WASHINGTON, D.C. — The winner of Friday’s Michigan State–LSU game will probably face Duke, which sounds more like a penance than a reward. This is fitting. The sins of the MSU and LSU coaches have been on display this month, and while this may be too simplistic, you can probably define yourself as a college basketball fan by answering the following question.
Which bothers you more: Will Wade (allegedly) paying players, or Tom Izzo (undoubtedly) screaming in his players’ faces, and looking unhinged while he does it?
Maybe Izzo bothers you more. Maybe you think players are treated too much like chattel, and if coaches make millions, then players should get whatever they get. Maybe you saw Izzo going after freshman Aaron Henry last week and thought: That’s no way to teach a college student in 2019.
I understand that argument. There is sound logic behind it. You could win a debate with it. But look closer, and it’s not that simple.
I assume that people were bothered by the Aaron Henry video because they worry about how Izzo treats his players. Well, this is how Izzo treats his players: constantly. He yells, he cajoles, he soothes, he encourages, he pries, he suggests, he listens. You will not find any coach in America who spends more time worrying about his players. Sometimes it seems unhealthy, and once in a while he seems a little nuts. But the interest is sincere, and his players know it.
There is a reason Henry never complained about what Izzo did. It’s not because he is scared of the coach. It’s because he understands: “It was just coaching,” Henry said afterward. And Izzo understands that what works for one player might not work for another.
Izzo can be so suspicious of “outside forces” that it clouds his judgment. He can be so obsessed with getting the best out of a player that he drives the player crazy. But ultimately most players appreciate where the obsession gets them. I have never seen any group of players at any university feel a stronger connection to their program and coach after they leave than Michigan State basketball players. They go back to East Lansing frequently, they call Izzo for advice, they offer to talk to current players. They don’t have to be around Izzo any more. They want to be.
It is easy to see Izzo blow his top and compare him to Bob Knight, another Big Ten icon. Izzo loved the old-school coaches that came before him, guys like Knight and Jud Heathcote and Bo Schembechler, so he might even take that as a compliment.
But Izzo is not Bob Knight. There are many differences. Knight disdained most journalists and critics; Izzo wants everybody to like him. Knight was pretty sure he had all the answers, and for many years, he did. Izzo is obsessed with getting feedback. He will ask reporters he likes what they think of his team. He yells at players, but he wants them yelling back at him. Anybody who has talked to Izzo for any length of time has heard these words: “Player-coached teams are better than coach-coached teams.” That is not a sentence Knight was known to utter.
One of Izzo’s assistants, Dane Fife, played for Knight’s last two teams at Indiana. He knows Izzo is a descendant of the Knight coaching style, but not a an exact copy of it.
“Coach Knight, he was a product of the mid-1900s,” Fife said. “A lot of wars, a big emphasis on military … his hero was Gen. Patton, you know? And in the military, there’s one way and it’s the person in charge’s way. That’s how you train and that’s how you maintain discipline.
“For me growing up, that’s what I wanted. I wanted discipline and I wanted structure. That’s why I chose to play for Coach Knight, and the results are what mattered. For me the result was, Coach Knight made me a better worker, a better preparer, a better person, through his teachings. There’s plenty of people who disagree, including me, with some of his methods. However, it was my choice. I love him, I respect him, I’m proud to have played for him …
“[But] I knew when I became a coach, I wanted to spend more time with my players and have a better relationship, as it related to things other than [basketball]. That’s what I wanted. That was my way.”
When he went to work for Izzo, he found a coach who takes that approach “to the millionth degree.” There are some Hall of Fame coaches who are truly like exceptional professors. Izzo is not. He is not a big book-reader, and Fife laughs about the time Izzo needed 10 seconds to name the Vice President of the United States. Izzo is part coach, part father figure, part therapist. He never claims that everybody in his program is a Rhodes Scholar, but he does push even his weakest students to make the most of their education.
“His players and his families are everything to him,” Fife said. “The thought behind it is pretty simple: If you can get everybody behind the player, then you can’t lose. That’s usually why student-athletes struggle, because they’re being pulled in all sorts of different directions.”
Fife arrived at Indiana as a touted shooting guard, but in his first two years at Indiana, his shot left him. He says “Coach Knight was results-driven: you get results by hard work, and the players will play and it will sort itself out … Izzo is much more interested in the why. ‘Why is Fife not shooting well? Could it be psychology? Could it be what’s happening off the court? His girlfriend dumped him? Could it be that his dad thinks he should be shooting left-handed?’”
This does not mean it’s O.K. for Izzo to scream at Aaron Henry with his eyes bulging. It does provide meaningful context. Izzo is desperate to win, sure, but he is just as desperate for his players to succeed. What happened next was telling: MSU’s other players stepped in to talk to Henry. That is what Izzo wants them to do. He wants them to care like he cares.
And this brings us back to the accusations against Will Wade, who is currently suspended. You might not care if Wade paid players to go to LSU. (And you might think he didn’t do it—he does have a right to defend himself.) But for better or worse, under-the-table payments are against NCAA rules. A coach who breaks those rules is saying, implicitly, that in exchange for the player’s athletic service, he will be compensated in cash. It is not a coach-student relationship. It is a business transaction.
Some people prefer the business transaction. But others get far more out of a coach-student relationship.
Tom Izzo makes millions of dollars and his players don’t, and that’s the product of a system that is illogical and out of control. But it’s possible to want rules to change and also respect people who operate within them. Some MSU players might not like the way Izzo yells at them, but they know, every day, that their coach does not see them as employees, serfs, or financial investments. They are on his mind, from dawn to midnight, whether the cameras are on him or not.