Tom Izzo’s unexpected journey at MSU enters 20th year

EAST LANSING, Mich. — It’s Year 20 for Tom Izzo as Michigan State’s head coach, which is meaningful beyond the fact that it’s a nice, round number.

Michigan State coach Tom Izzo gives instructions during a basketball practice last week in East Lansing, Mich. Izzo is in his 20th year at Michigan State.

EAST LANSING, Mich. — It's Year 20 for Tom Izzo as Michigan State's head coach, which is meaningful beyond the fact that it's a nice, round number.

It means Izzo is the second-longest-tenured coach in school history, behind Benjamin VanAlstyne (1926-49) and ahead of Izzo's mentor.

"I don't want to talk about it; it means he outlasted me," cracked 87-year-old Jud Heathcote, who led the Spartans in 1976-95, bringing Izzo on as a grad assistant in 1983 and making sure he got the job 12 years later.

It means Izzo has lasted about 17 years longer than he expected — early in his third season, cries for his firing were mounting before he guided that 1997-98 team to a Big Ten title and Sweet 16. That was the starting point for what has become one of the best and most consistent programs in the sport, and sports traditions in Michigan.

"It's hard for me to believe it's been 20 years," said Izzo, who will turn 60 on Jan. 30, two days before a Super Bowl Sunday matchup with rival Michigan. "It's hard for me to believe we're still surviving."


And it means Izzo still is chasing something. There was speculation last season as he tried to lead a talent-stocked, injury-riddled team to the second national championship of his tenure, that he might move on if it happened.

So the question was asked of Izzo a month before the start of Season 20 and a day before he underwent hernia surgery: Had you won three more games in the spring, would you still be at Michigan State?

"You know … that's a good question," Izzo said. "I think so."

Until he makes the jump or retires from coaching, there always will be a chance Izzo satisfies his NBA curiosity. There was a better chance in the early days. He seriously considered an offer from the Atlanta Hawks after winning the 2000 national title, then did the same when the Cleveland Cavaliers and MSU alum Dan Gilbert came after him in 2010 — right after his sixth and most recent Final Four.

Izzo never considered the possibility of lasting two decades as the Spartans' head coach, but now he finds himself in rare company. The only high-major coaches with longer active tenures are Syracuse's Jim Boeheim (entering his 39th season) and Duke's Mike Krzyzewski (35th). Izzo's six Final Fours are the most in the nation since his debut season of 1995-96 and the all-time record for Big Ten coaches.

If Izzo can get eight Big Ten wins out of a 2014-15 team with lower-than-usual expectations — the Spartans are picked anywhere from second to ninth in the Big Ten in preseason magazines, showing up in the latter half of most top-25 lists — he will pass Ward Lambert for third on the Big Ten victories list with 229. He will trail only Bob Knight (353) and Gene Keady (265), friends and mentors.

Proudest of all for Izzo, he's seeking his 18th straight NCAA tournament bid. Only Krzyzewski, with 19, has a longer streak. A lot of college basketball programs have their surges, but few can claim such consistency.

Izzo just lost stars Gary Harris and Adreian Payne to the first round of the NBA draft, along with point guard Keith Appling, but he has a team — led by senior forward Branden Dawson, senior guard Travis Trice and junior guard Denzel Valentine — that should maintain the streak and perhaps play for a while in March. And then he brings in a top-10 class in the fall.


"I'm sure as hell not ready to be done," Izzo said, "even though I get so frustrated with the system and what's going on. I think I would be back (if we won it all last year). I think I'd be motivated to try and catch (Krzyzewski), get two more, you know? Right now I think I would, even though I do get frustrated with what's going on. I'm a little worried about what's going on with college athletics in general."

The influence of social media, lawsuits and the future of the NCAA model. Recruiting in the "one-and-done" era. These are all things that threaten to drive Izzo away. The game, the coaching, the relationships have kept him where he is.

"I know this: I'm scared of where those things are heading, but right now I like my team," he said. "I almost like my team as much as any I've had recently. I think I've got a bunch of guys that want to get after it morning, noon and night. And with some leadership.

"It's been hard to get eight or 10 guys that are all that way, I think anywhere in the country. So you have problems and you say, 'How much longer do I want to do this?' When you have things going your way — and I'm not just talking about winning — you say, 'God, I could do this 10 more years.' "

And then he thinks of Knight and Keady. And Tom Landry. And Bobby Bowden. And Joe Paterno. And Jerry Sloan. All were coaches with long-term success in one place, iconic figures of varying levels whose tenures ended in negativity for various reasons.

One of the keys to Izzo's success, he said, is the fear of termination he came to know intimately in the early weeks of that 1997-98 season and never forgot. That hasn't been a realistic outcome for years, but public opinion can turn quickly on anyone.

"If you want to go out on a good note — and that doesn't necessarily mean winning a championship, just going out on a good note — that's getting harder to do that, you know?" Izzo said. "The greatest thing about staying in the same place is you get roots, you've got friends, you're part of the community, you're not really thought of differently. That's all good things. But it's just hard, because every year, someone's more mad at you. Even in recruiting, they can use the same stuff against you that was 20 years old. Because you're in the same place. If you were in a different spot, that would all change."

And in the NBA, there's no recruiting.


"In the back of Tom's mind is still the wondering of what he'd do at the pro level," Heathcote said. "I don't think he has a burning desire to do that. I'd call it more of a hidden itch. Just wondering how he'd do with that challenge. It's hard to explain. But as we know, he's had several opportunities and hasn't gone. I can't see him going anywhere in the near future."

Neither can Izzo. But he never saw this, either.

"I really didn't," he said. "Especially after Year 2 — I thought it would be two years. It's kind of gone by fast, and it's kind of gone by slow at times. I don't know. I know I've still got work to do."


This season will make Tom Izzo the third active high-major coach in college basketball to be with his team for at least 20 consecutive seasons. He trails only Duke's Mike Krzyzewski and Syracuse's Jim Boeheim in tenure. The top five:

• Jim Boeheim, Syracuse, 39th season (one national title, four Final Fours)

• Mike Krzyzewski, Duke, 35th season (four national titles, 11 Final Fours)

• Tom Izzo, MSU, 20th season (one national title, six Final Fours)


• Billy Donovan, Florida, 19th season (two national titles, four Final Fours)

• Rick Barnes, Texas, 17th season (one Final Four).

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