northern Michigan, where Mariucci joined the football team. Izzo stuck to basketball, but his passion for the gridiron remained strong.
Izzo became Michigan State's basketball coach two decades ago, around the time Nick Saban began his stint in charge of the Spartans' football program. Izzo has always maintained a tight connection with the football team, and he was on the search committee that helped land Dantonio.
The bond between football and basketball at Michigan State has become even more obvious as Dantonio's team has enjoyed more success, winning the Rose Bowl and Cotton Bowl in the last two seasons. The football team is often honored at hoops games, and basketball star Draymond Green actually showed up and played in the football team's spring game a few years ago.
Coaches at big-time sports schools often pay lip service to the idea that basketball and football teams should both be successful. For Izzo, that's more than just talk.
''He had relationships with the football players like he was their coach,'' said Mateen Cleaves, the CBS Sports analyst who led Izzo's team to a national title in 2000. ''He had an open door.''
Izzo's approach sometimes seems better suited to an NFL locker room. He embraces the physical aspects of basketball, with an emphasis on tenacious defense and relentless rebounding.
''Of course football is smash-mouth, tough, and that's the type of personality that coach takes with basketball,'' said Marvin Clark Jr., a forward on this year's team. ''I would say in that sense he's similar to a football coach.''
One of Izzo's most celebrated tactics was putting football pads on players so they could be more aggressive in rebounding drills. On a less violent level, the 60-year-old coach says there's a lot to learn from the way football staffs break down opponents while preparing for games.
''I've learned a lot from football, back when video wasn't as big in basketball,'' Izzo said. ''They have a week to prepare, so they never leave a stone unturned, if you ask me. Sometimes we have a day to prepare. I try to take that same procedure to make sure that we don't leave a stone unturned.
''That's why basketball coaches are tougher than football,'' he added. ''We get it done in a day. It takes them a week.''
Joking aside, there's really no sense of rivalry between the two programs at Michigan State. Izzo's basketball team has been a national championship contender for almost his entire tenure, and the football team's rise is a more recent development.
''Sometimes in Division I, it's the Hatfields against the McCoys in the same athletic department,'' Izzo said. ''I just am a believer that as big a basketball fan as I am, you need football. If they can coexist like they have at a few places - only a few - but if they can coexist and exceed expectations, now you've got another memory maker, you've got another time when you're doing something that most people aren't doing.''