DES MOINES, Iowa — The moment everyone wanted to talk about was far more fleeting as it passed. As many a headline stated, “Tom Izzo has to be restrained” was probably overstating what took place. Things unfold slower on camera. Anything can be Zaprudered with the right underlying note of emotional righteousness. And so, Izzo, beet-red and white-knuckled, berating freshman guard Aaron Henry in the midst of Michigan State’s nervy win over 15-seed Bradley on Thursday, became a topic of discussion.
This is not to moralize as to whether Izzo did or did not cross a line—there are other ways to express yourself, sure—but the feeling in the Spartans’ locker room was more or less muted afterward. Teammates praised Henry, who had made a handful of mental mistakes over the course of the game, for responding with a late basket and pair of free throws that helped close things out. The 30-second clip was easier to interpret from the outside looking in than it was on the ground.
“I didn’t think it was a big deal,” Henry told Sports Illustrated during a quiet moment on Friday. “Someone had to tell me that I went viral after the game, and I’m like really? For that? Wow.”
Henry had been mostly nonplussed Thursday, despite being swarmed by cameras at his locker 15 minutes after the win. “Nerves were a little bit high,” he admitted then. “I was playing so bad, offense, defense, I haven’t played like that before. It’s O.K., he’s going to yell, it‘s what he does. Can’t listen to how he says it. Just what he says.”
While Izzo’s approach is fair to criticize, and certainly doesn’t require any overwrought defense from anyone with a platform, Henry’s countenance was relaxed, and seemed to suggest he was—and would continue to be—just fine. Over the course of the past day, he’d been asked to speak on the matter more than enough, to be fair. Given some time to reflect on it, he took no issue with being asked. While it’s normal to expect players to defend their coaches—and certainly, we can’t know how anyone’s truly feeling—Henry understood how the moment looked. “People got concerns, people got questions, I’ll answer them,” Henry told SI. “That’s what this time is for. Everybody has their respective jobs, and I look forward to answering.”
Playing peacemaker—and pacemaker—for the Spartans on Thursday was Cassius Winston, as usual, and his decision to calm Izzo and pull him away in the heat of things became part of the narrative, as well. “He was a freshman at one point getting yelled at how I get yelled at,” Henry said. “You see the type of player he is, with how hard coach has pushed him, I want to end up exactly like that. He’s done everything he’s supposed to do.”
“Coach is filled with passion and emotion and love, you know, those are the main things that make him as great as he is,” Winston told reporters Friday. “When he's getting after you or when he's yelling it's never out of harm. It's never out of hate. It's literally him wanting the best for you and him challenging you and pushing you the best you can be and it's worked for years and years and years.
“He's a great coach and even a better person. Him yelling, he is the first one to yell and he will be the first one to cry when something bad or good happens. It's all emotion and it's all him caring for you.”
What message Izzo might send to others, to the public, to coaches and people in power—whether old school is a bad excuse for being surly, whether or not tough love ever truly works—these were all things that came into question, and continue to be questioned, perhaps rightfully. In the Spartans’ camp, it was another day, another game, and far from a distraction. These are players who want to be coached, specifically to be coached by Izzo, to be held accountable, as he would put it. Maybe he can do it without screaming. Excuses don’t have to be made for him, either. But less than 24 hours after the fact, it was possible—even understandable—to at least give a little credence to either side.