Commentary

Sign me up for Krzyzewski-Izzo any time

Originally Published: December 1, 2010
By Gene Wojciechowski | ESPN.com

DURHAM, N.C. -- You could tell by the pregame and postgame handshakes that this was no ordinary game. Then again, Mike Krzyzewski and Tom Izzo are no ordinary coaches.

Krzyzewski's No. 1-ranked Duke team defeated Izzo's No. 6-ranked Michigan State team 84-79 Wednesday evening at Cameron Indoor Stadium. It was the kind of night, the kind of atmosphere and the kind of game that made you think of late March, not the first day of December. In fact, I'm hoping by late March to have recovered from the hearing loss caused by the Crazies.

[+] EnlargeMike Krzyzewski
Andrew Synowiez/US PresswireMike Krzyzewski had reason to smile after his team won its 81st straight nonconference home game, a five-point win over Tom Izzo's Spartans.

"It was a man's game tonight," said Krzyzewski.

And a freshman's, too.

Kyrie Irving's 31 points -- only the fourth time a freshman has scored 30 or more points in Duke history -- helped the Blue Devils remain undefeated. That, and Mason Plumlee's double-double.

As for Michigan State, it remains a work in progress, but in a good way. Still, said Izzo of Duke, "I think this is the best team in college basketball, I really do."

The game was a gas, but so was the coaching matchup. It was the rare time when you (Tar Heels and Wolverines excluded) could root for both guys. Krzyzewski and Izzo are the Maybach and Rolls-Royce of the college hoops business. They've combined for 1,244 victories, five national championships, 17 Final Four appearances and 16 national Coach of the Year honors. But you already knew that.

What you don't know about Krzyzewski is that he melts into a small puddle of warm and fuzzy when his three daughters or his seven grandchildren are around. You almost need a chamois to sop up the paternal pride and love. Of course, Krzyzewski and his wife Mickie are the same people whose fridge door and house walls always featured their daughters' report cards, achievements and photos rather than a single Coach K-related plaque or award.

"His children's family is around, and I think that invigorates him," says Duke assistant Steve Wojciechowski. "I think he's as good as he's ever been. If you're a player, I think now is the best time to play for him."

And what you don't know about Izzo is that he thinks everyone is family. He's given three Big Ten championship rings to the guy who helps set up the court at Michigan State's Breslin Center. He brought the custodian who cleaned the MSU basketball offices to the 2005 Final Four in St. Louis. The guy flew on the same charter flight as the school's board of trustees, and his game seat was so close to the floor that he could count the grains in the hardwood.

"He'd always introduce me and say, "This is Rudy, he's part of the team. He keeps everything clean up here in the offices,"' said Rudy Limas, the MSU custodian. "He'd say I was part of the team. Part of his team. He makes you want to be your best."

Family is one of the main reasons Krzyzewski turned down the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers coaching gigs. It's why Izzo turned down the Cleveland Cavaliers job and the payday that would have supported his family for generations. As much as Izzo was tempted by the challenge and money of the NBA -- and trust me, there was a part of him that very much wanted to prove he could be a successful pro coach -- it would have meant his 16-year-old daughter having to switch high schools and his wife, Lupe, having to leave family in the area. And yeah, OK, LeBron wasn't going to be there, either.

[+] EnlargeCoach K & Tom Izzo
Andrew Synowiez/US PresswireFriends Krzyzewski and Izzo faced off Wednesday at Cameron Indoor Stadium.

It is no accident that Mickie and Lupe are close, just as it is no surprise that Krzyzewski and Izzo have a friendship as strong as the adhesive on a FedEx envelope. Those handshakes -- sincere, warm and genuine -- were proof enough. These guys like each other. More important, they respect each other.

"The similarities are the class of the men, the humility in both of them," said Utah head coach Jim Boylen, a former Michigan State assistant and longtime Izzo friend. "They have a willingness to build where they're at and make it great, and not leave just to leave. There's a loyalty to what they've built."

Did you see them Wednesday night? They still coach like they just got their gigs a week ago, like they're worried about job security. Krzyzewski burst off the bench like a Saturn 5 rocket when a travel call went against Duke in the second half. Izzo pounded his fist hard into an open palm after a Spartans defensive stop. Their dress shirts needed to be wrung out.

Krzyzewski has been at Duke for 31 seasons, long enough to have the court named after him. Izzo has been the head coach at Michigan State for 16 seasons, long enough to have his own seating area named after him: the Izzone. Yet they find the joy in the little things.

Krzyzewski scanned the box score and noticed Plumlee's five steals -- not bad for a 6-foot-10 forward. And earlier in the day, Izzo walked his team over to nearby Krzyzewskiville, the Dookie tent city near Cameron Indoor.

"Because I wanted to," Izzo said.

With the win against Sparty, Coach K now has 875 career victories (the fourth-most in D-I history), with all but 73 of them coming at Duke. And Izzo's team, despite the loss, remains a viable candidate to reach the Final Four in Houston. If so, it would be his seventh such trip, the most by any coach, including Krzyzewski, since Izzo took over the MSU program in 1995.

But you don't define Krzyzewski and Izzo simply by numbers. You define them by who they are. They're Midwest guys -- Krzyzewski from Chicago, Izzo from Michigan's Upper Peninsula. They're guys with vowels at the end of their names. They're products of a different time.

Krzyzewski doesn't tweet or text. He doesn't have a Facebook page. He asked his staff if he should buy a ticket on the social media train, but decided it wasn't an authentic way to communicate. So he chose to actually talk to people.

It worked. He's helped talk Team USA to a world championship and the USA Olympic team to a gold medal. He helped talk Duke to a 2010 national championship.

"There's this perception at Duke that at times he's a dictator," Wojciechowski said. "The reality is that he's not only an amazing leader, but an amazing teammate. He adjusts to what goes on."

"He's calmer now," said Ricky Price, who played for Krzyzewski in the mid-to-late 1990s. "But he was fiery. He was so intense. But you can't yell at the Olympic team."

[+] EnlargeTom Izzo
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesIzzo was as intense as ever during his team's 84-79 loss at Duke.

Izzo yells. He gets so hot you could grill chicken fajitas on his forehead. Want to make him smile? Ask him about laying carpet. Back in the day, Izzo (and Boylen) laid the carpet in Izzo's old basement. Izzo even had his own tools.

"I think it's the happiest I've ever seen the guy," Boylen said. "He loves saving money."

Rather than paying a landscaper, Izzo (and laborers Boylen and Izzo's brother-in-law) would spread wood chips at his yard.

"I think that says a lot for his hands-on approach, how much he cares about things," Boylen said.

For Midnight Madness at MSU, Izzo has dressed up in a spacesuit, arrived in an Indy car, rode in on a horse and rappelled from the ceiling. He has worn a Dracula costume, military fatigues, a hippie outfit and come as James Brown, wig and all.

"He's an interesting bird, to say the least," said Mark Hollis, MSU's athletic director and Izzo's roommate years ago.

Izzo doesn't have an agent or an adviser. When he was mulling the Cavs job, he researched the pros and cons to death. He talked to, among others, Boylen (who coached in the NBA) and Alabama's Nick Saban, who was at Michigan State and later left LSU for the Miami Dolphins.

"Tommy and I were really close," said Saban in a phone interview. "I'd never been around a basketball coach before. We had a unique relationship there. The basketball players and him used to come to football practice. I used to go to all the basketball games. We really rooted hard for each other. We helped each other recruit."

In fact, it was Saban who spoke at the Flint (Mich.) Northern High School spring awards banquet in hopes of signing a squatty, muscle-bound quarterback who also played guard on the basketball team.

"I look at this guy," Saban said, "and I'm thinking, 'This guy can't be a basketball player.' At the end of the banquet, they show the basketball highlight tape. I say, 'Man, this guy is Isiah Thomas. He ain't never going to play football."'

The guy was Mateen Cleaves. And Saban was right. Cleaves never played football at MSU, but he did give Izzo and the Spartans a national championship in 2000.

The similarities are the class of the men, the humility in both of them. They have a willingness to build where they're at and make it great, and not leave just to leave. There's a loyalty to what they've built.

-- Utah coach Jim Boylen

Krzyzewski wears dress suits and sweat suits, but not spacesuits. It isn't his style. But he isn't against a little locker-room dramatics (Krzyzewski has been known to use movie themes from, say, "Gladiator," and "Rocky" to motivate his players).

The guy has won national championships in the 1990s, the 2000s and now the 2010s. He's won with Duke players and with NBA players.

"It's almost like a K-Technology," said Kenny Dennard, who played on Krzyzewski's first Duke team in 1980. "He owns a natural capacity to learn, package and teach. … Duke is not an easy place to coach. He makes it look easy."

Krzyzewski does a show on satellite radio. One of his featured guests in October? Izzo.

There is Krzyzewskiville, where the coach sometimes has pizzas delivered. At Michigan State, Izzo once visited dozens and dozens of tailgate tents at a Spartans football game, just to thank the fans for supporting the team. And it wasn't even his team.

Maybe that's why Krzyzewski and Izzo hit it off. Different names, same ideals. Corny but true.

So Duke won Wednesday night. But somewhere in East Lansing, Mich., is 60-year-old Bill Ratliff, proud owner of those three Big Ten championship rings Izzo gave him for his landscape work around the Breslin Center and for helping set up the court.

"I've already figured out how I want them displayed on my casket when the time comes," said Ratliff, an MSU employee for 31 years. "But I've got to hang in there long enough to get that NCAA ring."

Here's a thought: April 4, 2011. Reliant Stadium in Houston. Duke vs. Michigan State in a rematch.

"We'll put [this game] in the bank and see if we get another shot sometime," Izzo said.

"They're going to be right there," Krzyzewski said.

Fine with me.

Fine with Krzyzewski and Izzo too.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn.com. Hear Gene's podcasts and ESPN Radio appearances by clicking here.

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