Commentary

Who's No. 1? In Michigan, it's Izzo

It's the Wolverine State, but the Spartans can boast of the best coach in its history

Originally Published: March 31, 2010
By Jemele Hill | ESPN.com

Michigan State coach Tom Izzo is far too humble and far too sane to make the following observation, so I'll make it for him and hope I'm not hit with any rotten fruit and/or furniture.

Izzo, whose Michigan State team is playing against fellow 5-seed Butler this weekend in its second consecutive Final Four, is the best coach in the state of Michigan's history.

[+] EnlargeIzzo
AP Photo/Al GoldisWhat's not to love about a coach who'll try the ol' soft-shoe to help raise funds for cancer, as Tom Izzo did last year?

(ducking)

Yes, Izzo is better than Michigan football legend Bo Schembechler.

He's better than former Red Wings coach Scotty Bowman.

Better than the late Chuck Daly.

Better than University of Michigan hockey icon Red Berenson and his Michigan State counterpart, Ron Mason.

Better than Sparky Anderson, and Fielding Yost.

Oh, and sorry, Detroit Lions fans: None of your coaches have any business in this discussion.

"No, no, no," Izzo said when I asked him if he thought he was better than the other iconic coaches who have come through the state. "I never did and I don't yet. I think that's what the future brings. If you keep winning and keep doing it the right way, in the end it takes cares of itself. Getting there is one thing, maintaining is another; but I got some years left. That's something that should be judged at the end."

Aha! Izzo's biggest weakness is revealed -- humility.

In the interest of full disclosure, I graduated from Michigan State and covered the team for six years as a beat writer for the Detroit Free Press. I like Izzo. I've known him since I was a student and he was a substitute teacher for my Coaching Basketball class, which was taught by his longtime mentor and predecessor, Jud Heathcote.

Scotty Bowman
AP Photo/Paul WarnerHis collection of Stanley Cups probably makes Scotty Bowman the closest to Izzo among Michigan's coaching icons.

But that doesn't exclude me from making the objective argument that Izzo is the best Michigan has ever seen. And I have plenty of ammunition to refute those who disagree.

It's true that many of Michigan's greatest coaches have more wins and more titles than Izzo does, and some of them coached a lot longer than Izzo has.

Berenson, Mason, Bowman and Daly won a trillion games (3,478 victories all together, compared to Izzo's relatively wimpy 364). Daly and Berenson have two championships each. And Mason and Heathcote, two MSU coaches, have just as many NCAA titles as Izzo -- one.

The best argument against Izzo is Bowman, who won three Stanley Cups with the Red Wings and is essentially the reason Detroit is referred to as "Hockeytown." Before Bowman arrived, the Wings hadn't won a Stanley Cup in 42 years.

But being the best isn't strictly a statistical argument. Phil Jackson has 10 titles, more than any NBA coach in history; but some believe Larry Brown and Gregg Popovich are better coaches. Bill Russell won 11 titles to Michael Jordan's six, and 90 percent of the population considers Jordan the best player ever.

The point? The person with the most isn't always the best.

The true measure of a person's greatness is the change created by his or her success. Jordan was a spectacular player, but his most significant contribution is leading the NBA into a global age and dramatically changing the marketing dynamics for professional athletes.

Izzo has not only won, but he's captivated the state of Michigan with an everyman quality while rebuilding the Spartans into a national power -- something that didn't seem possible when he took over the program from Heathcote in 1995.

[+] EnlargeBo Schembechler
AP Photo/Mark DuncanOnce Bo Schembechler arrived in Ann Arbor the rivalry with Minnesota became a one-sided affair.

Izzo was a nobody when he was promoted from assistant to head coach. Berenson, on the other hand, was an NHL coach of the year and had a 17-year professional career before his University of Michigan coaching stint began in 1984. Likewise, Bowman was a Hall of Famer and six-time Stanley Cup winner before he took over the Red Wings. Bowman's legacy was already established. He didn't need Detroit.

In 1995, Michigan State's basketball program was just … OK. MSU had not been to a Sweet 16 since 1990 and hadn't won a national championship since that epic title game between Magic Johnson and Larry Bird in 1979. University of Michigan basketball was the program in the state.

"Michigan had just come off their national championship [in 1989] and then the Fab Five took college basketball by storm," said Steve Smith, an NBA-TV analyst who starred at Michigan State from 1987 to 1991 before embarking on a 14-year NBA career. "Michigan had that glamour and they were producing wins. It was a decade where they not only owned the state of Michigan, but college basketball, and rightfully so."

Izzo completely changed the perception of MSU basketball, to the point where most kids growing up in the state can't remember when U of M basketball even mattered. Izzo owns the state in recruiting, especially in Detroit, Flint and Saginaw. The Spartans haven't missed an NCAA tournament in 12 years; and during that span, they've won six Big Ten titles. And no upperclassmen in that stretch have left the program without playing in a Final Four.

"He changed it by having a tough mentality," said Terry Foster, a Detroit sports radio host, longtime Detroit News writer and co-author of the book, "The Great Detroit Sports Debate." "If you're going to come [to Michigan State], you have to be physically tough and mentally tough. The Fab Five was about style, about dunking and looking sweet. Izzo had to do the tough thing, because in his mind, he can't go to California and Texas and get the best players."

The great coaches in Michigan naturally are beloved by their fan bases, but I'm not sure any of them have been as universally loved as Izzo, who even turned some diehard University of Michigan fans into Michigan State basketball supporters.

He is a media darling. The way he connects with people in the state is unique. Schembechler and Berenson were intimidating figures. Bowman was a master manipulator who didn't care if you hated him, as long as you respected him. Heathcote was a grump -- and proud of it. Daly was down-to-earth, but his thousand-dollar suits and perfectly coiffed hair didn't exactly fit the image of your average Michigander.

Izzo grew up, went to college, worked and has lived in the state of Michigan for his entire 55 years. His family ran a shoe business in Iron Mountain, Mich.; Izzo spent most of his youth putting heels on shoes.

It doesn't get any more Michigan than that.

"Nothing is given to the state of Michigan," Smith said. "People worked in the [auto] plants. The blueprint is, you get it done with hard work. You get it done with your hands. You get it dirty. That's the way Tom Izzo has done it. The players he's recruited haven't been the diaper dandies that 25 schools are fighting over. We get the hard-hat kids."

[+] EnlargeTom Izzo
Elsa/Getty ImagesIzzo and his teams bring a lunch-bucket personality to the game that matches the state's mentality.

Sparky Anderson managed the Tigers for 17 years, but although Anderson won a World Series in 1984, he didn't consistently compete for championships like Izzo has.

Daly spent eight seasons in Detroit; but his reign ended once the Bulls emerged as the team of the 1990s and the health of his star, Isiah Thomas, declined.

Yost was the University of Michigan's first great football coach, the original "Michigan man," winning six national championships. But he started coaching the Wolverines right about the time the Wright Brothers were introducing the world to some kooky invention called an airplane.

And not to belittle Berenson's success, but U of M hockey won seven NCAA championships before he got there.

Schembechler was a titan, but he was 5-12 in bowl games, including five straight bowl losses from 1975-79. Izzo is 35-11 in the NCAA tournament, and this is his sixth Final Four in 12 years.

Heathcote won 418 games as a college coach; but when he coached the Spartans, they weren't often considered a national power and he didn't regularly compete for NCAA titles.

That leaves Izzo, who, in my mind, is No. 1. Certainly, he's still writing his legacy, but no one in the state of Michigan has ever been like him.

As even Bo would say, he's a true Michigan man.

Jemele Hill can be reached at jemeleespn@gmail.com.

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