Appreciating Tom Izzo: How the Michigan State coach made the Basketball Hall of Fame.
HOUSTON — Michigan State did not make the Final Four this year, but the Spartans did make the Manager Final Four here in Houston. The team’s managers lost to Kansas’s managers, 44-42, in what I’m told was an epic championship game, but before that, they actually had to get to Houston. Somebody set up a GoFundMe account to pay for it. Tom Izzo chipped in $700.
The point is not that Izzo contributed money. He can afford it. The point is that he thought to do it. And if you want to understand why Tom Izzo just made the Basketball Hall of Fame, start there.
Almost every coach in the country puts up walls between himself and the public. Autograph sessions are limited. Secretaries learn to say, “He’s in a meeting” when he’s not in a meeting. They all have this crazy idea that, at some point, media availability is supposed to end.
This is not how Izzo operates. You can see into his office from the street; the blinds are rarely closed, and figuratively, they never are. Somebody calls the office and asks for him, and he might just pick up the phone. I remember him once attending a staffer’s parent’s funeral in the middle of the season. The funeral was in Indiana.
Kevin Pauga, Izzo’s longtime director of basketball operations who is now assistant athletic director, remembers being at Home Depot with Izzo once. Some woman was excited to see Izzo. He did not just pose for a photograph and hide in the toilet aisle. He and Pauga helped her load boards into her car, which was nice—except Izzo left his wallet on top of his own car. He found it, untouched, thankfully.
A couple of months ago I met with Izzo at the Berkowitz Basketball Complex on Michigan State’s campus. I was supposed to interview him for an hour about his star player, Denzel Valentine. But I knew that would not happen. It never does.
What happened, instead, was the most predictable thing in the world: I arrived at 8 a.m. We spent the first 45 minutes talking, off the record, about a wide array of topics. Most, though not all, were basketball-related. I don’t know if he ever said the words “off the record”—it was just understood that we were catching up. A couple of times, I reminded Izzo he had a 9 a.m. appointment, and perhaps I should turn on my recorder and ask him about Valentine. “Don’t worry about it,” he said.
Eventually the recorder went on and we talked about Valentine and of course we blew past 9 a.m., as I knew we would. I’ve known Izzo for more than a decade, and that’s how it goes. His office is like a doctor’s office: If you’re not the first appointment of the day, you probably have to wait. Pauga says in a typical Izzo day, “The second meeting’s start time is when the first meeting ends.”
This can be bewildering for people around him, but it is the key to Izzo’s success in many ways. He never gives up on a problem, a player, or a season until he finds a solution. That constant need to be part of something—not just a coach who wins games—has kept Izzo at Michigan State.
Sixteen years ago this month, Pete Babcock tried to lure Izzo to the Atlanta Hawks. Izzo had just won the national championship at Michigan State. He was 45. College coaching salaries were not at set-you-for-life levels yet, but NBA salaries were. Izzo remembers the process being “quick,” but that’s just time and distance lying to him. It lasted almost a month. He also says he was never on the verge of leaving, but he clearly was intrigued.
Michigan State’s most famous player, Magic Johnson, had told Babcock, the Hawks’ general manager, that Izzo could be the next Pat Riley. Contract terms had been agreed upon. Izzo looked at neighborhoods in Atlanta. All he had to do was say yes. Babcock thought he would. Izzo flew home and called Babcock the next day. “He told me he just couldn’t do it,” Babcock told SI.com on Monday. “He couldn’t leave Michigan State.”
I think that’s what has kept Izzo in East Lansing all these years. It’s not just the players or the college game. It’s the school. The community. He is intertwined with it, in a way an NBA coach never is, and that’s everything to him.
The Hawks hired Lon Kruger, another great coach, and Kruger had no chance. The roster had been stripped bare by ownership, probably in anticipation of a sale. The next three drafts were weak. Izzo would have been fired, too.
Once in a while, Babcock tells Izzo that turning down the Hawks was the best decision he ever made. Izzo replies, “You’re probably right.” Babcock says, “I’m not probably right. I am right.”
Izzo has had other chances to leave, and he has been tempted. Viewed from a distance now, those flirtations with the Hawks and the Cleveland Cavaliers and others are all the same story: Of course he wanted to coach in the NBA. He just wanted to coach Michigan State more.
Some coaches run away from the booster clubs and the school presidents and academic advisors and student-newspaper reporters; Izzo runs toward them. He said Monday that of all his accomplishments, making the Hall of Fame “ranks No. 1. A national championship would rank higher, but there’s only a group of three or four classes that got to be a part of that.”
Everybody gets to be part of this: All his players, all his assistants, all his managers, all the support staff, Jud Heathcote (who hired him). Izzo could go on and on. Twice, an official announced that the media session was over. Izzo made no effort to leave.