Lean On Me

Since their school days in Michigan, Tom Izzo and Steve Mariucci have dreamed together, schemed together, pushed each other to coaching heights--and always returned to their roots
June 19, 2005

WHEN HE goes home to Iron Mountain these days, Steve Mariucci knows to expect certain things. There'll be a few more FOR RENT signs downtown. His mother, Dee, will get tired more easily; his dad, Ray, will talk about the squirrels that left the bocce courts a mess. At night Steve will sleep in his old bedroom with the photos and the boyhood souvenirs, untouched since the day he left. Someone will joke about the next Lions-Packers game. And people will ask about Tommy. Perhaps, if they're too young to know better, they'll even ask Mariucci if he is Tom Izzo. ¶ It's understandable. For decades in Iron Mountain they've been Tommy-and-Steve, inseparable, as if two men could somehow share a heartbeat, which, to hear them talk, isn't too much of a stretch. When Izzo speaks offhandedly of "the way Mariucci and I have lived our life" or Mariucci talks about "the ambition we're living," it comes off as sweet and slightly freakish: Here sit two American alpha males, Me Decade products with multimillion-dollar contracts and egos weighty enough to crush a Buick, and they're divvying up dreams, success--their very identities--as they would an order of french fries.

Mariucci is the coach of the Detroit Lions. Izzo is the basketball coach at Michigan State. It's unlikely enough that a town of 8,000 would produce two high-profile coaches, much less two the same age, much less two who are best friends, but that this onetime mining hub on Michigan's Upper Peninsula did so for home-state teams remains a source of wonder. Izzo turned 50 in January and Mariucci will do so on Nov. 4, and as always on this visit in May, Mariucci bumps into old friends who love talking about how Tommy-and-Steve made it out together, made it big together and now give back together. But it's not that simple. Mariucci motors past the A&W drive-in, the Premiere Center banquet hall: every place a reminder. He points to Central School. Izzo went there through eighth grade. Mariucci attended Immaculate Conception.

"I hated him," Mariucci says. "Basketball, fifth grade and sixth grade, we were always competing against each other. The first time IC played Central, we beat them, and these fifth-grade girls [from Central] were there saying, 'Well, we didn't have Iz-zo.' I'm like, What's an Izzo?" Mariucci drives a few blocks while telling the story, far enough to confirm that you haven't lived until you've heard an NFL coach imitate a snotty fifth-grade girl. He turns onto West A Street and slows in front of a nondescript bungalow. "This was his house, right here," Mariucci says. "The next time we played, I learned what an Izzo was: He was dribbling behind his back, doing lefthanded layups. The rivalry was on."

Mariucci drives down to the town's stadium, where the two boys--Steve at quarterback, Tommy at tailback and linebacker--co-captained the Iron Mountain High football team. A few years ago they raised money to help spruce up the place. But it wasn't their first refurbishing effort: In 1973, at the end of their senior year, Mariucci and Izzo had the bright idea of recruiting kids to paint a wall behind the stadium bleachers. But their classmates spent that week before graduation sleeping, gathering at hunting camps, drinking up on Millie Hill. Tommy and Steve--"nerds," as Mariucci's dad labeled them--painted the 30-foot-high wall themselves.

Mariucci passes the Pine Mountain ski jump, where he and Izzo spent summer nights running the 374 steps until they heaved. Then he drives past a baseball field. "We played Little League against each other," he says. "Once I was on third, showing off, and he was catcher, and he fired the ball to the third baseman and got my ass out. I hated his guts."

Mariucci smiles: It's fun to indulge the feeling even now. The two were so evenly matched, so similar in their intensity. Along with the friendship, their competitiveness has survived everything--time and distance, marriage and kids. They still measure themselves against each other; for nearly 30 years Mariucci has kept a ledger detailing their two incomes. ("Nineteen seventy-eight: I blew him right out of the water," he says in his office one day, finding the entry within seconds. "I was making $8,600, and he was making $3,500.") Until 2003, when Mariucci's new five-year, $25 million deal dwarfed Izzo's $2 million annual salary, they were never more than $30,000 apart.

But that's just money. Mention how far he and Izzo have come to accomplish so much, and Mariucci's mood shifts. "I haven't done anything," he says under his breath, and then he says it again louder. He went 57--39 in six seasons as coach of the San Francisco 49ers, making it to the NFC Championship Game in 1997. In '02 Mariucci went 10--6 with the 49ers and got fired anyway. In his two years with the Lions he has gone 11--21. He's not the hot young coach anymore. "You've got to win it all," he says.

He stops in front of an empty lot on Smith Street. "I grew up here," he says. "I remember riding my bike, four years old. There used to be a house right there. It's gone now." He resumes driving.

"Do you want to have a job and tenure and go through the motions for 35 years and retire?" he asks. "Or do you want to hit the top? And if you hit the top, what does it mean--and if you don't, what does that mean? When you're obsessed, the only thing that's really satisfying is hitting the top, then doing it again."

Izzo has hit the top. No current coach can match his record of four Final Four appearances in the last six years. When he won the 2000 national championship in just his fifth season as head coach--faster than John Wooden, Dean Smith and Mike Krzyzewski--Mariucci was there at the Hoosier Dome, teary-eyed, as Izzo cut down the nets. Obviously, Mariucci is told, you felt great pride--

"He won," Mariucci cuts in.

Love--

"He won," he says even faster, staring through the windshield. "He won one first. But the night is young, O.K.? It's just the beginning."

THE BEGINNING? No. For that you'd have to rewind the tape awhile, to a basketball game during their junior year. It's March 1972, 33 years after Iron Mountain High last won the Upper Peninsula championship. The Mountaineers are playing in the regional title game in Marquette, Mich., Tommy and Steve are co-captains, and the team trails by one point with two seconds left. Tommy, the point guard, has been the team's high scorer, with 16 points, and now he's at the foul line with it all in his hands: a one-and-one. Hit the first, and the Mountaineers tie. Hit the second, and they win. Tommy stands on the line. He shoots. The ball slides along the rim and off. He collapses to the floor in tears. Steve, the shooting guard, is the first person to his side. He pulls Tommy to his feet.

The pattern was set: There for each other, no matter what. They went to Northern Michigan University, where for the first time they were nobodies. An imploring letter from his high school coach got Izzo the chance to walk on to the basketball team. Mariucci got a partial scholarship to play football, nearly quit after his first few weeks, redshirted and found himself buried on the quarterback depth chart. He and Izzo roomed together. They worked harder, ran more than anyone else to prove themselves. In 1974, Mariucci's first active season on the team, Northern Michigan went 0--10, and he threw 69 passes, completing 37. The next fall he got his shot when the three quarterbacks ahead of him were injured. In 1975, in the greatest turnaround in NCAA history, Mariucci led the Wildcats to a 13--1 record and the Division II national championship.

On the court Izzo hustled his way from walk-on to team captain and became an All-America. At team banquets and New Year's Eve parties, "we didn't ever bring dates," Mariucci says. "We just kind of went ... together. That got back to Iron Mountain and raised some suspicion about our sexual orientation. Swear to God: I was asked, 'Hey, listen, I gotta ask, are you and Tom...?'"

After graduation they stayed on at Northern Michigan as grad students and assistant coaches. They bought a series of trailers, sleeping in bunk beds and renting out the spare room, then bought a house and renovated it themselves. After teaching, coaching (for a year Izzo worked at nearby Ishpeming High) and taking classes until 10 p.m.--Izzo was studying health and Mariucci education--they would cut paneling or paint until 2 a.m., pass out in sleeping bags and wake up covered in sawdust. On a greaseboard hung in the family room they broke down basketball and football plays and charted the future. They made a bet on who would work at Notre Dame first. In truth Izzo figured he'd be coaching at some small school in Michigan, sticking at Northern if he was lucky. In 1980 Mariucci broke away to be a Division I assistant, at Cal State--Fullerton. Izzo thought, Well, I've got to leave too.

Izzo admits that an is-he-passing-me-by insecurity gnawed at him, especially since it took three more years for him to break in as a Division I assistant, at Michigan State. But mostly he felt that Mariucci's move had broadened the possibilities for him, too. "The more successful one of them is, the more successful the other one will be," says Tom Clarke, who was one of their basketball coaches at Iron Mountain. "That goes back to grade school."

While at Fullerton, Mariucci met Gayle Wood. They wanted to get married, but, she says, Steve told her "if Tom didn't approve of me, I was out." She flew into Iron Mountain, "and afterward," she says, "I knew he was telling the truth." Two days before the Mariuccis' July 1982 wedding the best man broke his jaw playing softball; the doctor wired it and warned Izzo against flying, because airsickness could cause him to choke on his vomit. Izzo made the trip and gave the traditional toast, mumbling through his teeth while another guest tried translating.

In 1990 Izzo met Lupe Marinez. She passed muster with Mariucci, and Izzo married her in '92, with Mariucci as best man. They are godfathers to each other's children (the Izzos have a son and a daughter, the Mariuccis three sons and a daughter) and consult each other on investments, media relations, aging parents. When Mariucci interviewed for the Lions' job in early 2003, Izzo drove the 75 miles from East Lansing to Detroit that night, arriving at midnight, and the two friends talked until 4 a.m. In 1999, when Izzo was en route to his first Final Four, Mariucci sat in the stands with Lupe, holding her hand; it wasn't clear who was more nervous.

"There isn't a major thing I would do without talking to him," Izzo says. "Marriage, my kids are born, an NBA job, championships--anything that's happened, he's been part of it."

Mariucci isn't quite so effusive, but then, that's not his way. On the surface the two men don't seem much alike. Aside from a five-week stint at Tulsa, Izzo has spent his entire career in Michigan, and his aw-shucks demeanor and Upper Peninsula (U.P., or "Yooper") accent make it easy to label him as authentic. Mariucci has lived in 17 houses, and his speech has been flattened by a career spent mostly in California. He's more contained, careful. Where Izzo seems incapable of an insincere word, Mariucci can come across as slick.

But the fact is, their background--each has a father of Italian descent and a mother whose lineage is French--and interests are nearly interchangeable. It's not for nothing that each man seems capable of stepping into the other's shoes. With his high-energy, rah-rah coaching style, Mariucci would be right at home (some would say even more at home) on a college campus, and Izzo's passion for football is almost childlike. He went out for football at Northern Michigan in the spring of '76--his squad beat Mariucci's in the spring game, he wants you to know--and, though he left to devote himself to hoops, he would travel with Mariucci and the Northern coaching staff for kicks, charting down-and-distance in the press box. Three times Izzo has suited up his Spartans hoopsters in shoulder pads and helmets and ordered them to go at it in rebounding drills. "He should coach football," Mariucci says.

Izzo doesn't disagree. "I want to get on his staff someday," he says, referring to Mariucci. "My dream is to be some kind of assistant--call me quality-control guy, call me a piece of s-----and to be in Lambeau Field against the Packers, in my parka, when it's snowing big. You know why I'd love to see Steve win the Super Bowl? A lot's because of him, but a lot's because I love football so much. I could live it."

The 2006 Super Bowl will be played at Detroit's Ford Field. Despite the fact that the Lions have won one playoff game since 1957, Mariucci says he intends to win the NFL championship. "Why not? Somebody's got to," he says.

Izzo has never been to a Super Bowl. He was set to fly to San Diego had Mariucci's 49ers beaten Green Bay in the '97 NFC Championship Game, but that was his last sniff. Tickets and travel won't be a problem this time, but proximity has nothing to do with it: If Mariucci's not on the sideline, Izzo won't go. That's part of the code. Tommy-and-Steve built their identity as much around loyalty as hard work; no matter how many wins they amass, they're still most comfortable thinking of themselves as two-of-a-kind, Yoopers forever proving themselves. Both men become uneasy when told that they've reached the summit, but it gets truly awkward when you point out the reason: Mariucci because he thinks he hasn't, and Izzo because he has. Told that Mariucci uses his success at Michigan State as a spur, Izzo visibly stiffens.

"In every relationship, there is a tint of jealousy...," he begins, and then he veers. "He can say what he wants. I don't think he feels a bit of it, and I don't either." For him to admit otherwise, of course, would be too much to ask. Then Izzo would have to admit that he's a success, admit that he's gone someplace his best friend hasn't, admit that the "ambition we're living," in Mariucci's words, has reached a fork that neither of them planned on. Instead, Izzo does something predictable but nonetheless astonishing. He finds a way to make himself the underdog.

"You know what's funny?" he says. "He got a national championship ring as a player. He was the Man. He's got something I can't ever get. You know what else? I've had chances to go to the NBA. He had more courage than I did: He took the jump [from college ball to the NFL]. If he won the Super Bowl, would I be saying, I've got to win the pro championship in basketball? I've got to get to that level and win the whole thing? Maybe. Maybe he'd drive me."

Izzo relaxes, smiles: That was close.

"GO, MOOCH, GO!" The voice rings out in the Premiere Center ballroom just as Steve Mariucci is about to speak. The crowd laughs--it's only one voice, after all. Located a 480-mile drive from Detroit and only 90 from Green Bay, Iron Mountain is still, despite Mariucci's current position, Packers country. Mariucci says he's converting the townspeople "slowly but surely," but tonight is not about that. His father, who introduced wrestling and bocce to the Upper Peninsula, is being inducted with nine other men into the U.P. Sports Hall of Fame, and with each man's husky speech about his roots (pronounced ruts), the night grows into a two-hour tribute to the U.P.

Steve stands at the podium and points to his tie clip, a horrendous copper thing snipped into the shape of the Upper and Lower Peninsulas. He tells how the guys on the Northern Michigan coaching staff gave it to him a quarter century ago, when he left for California, with the warning, "Just don't forget where you came from." His players cackle at the sight of the clip. "I wear it proudly," he says, "and I know that's the case with everybody in this room. We never forget where we're from."

On July 1, as they have for the last eight summers, Mariucci and Izzo will host their annual golf tournament and auction in town. It's a two-day bonanza that this year reaches something of a climax. With the $250,000 they expect to raise this summer, they'll pay off the bank note on the $2.3 million Izzo-Mariucci Fitness Center, a two-story wing of Iron Mountain High complete with a state-of-the-art weight room. Since Tommy and Steve began pouring money into the school a decade ago, alumni donations to the scholarship fund have more than doubled. On July 2 Izzo and Mariucci will go off to Marquette for the 30th reunion of Northern Michigan's national championship squad, at which Mariucci plans to introduce Izzo as "our mascot," and they'll pass the Izzo-Mariucci Academic Center, for which each man anted up half of the $150,000 seed money.

"They'll never forget this place," says Buck Nystrom, one of Mariucci's coaches at Northern, after the Hall of Fame dinner. "That's not true of a lot of people." Nystrom looks up to see Steve's mom, who has stopped to say hello. He asks how she is, and she answers politely, and he presses, "But you're beating the cancer, aren't you?"

"Well...," Dee says.

More than anything, it's their parents who tie Mariucci and Izzo to Iron Mountain now. Dee has been fighting the effects of chemotherapy for six years. Each time Tom leaves his parents, Carl and Dorothy, he wonders if he's seeing them for the last time. Both couples are getting fragile. Still, when Steve goes into the basement, he can hear echoes of the nights when Ray taught him how to box; he can drive the road where his dad's headlights guided him on the jog to Pine Mountain. "My kids haven't had that," Mariucci says. "My oldest son, Tyler, has had 14 different bedrooms. Ask him, 'Where are you from?' He cannot tell you."

When he rides into town Tom can walk into the runty warehouse that spawned Tony Izzo & Sons, the multigenerational business where he went to work at 12 and learned to install a rug, resole a shoe, replace a zipper. Once, young Tom told his dad that he didn't need to study; Carl never finished high school, why should he? The next day Carl enrolled at Iron Mountain High with kids 20 years younger than he, and after getting his diploma, he became school board president. Each season Tom welcomes a busload of people from Iron Mountain to Lansing, comps them tickets and takes them to his house. "It brings me back," he says. "I live in a world that's phony. They're just so real."

Now that they're in the same state, Mariucci and Izzo see each other often: Pistons games, their own games, dinner. On June 8 Izzo drove to suburban Detroit for Mariucci's charity bocce tournament. "Oh, my God," Mariucci said when he saw him. "He's wearing the same shirt I've got on."

So he was: a slate-blue silk job, untucked over a pair of the same black pants. To everyone else it made sense, Tommy and Steve looking like fraternal twins. To the two of them, it's not that simple; they depend on each other--just as they depend on Iron Mountain--for different reasons.

"When I see him, it's safe," Izzo says.

"Everything changes," Mariucci says, "but the friendship is permanent. I wish everybody had that."

Then Mariucci cracks a joke about dying, and Izzo laughs and Mariucci watches him, and for about 30 seconds the years fall away. What could be more valuable? Together, they get to go home.

After Mariucci moved to Division I, Izzo admits he had an IS-HE- PASSING-ME-BY insecurity.

For nearly 30 years, Mariucci has KEPT A LEDGER, detailing his and Izzo's two incomes.

When Steve and Gayle wanted to get married, she says, "IF TOM DIDN'T APPROVE, I was out."

"I want to be on [Mariucci's] staff someday," says Izzo, "AGAINST THE PACKERS, when it's snowing big."

"There isn't a major thing I would do WITHOUT TALKING TO HIM," says Izzo of Mariucci.

TWO B/W PHOTOS CENTRAL UPPER PENINSULA AND NORTHERN MICHIGAN UNIVERSITY ARCHIVES (INSETS) BEST MEN Point guard Tommy (right) stood up for QB Steve at his wedding; Mariucci later returned the favor. COLOR PHOTO  [See caption above] COLOR PHOTO MICHIGAN MEN Now coaching the Lions, Mariucci (left) lusts for a title to match Izzo's with the Spartans. COLOR PHOTODAMIAN STROHMEYER  [See caption above] COLOR PHOTOPhotograph by Peter Gregoire  [See caption above] B/W PHOTOIRON MOUNTAIN DAILY NEWS/AP (LEFT) POSTGRADS In '78 Mariucci was a Northern assistant and Izzo was coach at Ishpeming High. B/W PHOTOCOURTESY OF THE IZZO FAMILY  [See caption above] COLOR PHOTOPETER GREGOIRE BOCCE-ING IT UP At his recent celebrity tournament in suburban Detroit, Mariucci watched his bud get rolling.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)