Commentary

Time to appreciate the grooviness of Izzo

Originally Published: December 17, 2008
By Pat Forde | ESPN.com

EAST LANSING, Mich. -- Tom Izzo is talking about recruiting issues in college basketball. Problem is, his fake mustache keeps falling off.

We're in a back hallway of the Breslin Center at Michigan State. While Izzo decries some of the ethical problems in his sport, his wife, Lupe, is flitting by in a minidress and white go-go boots. His daughter, Raquel, and son, Steven, also look as if they took a wrong turn out of the Age of Aquarius and ended up here.

[+] EnlargeTom Izzo
AP Photo/Al GoldisSome coaches take themselves way too seriously. Michigan State coach Tom Izzo? Not so much.
In 30 minutes, Izzo and family will drive a lime green Volkswagen bus with flower decals on the sides onto the court. This is the Spartans' Midnight Madness, and in honor of the 30th anniversary of the school's first basketball national title, they've gone with a '70s theme for the evening.

As always, the head coach is all-in.

Izzo will greet the faithful in hippie gear -- he's wearing a long-haired wig, tie-dyed shirt, peace-sign necklace and orange-tinted sunglasses. And a fake 'stache, if the damned thing will stay on his upper lip.

"Every year I do something stupid," he says, shaking his head.

Previous Midnight Madness stupidities have included: rappelling from the ceiling of the gym; riding a horse into the place while wearing a coonskin cap; riding a Harley-Davidson; appearing in combat fatigues; appearing as Dracula; and showing up last year dressed as a Spartan.

So when they floated the hippie thing, Izzo said groovy. Which is one of many reasons the guy is good for college basketball. Sometimes it's good to stop to appreciate it.

In a profession overrun with ego and self-importance, Izzo doesn't mind playing the occasional fool for fun. There aren't many millionaire coaches with national championship rings willing to wear a wig and a fake mustache, but there is one in East Lansing.

"He's never taken himself too seriously," Lupe Izzo said. "One of Tom's things is to always stay grounded and never forget where he came from."

Where he came from, of course, is Iron Mountain, Mich., in the state's Upper Peninsula. Where the men are men, and the women are, too, as Izzo likes to say.

It's hard to come out of the snowbound, sparsely populated UP with either a soft streak or a sense of entitlement. Izzo has neither.

What he does have is an abiding loyalty to the place. Every season, he invites a busload of locals -- Yoopers, as they're affectionately known -- to a Michigan State home game, providing them with tickets and even entertaining them at his house. The trip is so popular that there's a waiting list to get on the bus. (Either that, or there's just that many people dying to visit civilization for a couple of days.)

Since arriving at Michigan State as an assistant to Jud Heathcote in 1983, Izzo has sunk roots in East Lansing as deep as the ones he has in the Upper Peninsula. His 25 years in one place -- 13 as a head coach -- are a stark monument of permanence in a transient profession. At an unpretentious school, Izzo fits right in.

"He loves Michigan State," Lupe Izzo said. "He loves the community here. It's just a nice fit, very comfortable for us. It's just a good place to live."

The comfort level with Michigan State makes it easier to play a hippie, vampire or biker at Midnight Madness.

[+] EnlargeTom Izzo
AP Photo/Al GoldisIt should come as no surprise that Izzo once dressed as a Spartan warrior at MSU's Midnight Madness.
"I've just been part of this place for so long," Izzo said. "I see all these people pumping gas or in the grocery store. They know me. How embarrassed can you be around them?"

Izzo would love to lead Michigan State 78 miles east to Ford Field in Detroit for the 2009 Final Four. It would be the Spartans' fifth Final Four appearance under Izzo. But this team will have to improve dramatically between now and March for that to happen.

The Spartans have been a mild disappointment after starting the season in many top-five lists. They're 6-2 and lack a victory over anyone in the top 45 of the ratings percentage index or Ken Pomeroy's top 50. Their losses were emphatic, both against ACC competition -- by 18 points to Maryland and 35 to No. 1 North Carolina.

Injuries have not helped. At Midnight Madness, Izzo said he was concerned about a lack of depth up front, and those concerns have been realized rather quickly.

Center Goran Suton, expected to have a big year after dramatically improving his physique in the offseason, has played only 47 minutes this season. Prized freshman frontcourt player Delvon Roe is still working his way back from major knee surgery he had while in high school. Contributions from both will be needed to combat what appears to be a tougher-than-expected Big Ten.

But there will be other opportunities for statement wins. As always, Izzo has scheduled fearlessly -- the Spartans will play Texas on Saturday in Reliant Stadium in Houston and jump out of conference in January to play defending national champion Kansas.

Whatever happens this season, one thing is certain: Izzo's phone will ring with offers to go somewhere else. Some from other colleges, some from the NBA.

"There hasn't been a year when Tom hasn't been asked," Lupe Izzo said. "We've always kept it really low-key. We've never talked about it outside the home.

"They're not just calling at the end of the year. They're calling him year-round."

There is speculation that the first call this season could come from Arizona, which is working with an interim coach while looking to replace legendary Lute Olson in the spring. Even though it would be strange to see Izzo in Tucson or any other locale, it's not out of the question.

"I don't know that he's done with what he wants to do at Michigan State," Lupe Izzo said. "If that time ever comes, I'm not going to deny him a chance to do something different if he's ready to. But he's not going to just take a job out of ego or for money."

That would figure. Hippies are never supposed to be in it for the money.

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.