Hardest working coach in the tourney? Maybe Izzo
Tom Izzo put his head back and his feet up, crossing his left ankle over his right leg on the corner of an airplane seat where his young son was sitting.
Almost instantly, the man who has guided Michigan State to six Final Fours was sound asleep – mouth agape. The private plane had yet to even take off.
When you’re a guy like Izzo, you take a few winks when and where you can.
Those who know the Spartans coach say that, far from slowing down as the victories have piled up – from the national championship in 2000 to a string of Final Four appearances and Big Ten titles – he’s only driven himself harder.
His mission on this particular evening in mid-February, during a grueling five-games-in-13-days stretch – when NCAA rules wouldn’t permit him to say more than hello to prospects – took him about 370 miles by air and road just to see two recruits and be seen by them as they played a high school game in Chicago. Izzo allowed an Associated Press reporter to go along for the trip.
”The more success he has had, the harder he has worked,” said Indiana coach Tom Crean, who was an Izzo assistant from 1995-99. ”After working with him early on as a head coach, I wouldn’t have thought that was possible.”
As Izzo prepares for his 15th straight NCAA tournament – the top-seeded Spartans play Long Island University-Brooklyn on Friday in Columbus, Ohio – he’s on the job more than ever.
”I think I’m so paranoid about being one of those people who they say, `He got satisfied,”’ Izzo said Monday. ”I vowed that wouldn’t happen to me and the day it does, I’m walking off.”
Part of staying hungry means, despite his stellar resume and $3.49 million in annual compensation, the 57-year-old Izzo makes a point of being accessible.
One of his longtime secretaries, Beth Marinez, jokes about how many ”F-O-Ts” – friend of Tom’s – there are, especially this time of year when his countless number of acquaintances are calling for tickets. At Izzo’s weekly news conference, he usually spends an hour answering questions, a long time in college athletics these days.
Izzo has told people who have known him for decades to say something if he ever changes. So far, so good on that front.
Something people in the game are saying about Izzo this year, however, is that he has turned in one of his best coaching performances ever.
Michigan State started the season unranked, and justifiably so because just two of its top seven scorers returned from last year. Then the season started with losses on an aircraft carrier in San Diego against North Carolina and in New York City against Duke.
It’s gotten better ever since. The Spartans went on to share the Big Ten title with Ohio State and Michigan, win the conference tournament after losing standout freshman Branden Dawson and earn a No. 1 seed in the West region.
Now, Izzo is riding a burst of energy.
”March has been good to me,” he said. ”I love March.”
And with good reason. His 35-13 record in the NCAAs gives him a .729 winning percentage. That rate of success trails just Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski (.775), North Carolina’s Roy Williams (.753) and Connecticut’s Jim Calhoun (.731) among active coaches with at least 40 tournament games.
Michigan State’s streak of consecutive NCAA tournaments trails just two active streaks, by Kanas and Duke, and matches Bob Knight’s run from 1986-2000 at Indiana for the longest in Big Ten history.
”I think he belongs in the Hall of Fame,” said former Purdue coach Gene Keady, whose six career Big Ten titles were surpassed by Izzo’s seventh this season. ”If you lost a player to him in recruiting, you felt like you got outworked. If you lost a game to him, you felt like you got outcoached. He’s fantastic.”
Izzo is totally focused on the tournament now, but he has to keep an eye on the future to find the next star, which brings us back to his recent quick recruiting trip to Chicago.
The day after a victory over Wisconsin and about an hour following practice the next day, Izzo, his 11-year-old son Steven Mateen, and assistant coach Dwayne Stephens boarded a King Air 200 turboprop with nine leather seats – including those for the pilot and co-pilot – on a slick tarmac under a foggy sky at dusk.
”He doesn’t get a lot of sleep during the season and doesn’t look good toward the end of the year,” said former Michigan State coach Jud Heathcote, who hired Izzo as a part-time assistant in 1983. ”My wife will say, `Tom doesn’t look good.’ And I’ll say, `Yeah, because he’s worn out.’ But Tom has never been able to rest. I used to tell him to get away and take some time off, but after a couple days at his house on Lake Michigan, he’ll be back in the office working because he has a restless nature.”
Nonetheless, Izzo was sleeping seconds after taking his seat in the back right section of the cabin and didn’t wake up until the charter plane hit a pocket of turbulence toward the end of the 41-minute flight.
”Wow, I needed that power nap,” Izzo said.
During the descent to Gary, Ind., into a setting sun over Lake Michigan, Izzo said recruiting is the hardest part of his job and the most essential.
Izzo doesn’t think recruits are given cars or bags of money dropped off at their houses, like he used to hear about, but laments the belief that some schools use unregistered phones to circumvent NCAA rules to connect with prospects or find ways to get them to campus for unofficial visits that are supposed to be paid for by their families.
”It doesn’t seem as bad as it was 10 years ago, even though in some ways I think there is more going on because we’re making more money and it makes it even more critical to get recruits,” Izzo said. ”There’s risk and reward. Yeah, you can get caught, but there’s the reward of making more money and getting better jobs.”
Once on the ground in Gary, a rental car was waiting at the terminal for Stephens to drive to a Chicago arena. Izzo decided to head to northwest Indiana, instead of Chicago, to avoid dealing with rush-hour traffic. That plan hit a snag when it took 13 minutes to creep a half-mile to a toll booth. Along the way, people in a car with a Michigan State ”S” on the plate honked and waved when they saw Izzo on the Chicago Skyway.
That was the first of a slew of times Izzo was recognized over the next two hours.
As he walked through the arena’s parking lot and into the building, some shouted, ”Hey coach!” while others stared, smiled and pointed.
After he was escorted to courtside seats, a stream of people – including Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, DePaul coach Oliver Purnell, ex-DePaul coach Joey Meyer, Boston Celtics guard E’Twaun Moore and strangers – came by say hello, wish him well and pose for pictures. If Izzo was still weary, he didn’t show it.
”You’re big-time, you don’t even have voicemail,” Meyer said.
”No, that makes me smart,” Izzo replied with a smile. ”And, I still have a flip phone – that’s how big time I am!”
Izzo made eye contact with the recruits, both of whom nodded their heads as if to say hello without saying a word, during pregame warm-ups in non-verbal exchanges that abided by the NCAA’s strict rules during evaluation periods.
Mission accomplished. The trip that took just under 6 hours was worth it.
”Them knowing that you were there is the biggest thing you want to do,” Izzo said on the flight back to Lansing. ”You never know what will make a difference.”
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