My Two Cents: Tom Izzo Dominates The Big Ten Like Bob Knight Once Did

Tom Brew

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — Tom Izzo, the legend, turns 65 years old in a few weeks. He's done tremendous things at Michigan State in his 25 years as a head coach, including winning a national championship and making it to eight Final Fours.

There's no doubt, he's the Bob Knight of this generation in the Big Ten. 

Legend isn't too strong of a word to use with Izzo. Sure, a second — or third or fourth — national title would have been nice, but those eight Final Four trips are impressive. You can't dance if you don't have the girl in your arms.

Izzo probably has the Big Ten's best team again this year. They were preseason No. 1 in the country, but took a few lumps early. Izzo has steadied the ship, though, and the Spartans are 6-1 in the Big Ten, sitting alone at the top, and they're 14-4 overall.

He comes to Bloomington on Thursday night to take on the Hoosiers, who are also 14-4 overall, but just 4-3 in the conference.

The legend comes to the house that Indiana's legend, Bob Knight, made famous.

It's easy to compare the two, simply based on duration and success. Their paths overlapped a good bit, of course. Knight was still coaching at Indiana during Izzo's first five  seasons at Michigan State, and the fondness runs deep — and in both directions. Knight won 661 games, the most in history at a Big Ten school, during his 29 years. Izzo is second now at 620 in his 25th year.

Izzo's lone national championship season in 2000 was Knight's last season at Indiana, something of a passing of the baton. This has been Izzo's league ever since, as evidenced by his nine regular season titles, and his six Big Ten Tournament championships. 

I had a chance to sit down with Izzo a while back and ask him about his Bob Knight memories. He was, as always, excellent. 

"He and Jud (Heathcote, the former Michigan State coach who hired Izzo as an assistant in the early 1980s) were good friends,'' Izzo said. "I remember I hardly ever met Bob during my 13 years as an assistant. But the day I got the job, he was one of the first guys I got a call from.

"I'll never forget my most favorite Bob Knight memory. He had a real good team, we had a real good team and it was getting late in the year. We beat them down there pretty handily and it was a big game, CBS, the whole works. We were celebrating in the locker room ...  and Quinn Buckner's son knocked on the door. He was a manager for Bob, and he said 'Coach Knight would like to to see you in the war room' and I said 'Oh, jeez, here we go.'  

"I went down there and he told me he thought we had a good enough team to win it. He told me four or five things to watch out for, and then he slapped me on the back side and said 'get out of here.'  Sure enough, we went on to win it that year.''

Izzo has some dates and moments confused because Knight actually won their final meeting in 2000. He could have been thinking of a year earlier, in 1999, when Izzo went to the Final Four for the first time and beat Indiana 73-59 in Assembly Hall in January. Still, let's not let facts get in the way of a good story.

Here's more from Izzo:

"Everyone has different thoughts and stories on Bob Knight, but for me he was a guy that was passionate about what he did. And 99 percent of his players loved him, and still go back and still talk about him. 

"My first Big Ten win was against Bob (on Jan. 4, 1996). People told me, you win some games and he won't be the same. He was always the same. I think he respected that we didn't cheat and that we did it the right way. He respected that I was just a grinder like he probably was. I have great admiration for Bob.''

TomIzzoTomBrew
Michigan State coach Tom Izzo (left) talks about Bob Knight during Big Ten Media Days in October. Knight and Izzo are No. 1 and No. 2 in Big Ten wins.

Izzo loves everything about bringing a team to Assembly Hall, from the crowd noise to the challenge on the court. Izzo was 5-3 overall against Knight, and he's gone 20-14 since Knight in the Davis/Sampson/Crean/Miller years.

With Knight living back in Bloomington now, he'd probably be more interested in coming back to Assembly Hall to see Izzo than his own former players, who were all in town a few weekends ago for a reunion week. With more than 70 former players and managers at Assembly Hall for the Ohio State game, there were all sorts of rumors flying around that Knight would show up for the game.

He didn't, of course, opting to thumb his nose at former players and all the thousands of fans who would love to see him. He respects Izzo, so wouldn't that be something if he showed up Thursday night at Assembly Hall, just to say hello to Izzo.

Wouldn't that be something?

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