The Spartan Nation Basketball Weekly

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Who You Are…The Importance of Identity

The Spartan fans are ready for another title run.  Photo courtesy of Mark Boomgaard.

The Spartan fans are ready for another title run. Photo courtesy of Mark Boomgaard.

Winning College Basketball programs know their identity. They know who they are, what they want to do, and why they want to do it their way. Establishing a program identity begins with a Head Coach, but extends through the player’s locker room to include the entirety of a program’s support staff. It’s no coincidence that the nation’s best programs just happen to be the ones with the strongest identities.

“I think it’s (program identity) very, very important,” Izzo told Spartan Nation earlier this week. Ask any College Basketball fan to describe Michigan St. Basketball and you’ll hear words like tough, disciplined, and athletic. You’ll hear them quickly reference the foundation of Spartan Basketball under Tom Izzo, Defense and Rebounding. And you’ll likely hear them talk of highly athletic teams who’ve featured some of the game’s best dunkers and highlight makers over the last decade or so. Now into his 15th season, Izzo has burned his identity deeper and deeper into Spartan Basketball as the years have gone on, though it’s not always been easy. The program’s slogan, “Players Play Tough Players Win,” is something that Spartan Basketball works every day to live up to.

When Izzo took over for Jud Heathcote after the 1995 season, he had long been an assistant on the Hall of Famer’s bench. “In trying to develop mine (program identity), it was easier because I had Jud before me, and it’s not like we changed a million things,” he quipped. The Dean of Big Ten Coaches also spent those years studying other great coaches around the Big Ten to determine how to build the identity of a winner. “I looked at Indiana with Knight, Keady at Purdue, and I really Iooked at Clem Haskins a lot at Minnesota,” Izzo recalled. “…those guys (showed) how I wanted to model my program…the toughest players would win.”

Izzo isn’t the only Big Ten Coach who spent time in a major College program before becoming a Head Coach. “I was in a very fortunate position because the Head Coach before me was great, and he really had the blue print for what we do, Purdue Head Coach Matt Painter told Spartan Nation earlier this week. “I played for him, and I was his assistant.” And Izzo nemesis Bo Ryan learned early on from the Big Ten’s most famous Coach in history just how important it is to establish an identity is, and has never veered far from that advice since.

“It started in the early 70s with a Jr. High School team that I first had,” Ryan told Spartan Nation earlier this week. “I heard Coach Knight mention in the first clinic I ever went to that you want to take more shots and better shots on offense, and then defensively you’re trying to do the opposite…So everything we do, and our identity with any program I’ve come into, has played off those two things as our major theme.”

Not only did Izzo learn how important it was to develop a program identity, he realized that a program with an anchored identity could win with the different types of players that would pass through a program. “I saw them (Keady and Knight) win with extraordinary talent, and I saw them win with average talent…I saw them win with race horse basketball, and I saw them win with half court basketball.” Izzo has done the same in his time at MSU, perhaps better than any coach of his era.

The Delicate Balance, and a Slippery Slope

Establishing a program identity isn’t just as simple as drawing up a mission statement to plaster all over the basketball facilities. It must be lived every day, and used to overcome the challenges of success, complacency, frustration, and desperation. “Sometimes you can lose your identity, and I’ve done it here,” Izzo admitted. Those in the Spartan Nation who have followed the program closely can probably ballpark the era Izzo was referring to. “I think that was one of the main reasons to get a Travis Walton…I felt like I was losing a little of our identity trying to get better players that maybe didn’t carry the same badge of warrior or honor that some of our other players did,” Izzo confessed. “It’s constantly that fight between balancing the stardom and what fits in at Michigan St.”

The Wisconsin Badgers’ identity under Bo Ryan is instantly identifiable, though not always the most visually appealing. He told Spartan Nation that without a clearly defined identity, you simply can’t build a successful program. “You have to establish what you want, and what you can accept offensively and defensively,” he explained. But to Ryan, establishing an identity can only go as far as the players will take it.

“You get your system, you put it in, you work it, and the most valuable asset you have is the ability of the players to believe that, “okay, this is what we’re going to have to do…he ain’t changing, and it does help us be successful.” Ryan feels that without getting players to buy in, a Coach shouldn’t get too comfortable in his surroundings. “That trust between the players and the coaching staff, if it’s not there, you don’t have a system, you don’t have anything, and you’re probably not around very long.”

Izzo is hardly the only Coach to battle identity issues. Even the game’s traditional powers (UCLA, UNC, Kansas, etc.) have struggled from time to time. Purdue’s Matt Painter admitted to facing an identity crisis early on after taking over in West Lafayette. “Obviously you’ve gotta get high level players, but more importantly you’ve gotta get high level character, guys that understand the game, and get kids that want to be (there),” he told Spartan Nation earlier this week. “I think that’s something that I got away from my first couple years here, and has really hit home for me how important it is to get the right guys here.”

After veering off course early, Painter was able to straighten Boilers out before Petey Purdue got too far off track. “It really came down to trying to get the right fit at Purdue, and getting the right guys in the locker room that understand what Purdue is all about…trying to play hard, trying to play tough, trying to be together, and creating that basketball family.” Painter now fully appreciates the importance of that fragile match, and believes it’s critical to building a consistent winner. “The product is very very important, obviously you can develop players and get them better… but you have to get the right player and the right person.”

The Big Ten’s most impressive young Coach has only the highest praise for the Conference’s Senior member when it comes to solving that critical equation. “Obviously Tom Izzo would be the guy nationally, or from the Mid-West, that you would look at that has done the best job of that…he gets good players, but he gets the right guy for him too.” But Painter recognizes it’s not just Izzo that makes the Spartans go, it’s a total program effort. “He’s got a lot of people that surround him, with his Assistant Coaches and staff, that are very loyal, understand him, and understand Michigan St…It’s just a healthy recipe for success.”

Are Even Greener Horizons Ahead?

“Maybe the most important thing is what Jud Heathcote once told me,” Izzo recalled. “Find players that want to be here because they’ll end up better than the ones you’ve gotta beg to be here.” There’s little arguing that Izzo has a fine mix going right now at MSU. Since the class of Lucas, Summers, and Allen, recruiting at Michigan St. has been reenergized. The Spartans have gone on to land “program” guys like Delvon Roe, Korie Lucious, and Draymond Green, who have each exuded the identity of Spartan Basketball since coming onto campus.

“I think in recruiting we do a lot of begging, but I do try to find players that want to be here,” Izzo noted. His current core of Spartans have brought back the program’s identity towards the “old” Izzo way. And though the program under Izzo has yet to suffer a significant dip, the recent results suggest the future only looks greener.

Not to get ahead of things, but next year’s class might be one of the best Izzo has landed as a Head Coach. It will ever get easy for Izzo and his staff to recruit so well year after year, but it might just get a bit easier as his second decade carries on (See Mike Krzyzewski’s second decade at Duke). Now, every recruit Michigan St. Basketball ever talks to should already know and understand the identity of Spartan Basketball. If you wear the Green and White, you will defend, you will rebound, and you will play hard. Though that’s just the foundation of this program’s identity, it’s enough to get a young man rolling and “Spartanized.”

The issue of identity is so critical to a successful College Basketball program. The best programs have always had the best sense of their own identity. They’ve also been relatively clean, and free from a “break?...but I only meant to bend,” approach to the NCAA rules. I’m not talking about the UNLVs, the Fraud Five, or pretty much any school John Calapari has coached at so far. I’m talking about the likes of Knight’s Indiana, North Carolina under Dean Smith, and Krzyzewski ‘s reign at Duke.

College Basketball fans know the identity of the nation’s elite programs. They know who their leaders are, what kind of players they have, and what those programs stand for. And if you ask College Basketball fans around the country, they know the identity of Michigan St. Basketball. Fortunately for the good of the Spartan Nation, it seems like the 2010 Spartans do too.