MSU’s Izzo Q&A: Talking basketball, retirement, social media
EAST LANSING, Mich. — Morning light floods Tom Izzo’s office. It’s 10 hours after an exhibition game for the Michigan State men’s basketball team, which is coming off Izzo’s seventh Final Four season, and yet here sits the 60-year-old coach, hard at work, about to go into his weekly meeting with his team’s academic advisor.
There’s something striking about Izzo’s office: the windows. Two walls in the sprawling office are covered with floor-to-ceiling windows, looking out on a patio, on the football stadium, on a soccer field, on a parking lot. Students walk past on their way to class. Sometimes they stop to wave hello to their national title-winning coach.
This is how I began a recent wide-ranging conversation with the surefire Hall of Famer, by asking about those windows.
FORGRAVE: These windows feel symbolic for how you run a program.
IZZO: It is symbolic for me. I’ll tell you a funny story about it. We were downstairs at the Breslin Center. That’s where the offices were my first 12 years when I was an assistant. I got the head job, and we moved up here after we won the national championship. The architect was talking to me. He said, “What do you want on this wall?” I wanted this patio for recruiting because this is where everybody comes, football weekends and all that. He said, “What do you want over here?” I said, “Windows. Floor to ceiling.” He said, “What do you want on this wall?” I said, “Windows. I lived underground for 12 (expletive) years. I just want to see somebody.” He said, “You want two-way or one-way?” I told him that at this point in time, I’d been here 18 years. I said, “Students don’t bug me because I’m just part of the fabric here.” I can push a button, and those curtains come down, but they’re virgin. They’ve been down about three times.
It is symbolic of who I am. I’m just kind of part of this place. This is my 33rd year, 21st year as head coach.
FORGRAVE: Am I crazy to think this year’s team is more talented than last year’s Final Four team, even without Travis Trice and Branden Dawson?
IZZO: We are more talented. Whether we’ll be a better team, that I don’t know. We had a bizarre year last year. Everyone talks about how lucky the run was. What they don’t talk about is that we lost (five out of seven) overtime games and shot 55 percent from the free-throw line in all the losses. Otherwise, if we made one more free throw, we easily could have won four or five more games. We win four or five more games, we would have had 31, 32 wins. That’d be one of the biggest amount of wins in the history of the school.
It wasn’t as talented of a team (as this year’s team). Travis Trice had a helluva year, and that made a difference. And we got on a run. It really happened in the Big Ten tournament. We played really well, shoulda beat Wisconsin. In the NCAA tournament, you have those years where you avoid teams. In 2010, we played Maryland in the Round of 32. We beat them, and then we were supposed to play Kansas – but Northern Iowa upset them. And then we were supposed to play Ohio State – but Tennessee upset them. You have those years.
Last year, we played fricking everyone. Georgia was good. Usually, we are a high enough seed that we get a dog (in the first round). But we were a seven seed. And then we played the two-seed, Virginia. Then we played Oklahoma, then we played Louisville, then we played Duke. With what I thought was our worst-talented team, as in just flat-out talent, we played one of the best schedules we’ve ever had to get to the Final Four.
FORGRAVE: Denzel Valentine was barely considered a top-100 recruit. Now he’s considered an NBA player. Did you have any idea what he could become when you recruited him?
IZZO: I think he is an NBA player. He was barely a top-100 kid. But he played for his dad. I knew how hard he worked on his game. I knew he had some skills. There were some question marks. Is he fast enough? Can he shoot it well enough? He was kind of a poor man’s version of what Draymond Green turned into. Very high basketball IQ, very high. Incredible work ethic in the offseason. And like a Magic (Johnson) and a (Mateen) Cleaves and a Draymond, winning is more important to him than scoring points. There aren’t many of those left.
Did I have a thought he could be a very good player? Yes. Did I think he’d come on and work on his shooting as hard as he did? This year he worked on his body more – he had had kind of a sloppy body. And he’s getting that going. Why I think he’ll end up a decent NBA player is winning is important to him. He competes. He’s multi-dimensional. Draymond can guard a center one minute, a point guard the next. Denzel is like that. He can guard three positions, maybe even four. It’s fun to watch, what he’s making himself into.
FORGRAVE: When do you know it’s time to retire?
IZZO: The day that I don’t want to go recruiting and take red-eyes back from California. There’s a lot of things about the job you don’t enjoy. Presidents have put too much on coaches. The NCAA has put too much on coaches. This thing about you have 20 hours a week to coach your kids and yet you’re supposed to know what they’re doing 24/7? It’s so stupid. It wouldn’t happen in any other business but this one.
It’s a problem, that we’re supposed to know what our kids are doing all the time. A kid doesn’t graduate and it’s my fault? I do a helluva job for four years, he’s got 10 credits left and he doesn’t want to graduate — and it’s my fault? That’s bulls***. A kid gets in trouble, goes out and gets an MIP (underage drinking citation) — you think that’s my fault? That I told him to go out and get smashed?
What can we truly be responsible for? That would be like saying for the dean of the communications school, if a kid in communications gets in trouble it’s his fault. Or like I told my president, “If a student gets in trouble, should it be your fault?” But if a player gets in trouble, it’s our fault.
But I’m still the head coach that has an academic meeting every week. Everyone says they do; I guarantee you 90 percent of them don’t. Every Thursday at 9 o’clock, 9:30, I meet with my academic person, and then I go to each kid.
FORGRAVE: What’s one thing about you that people would be surprised by, or one thing only your wife knows?
IZZO: People probably wouldn’t have thought I ran a couple marathons. But I think people see the gruff side of me and don’t see the other side. If you asked me what I did best, I’d say what I do best is I care about people in my basketball family when they’re here and when they’re gone. We have a reunion every year for players. It’s not a championship reunion. It’s a reunion for everyone. We have a reunion for the parents.
And I love comedy movies. I hate sad movies. I hate ’em. They just make me sad. I’m into the “Rudy” movies of the world, the inspirational movies. I love somewhat realistic stories, so you can see that everybody has the same problems.
I despise Twitter. I compare it to getting drunk. … You’re doing it, you’re happy, everything is cool. You’re more talkative. You’re more bold. Then you wake up in the morning, not feeling good, wondering what you did, who did you insult.
-- Tom Izzo
Oh, and I despise Twitter. I compare it to getting drunk — and I don’t drink. But it’s like getting drunk. Because it has its moments. You’re doing it, you’re happy, everything is cool. You’re more talkative. You’re more bold. Then you wake up in the morning, not feeling good, wondering what you did, who did you insult. There’s 10 negatives for the one or two positives. That to me is our social media world.
You have kids?
FORGRAVE: I do — a 3-year-old son.
IZZO: It’ll be interesting to see how you feel when he gets old enough. You know what I worry about most with it? Not at all what they tweet. I can semi-control that. You want to be a dumbs***? I’ll just sit your ass on the bench. I can somewhat control that. What I can’t control is what they read. And it is (screwing) up kids. These idiots go back and write (rotten) stuff that isn’t true, then it gets a life of its own, and then you guys gotta ask them about it. It’s a problem.
IZZO: He came here for a Michigan-Michigan State game. I said, “Come on up for a football game!” I have to go to these different tents to give speeches to some of the big companies that donate. So we go to this tent. Flip comes in with me. And you know, pro coaches aren’t as recognizable as college coaches sometimes. We’re in this golf cart, I get out, I go in the tent and I hear some girl say, “Oh, Flip Saunders! Can I get a picture with you?”
I had given him some Michigan State gear, but it was cold, and he had his coat on over the gear. He took off his coat, said he’d look like a Spartan for the picture. He takes off his coat — brand new coat! — he puts it right here on the golf cart, comes over here, takes a picture with this girl, turns around — and somebody has ripped his coat off and was running with it! He goes, “God****, I go to Michigan State and I get my coat ripped off!” He says he’d just paid $1,500 for it. I said, “You did not! Some sponsor gave you that. You’re tighter than a skin off a grape!” So I had to go get him a coat from our equipment guy.
And every time after that, he’d come back and say he’d have to chain his coat to the door so somebody doesn’t steal it.
IZZO: We were at the Sweet 16 (in Indianapolis in 2013). He comes down and spends a couple days with us. His name was being mentioned as the new guy at (University of) Minnesota.
Flip comes in Friday afternoon. We’re playing Duke Friday night. It’s just me in there at the hotel, watching film. I got three players who are having a test being proctored because the profs wouldn’t let them miss the test.
Flip comes walking in, and he’s talking real loud. I say, “Shhh! They’re doing a test.” He says, “For what?” I go, “Because in college, NBA Boy, in college this is what you do.” He goes, “You’re playing Duke! Tonight! On a Friday night! And there’s somebody making you take a test?” Flip pauses for a sec. And then he says, “I ain’t never going back to college!”