Jud Heathcote: a once in a lifetime coach
A mentor. A coach. A foundation of MSU basketball. A friend. A guiding, caring, charismatic man, that only comes once every so often.
Jud Heathcote was all of these, and with them, was beloved by everybody he came across and those he didn’t cross.
Heathcote died Monday night at the age of 90, leaving behind a legacy both on and off the court that will most likely never be duplicated. The funeral service for Heathcote is scheduled for 2:00 p.m. PDT on Sept. 23 at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church in Spokane, Washington and is open to the public.
“He was a national figure and everybody loved him,” Carl Valentino, longtime friend of Heathcote, said. “He was unique.”
Greg Kelser, member of the 1979 national championship team, was part of a group that went to the home of the Heathcotes in Spokane, Washington, last year to spend the weekend with the Heathcotes.
Kelser said the visit was “an amazing experience.”
“Just having that opportunity to say ‘thank you,’ to let him know that he had a major impact on our lives was something I’ll never forget,” Kelser said. “It’s a thousand times magnified now, given he is no longer here in the physical sense.”
Kelser’s teammate of that 1979 championship, Gerald Gilkie, said he was “surprised” and “saddened” by the passing of Heathcote.
“In my heart of hearts, wanted to help him make our 40 year reunion (of the 1979 championship),” Gilkie said. “My heart of hearts really wanted him to hang in there.”
Heathcote had a career coaching record of 420-273 and had a 340-220 record at MSU from 1976 to 1995, making him the second-winningest coach in MSU history only behind current head coach Tom Izzo.
He led the Spartans to the school’s first NCAA Tournament title in 1979 with local star Earvin “Magic” Johnson and the high scoring Kelser.
He coached other MSU legends, including Steve Smith, Shawn Respert and Scott Skiles. He coached and prepared Izzo to be his successor.
He even coached Division I handball at the University of Montana and led the team to a national title in 1974, while also winning two Big Sky championships with the Grizzlies basketball team in 1973 and 1974.
But his impact on MSU is what made him stand out.
“He was a very good coach who came in and changed the culture at Michigan State,” Kelser said. “Once you start winning Big Ten championships and national championships, and put your program out in the national spotlight, the recognition that comes with that, that right there transcends a program. He did that in a very short period of time.”
But in doing so, Heathcote molded people and pushed them to be the best they could be.
“There’s no doubting the positive impact he had on my life, in the terms of teaching me a great many things that comes with being a part of a team,” Kelser said. “You have to be responsible, you have to be accountable to your teammates and you have to work extremely hard if you were gonna reach your potential. He helped me with all those things.”
‘He set the tone’
While Heathcote pushed his players to be the best they could be on the court, he pushed them even harder to be better individuals off the court. Kelser said Heathcote’s players learned more than basketball from their coach.
“If the guys, the people who worked under him, had only left school with a better jumpshot or a championship ring, if that’s all you left the program with, that wouldn’t be very representative of who he was and what he was about,” Kelser said.
Gilkie said Heathcote “meant business” and taught his players to “build a work ethic,” which led his players to be more “mentally tough and physical tough.”
“A lot of it you just went along for his teaching and sometimes, even though some of his tactics would be demeaning to us at times when we were young, we felt he would be demeaning and berate players,” Gilkie said. “When you look back at it now, we laugh at it, we say, ‘Oh man, now we know what he was trying to do.'”
Gilkie said Heathcote had a specific way of doing things, especially if you had a high ego because you were the star player for your high school basketball team.
“He stopped you in your tracks and say, ‘Hey you’re going to do it my way or you’re not going to play,’” Gilkie said. “I was like, 'Shut up and listen.'”
Kelser said Heathcote knew “the balance” between teaching basketball skills and life skills.
“He recognized that as a coach, his job was not only to teach basketball, his job was to teach life and to leave an umbilical mark on the lives of the men that he was in charge of leading,” Kelser said. “He certainly did that.”
Kelser said after playing for Heathcote, players would leave with lessons that help them in their careers.
One of those lessons was learning how to prioritize, as Kelser said. If you didn’t go to class, you wouldn’t be able to play in games or even practice because Heathcote “cared about us as student.”
“One thing I always tell people is he expected us to work extremely hard, but we could never outwork him,” Kelser said. “He set the tone.”
Handball: Heathcote’s other bloodline
Whenever Heathcote wasn’t coaching basketball, he would be on the handball court honing his skills and being just as competitive.
So competitive, in fact, that Valentino said once Heathcote arrived in East Lansing in 1976, he challenged Valentino, who was “the champion of the town.”
He even skipped a basketball practice to go play handball.
“I said to him, ‘Jud, isn’t practice tonight?’ He said ‘Yeah, there is. I gave everybody a ball and told them I would be here, if you need me give me a call,’” Valentino said.
Valentino said Heathcote was more fond of Valentino as a doubles partner, because of who Valentino was.
“I was in shape, I wasn’t big, but I tried hard all the time,” Valentino said. “He told me more than once I was favorite player. I was the Scott Skiles, I guess, of the handball world.”
Even if Valentino was Heathcote’s favorite handball player to partner up with, that didn’t exclude Valentino from the jokes and trash talk.
“I played in a Lansing open tournament and I lost in the finals, and the next time I saw Jud, he walked up to me and shook my hand and goes, ‘Congratulations, I heard you finished second,’” Valentino said. “But that’s who he was.”
Valentino and Heathcote would also bounce coaching ideas of each other, even if it was suggestions about each other sports.
“I coach seventh grade basketball and I was trying to tell him, ‘Why did you do that, are you stupid or something?’” Valentino said.
But even with the friendly bickering, Heathcote kept his love for handball into the late stages of his life, Valentino said.
“When he got older, he would fall on the court going after the ball and three of us would have to help him up because his legs were so bad,” Valentino said. “He loved the game so much.”
The real Jud Heathcote
While Heathcote was a crown jewel of Spartan basketball and the overall MSU community, some others may have not liked his style of coaching.
"I think a lot of people saw him as being a little bit obnoxious and telling jokes about people, but underneath all that, you know there was just this caring guy," Valentino said. “He was a funny guy with a big heart.”
That big heart reached across many platforms including staying in contact with those he coached and those in the coaching fraternity, even after his retirement.
“He just didn’t go off on some island and isolate himself, he really stayed connected with folks,” Gilkie said. “I always heard people would go out and visit him, they would call him or just talk to him. So that was great that he had an ongoing engagement with his players and coaches.”
Valentino said you knew that Heathcote was going to joke with you and make fun of you, but that’s just who he was.
“He’s not gonna come over and say, ‘Boy that was a great shot,’ he’d kid you about a shot you’d missed, rather than to praise you,” Valentino said. “He would joke to you more or less about something you did, and you knew that was just his way of actually almost telling you that he liked you.”
Heathcote’s jokes, however, were mostly about himself, Valentino said.
“One of the jokes he told us is, Beverley -- which is his wife -- he said ‘we had our 50th anniversary. We went to the motel, we slept in one of those beds where you put a quarter in and the bed vibrated so we could remember what it was like to have sex,’” Valentino said. “He could tell the same story, but every time they were hilarious.”
Heathcote's impact will be felt in the sports community and among those he touched.
“We dressed next to each other, we took showers next to each other, we kidded each other in the locker room about handball and about basketball,” Valentino said. “I’ve lost a friend. A real friend.”