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Izzo’s influence stretches beyond coaching basketball

January 21, 2014

Last Saturday at Illinois, men’s basketball head coach Tom Izzo added another accomplishment to his resume when he recorded his 215th career Big Ten victory, placing him in sole possession of fourth place in all-time conference wins.

This milestone is just one of many Izzo has passed during his 19 years as head coach at MSU. Under his direction, the Spartans have won a national championship, played in six Final Fours, claimed seven Big Ten titles and been to 16 straight NCAA tournaments. This sustained excellence under Izzo has earned him a reputation as an elite coach in the world of college basketball.

Although his success as a coach is clear, Izzo’s legacy at MSU simply should not be defined by an impressive number of conference wins or banners hung in Breslin Center.

Instead, his legacy reaches far beyond the scope of basketball, encompassing a broader connection to MSU as a whole. Despite achieving a level of success most of his colleagues can only dream of, Izzo seems to view himself as just a one part of team MSU.

He easily could have become larger than life, as many elite coaches do, and could have grown disconnected from the community. But that’s not Tom Izzo.

Instead, he possesses a refreshing humility and a palpable enthusiasm for actively engaging with Spartans everywhere. He is a potential Hall of Fame coach who helped evacuate Spartan Stadium during severe weather, then cheered in the student section when the game resumed last fall.
He annually camps with Izzone members on Munn field and regularly delivers pizza to fans waiting in line outside of Breslin Center before games.

His costumes during the pre-season Midnight Madness festivities are legendary — ranging from King Leonidas to Iron Man — and he’s even performed in a Broadway musical for charity at the Wharton Center.

Izzo seems to recognize that his success indelibly is linked to the success of the entire athletic department. In 2011, Izzo and his family donated $1 million to MSU and asked that a majority of the money be given to the football program.

Women’s basketball head coach Suzy Merchant perhaps best captured Izzo’s commitment to MSU athletics, not just men’s basketball, by stating that Izzo frequently “spends more time with my recruits than his own.”

Maybe most importantly, Izzo cares about his players as young men, not just athletes. Since becoming head coach, more than 80 percent of Izzo’s players have graduated.

Without forgetting his small town, Yooper roots, Izzo has built a legendary career by emphasizing the fundamentals over flash, the team over individual stars. He might just be our basketball coach, but he embodies much of what makes MSU so special.

As a pioneering public university, MSU sought to make higher education accessible to everyday people, not just the social and economically powerful. Throughout the years, the school has evolved dramatically, from a humble agricultural college to its current status as a multifaceted research institution.

Still, MSU has remained true to its original values of inclusion, equality and diversity. As MSU President Lou Anna K. Simon often puts it, MSU is a place to be “elite without being elitist.”

There is simply no one who better exemplifies this mission statement in action than Tom Izzo. He is consistently the first person to credit an opponent and the last person to pat himself on the back. He has rejected higher salaries and greater celebrity in the NBA every time it has been offered to him, choosing instead to make his mark at home in East Lansing, choosing to be a “Spartan for life.”

He needs no fanfare, he requires no accolades.

When asked to characterize his feeling toward Izzo last season before their meeting in the Sweet 16, legendary Duke University men’s head basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski, commonly known as Coach K, said, “He’s a coach’s coach. He’s a guy’s guy. With all the success, he’s a humble guy.”
Izzo often talks about wanting his teams to “leave their footprint in the sand” by creating a lasting impact during their time at MSU. In the coming seasons, Izzo undoubtedly will rack up more wins and raise additional banners.

But in light of his most recent accomplishment, I think it’s a good time to take stock of the “footprint” Izzo already has made on our community, because we all know he’s not going to mention it. Like MSU, he’s the elite without being elitist, blue collar in the best sort of way. I have to agree with Coach K, there’s nothing not to like about Tom Izzo.

Alex Dardas is an international relations and journalism junior. Reach him at dardasal@msu.edu.

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