Understated Izzo spawns underrated coaches

Updated: November 9, 2005, 2:49 PM ET
By Jeff Shelman | Special to ESPN.com

In some ways, it's a stamp of legitimacy for a program.

In a sport in which there are few truly original ideas, having a string of assistant coaches hired away for head coaching jobs is an awfully sincere form of flattery.

For a while in the '80s and '90s, every athletic director wanted a Dean Smith protégé. The next hot mentor was Duke's Mike Krzyzewski. Rick Pitino assistants again have some cachet.

But of late, there's one coach, one program, that has turned assistant coaches into head coaches with remarkable efficiency. Not surprisingly, it's the same program that has more Final Four appearances in the past seven seasons than any other school in the country: Michigan State.

Tom Izzo, a former assistant under Jud Heathcote, is entering his 11th season as the Spartans' head coach. In that span, Izzo has helped six of his assistants become head coaches. Marquette coach Tom Crean is the highest-profile one of the group, having led the Golden Eagles to the 2003 Final Four. The other five include Mike Garland at Cleveland State, Brian Gregory at Dayton, Stan Heath (hired by Kent State and then plucked away by Arkansas), Stan Joplin at Toledo and Doug Wojcik, who is beginning his first season at Tulsa.

Tom Izzo
Izzo's serious about empowering his assistants.

You even can extend the Izzo coaching tree to another level, as four former Crean assistants are now head coaches. Tod Kowalczyk is at Wisconsin-Green Bay, Darrin Horn is at Western Kentucky, Tim Buckley is at Ball State and Kyle Green is at Division II Lewis University. Although none of them actually worked for Izzo, all are well-versed in the way the Spartans do things.

So how has it happened? Why all the success? After all, if a protégé flames out quickly, it makes it more difficult for additional assistant coaches to land good jobs.

The biggest reason is because Izzo trusts his assistant coaches. They're expected to work hard and they're expected have an impact on the program.

"You're expected to coach, and if you don't coach, you're going to hear about it," said Garland, who was Izzo's roommate on the road when they were teammates at Northern Michigan in the late '70s. "He doesn't want 'yes men.' He wants guys to get their hands dirty. You're going to learn how to do things the right way."

That can be attributed to two things: Izzo's love of football and his close relationship with Detroit Lions coach Steve Mariucci.

"You go to a football practice, every assistant coach is the head coach of that position, so they have to give them some freedom," Izzo said. "Basketball, because it's not so divided, I don't think we do as good of a job allowing that."

Some of it, however, is because Izzo is about as much of an everyman as there is in college basketball. At a recent booster club speaking engagement at a country club, Izzo, not surprisingly, parked himself rather than using the club's valet service.

"I think I'm secure enough that I don't need the credit if they've done their job," Izzo said. "I'm not afraid to say, 'The reason we won that game was because my assistants did a helluva job on the scouting report.' Too many basketball coaches, I think, we're all too egotistical ... I think we don't share the wealth enough. You can't run a program by yourself. I don't care who you are as a head coach. The assistants are very, very valuable and I guess I got lucky with a few and they got out there and did a good job and it just goes. I think I'm going to have a couple more in the next couple of years."

Crean said after his four seasons at Michigan State -- combined with five previous seasons working for Ralph Willard at Western Kentucky and Pittsburgh -- he was as ready as he could be to run his own program.

"He really gives you a chance to take complete ownership," Crean said. "With him there's no such thing as pick-and-choose ownership. You're going to scout, you're going to do game preparation, practice planning, game planning, you're going to deal with academics and recruiting and scheduling and speaking. He puts you in every different environment."

For an assistant coach without a job, Wojcik was in high demand when North Carolina replaced Matt Doherty with Roy Williams in 2003. Wojcik could have gone with Ben Howland to UCLA, but he was drawn to Izzo.

"One of the reasons I was so excited to go work for him is that he has a program in place, it's 11 years old," Wojcik said. "I had just been part of taking over at Notre Dame and then taking over at North Carolina."

The fact that Izzo had an extensive track record in helping assistant coaches land head coaching jobs certainly didn't hurt either. Crean called his former boss a one-man public relations firm.

"He really works hard for you," Wojcik said. "I was on the job for two weeks and he takes me with him as a coach for USA Basketball. That summer Baylor called and he tells me, 'You need to talk to them.' I just got there and the guy is pushing me to explore things? I don't think there are many people like him. I love the guy."

Maybe some of it is that he was an 11-year assistant coach to Jud Heathcote, but Izzo seems to have a greater appreciation for his assistant coaches than some head coaches do. It's a two-way relationship, too.

"It's hard when you lose guys, but it's better when I can go out there and tell what I think is a top-notch guy: 'I can help you fulfill your dream if you help me fulfill mine,' " Izzo said. "Doug [Wojcik] was here two years and we got to a Final Four. You help me, I'll help you. It's kind of a good deal."

While it's a little bit of a chicken-egg situation, having assistants move on is also beneficial for the Spartans. Because when Izzo has an opening, he always has several quality candidates to choose from. Those good candidates, in turn, help the Spartans maintain their quality of play.

"When he has a job, every assistant in America is trying to get involved," Garland said. "They know if they do a good job, he's going to help them get a [head coaching] job. That can't be said for a lot of successful programs across the country."

The trend of athletic directors' hiring Michigan State assistants -- and getting a program that stresses defense, rebounding and hard work in the process -- likely isn't going to change in the short term.

"I think Mark Montgomery has a chance, he was up for a couple of jobs last year," Izzo said. "I think [Jim] Boylen is always going to have a chance because of what he's done in the NBA and now he wants to get back in the college game and relearn it again. He's another guy in the next year or two."

Yep, the tree will continue to grow.

Jeff Shelman of the Minneapolis Star Tribune (www.startribune.com) is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.

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