Commentary

Izzo has a rare opportunity at MSU

Originally Published: June 15, 2010
By Andy Katz | ESPN.com

Jud Heathcote was the coach, but Magic Johnson was the face of Michigan State in 1979.

Johnson went on to become one of the greatest players ever to play the game and remains an iconic figure in East Lansing.

But Magic will be remembered more for his championships with the Lakers than the one with the Spartans. It wasn't his program. And even though Heathcote is the architect and the godfather still to this day, Michigan State has become Tom Izzo's program.

[+] EnlargeTom Izzo
AP Photo/Al GoldisTom Izzo vowed to remain a Spartan for life at his news conference Tuesday night.

And now, with his pronouncement Tuesday night that he is a Michigan State lifer, Izzo will be synonymous with the Spartans ultimately as much as Duke will be with Mike Krzyzewski, Syracuse with Jim Boeheim, Connecticut with Jim Calhoun and Arizona with Lute Olson.

That's assuming the 55-year-old Izzo continues to win at an elite level -- and there is no reason to doubt that he will do just that.

Michigan State was arguably the program of the first decade of this century. The Spartans didn't win multiple titles like Florida, North Carolina or Duke did, but the overall consistency is unmatched. Over the past 12 seasons, Izzo stands alone with six Final Four appearances, including one national championship. He went to three straight Final Fours from 1999-2001 and, amazingly, has a chance to repeat that rare feat next season.

"When I coached, it was a good program,'' Heathcote said by phone from his home in Spokane, Wash. "Tom has made it an elite program.''

Heathcote said he had no idea Izzo could become this successful after he hired him as a scrappy assistant.

"Every year he got better at the things you have to do to be a head coach,'' Heathcote said. "I had great confidence that he would do an excellent job. But in all honesty, not as good as he has done. It's almost impossible.''

Izzo changed the tune a bit in East Lansing. He made the team more physical and demanded even more effort. Heathcote said Izzo put more of an emphasis on rebounding. And Izzo never let a coach outwork him. Teams would have more talent and a more productive offense, but they wouldn't have the Spartans beat with effort, certainly not from the coaching staff.

"I still say he works harder than 99 percent of the coaches,'' Heathcote said. "He's never unprepared. He does a great job of preparation.''

But it was that drive that at times forced Izzo to take a serious look at the NBA this time, more so than any other flirtation in the past 10 years.

Izzo has grown tired of recruiting, but I'm not sure there is a coach out there that doesn't dread most of recruiting. But Izzo will have to learn now to create a bit more balance in his life. He has built an empire in East Lansing. Michigan and any other Big Ten school gets in line in the state. Michigan State should receive first choice of the fertile recruiting area.

The Spartan name is gold now in the Midwest, too, but they are constantly battling Ohio State and others for top players in the region in the ever-competitive Big Ten.

But Izzo also needs to learn how to say no to outside requests so he doesn't get burned out, so he's not second-guessing if he should have gone to the NBA to seek what he might think is an easier coaching life.

Had he made the jump, without knowing whether LeBron James would be in Cleveland, it could have been a major mistake. Not because Izzo wouldn't be successful, but rather he might not have had the real fulfillment he receives from seeing players develop.

Izzo likes to trot out one stat in particular, and for good reason: Every senior who has played for him has played in at least one Final Four.

He helped to breathe some life into Detroit a year ago at the Final Four. He was the perfect coach at the perfect time, to be at the Final Four in Motown representing the homestate Spartans. As a native Michigander from the Upper Peninsula, he understands the state.

Leaving all of that behind might have been regrettable.

Walking around Izzo's Sparty shrine in the basement of his East Lansing home in October, you could see the reverence he has for the program, for the past, for the community. So often it's easy for coaches with the pro-like salaries to be above everyone, to be detached and distant. But that's not Izzo. He has on his walls, those memories from his time as a head coach, photos from the 1979 title team, and a reverence for Michigan State that is hard to match.

During Tuesday night's news conference, Izzo noted that staying put could allow him to be a Joe Paterno (Penn State), a Tom Osborne (Nebraska), a Mike Krzyzewski (Duke) or a Jim Boeheim (Syracuse) by staying at one place for so long.

Izzo didn't get the early start like those coaches did at their respective programs. But he has certainly piled up the wins and will continue to do so in the next decade, starting with a loaded national title contender for the 2010-11 season.

Izzo said two weeks ago that he wanted to win another national title before he thought about the NBA, but the thought of working for Cavs owner and Michigan State alumnus Dan Gilbert and the prospect of coaching James made him pause more than any other time in his life. He was close to accepting the job. He was recruited, went for the visit, phoned a slew of friends and colleagues in the NBA and in college about coaching in the league and coaching James.

But in the end, he decided to stay where he was comfortable, where he has built his legacy, where his family calls home.

"I think they're there, as one of the top programs in the country, because of the Final Fours,'' Heathcote said. "I know Tom thinks they have to win another national championship. That's what he thinks. Everyone talks about the body of work and it's an overused phrase. But his body of work is sensational.''

Not only sensational, but now -- after an agonizing, career-defining decision -- to be continued.

Andy Katz is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Andy Katz | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com