Flashback to 20 years ago, at The Palace of Auburn Hills. Michigan State defeated Iowa State 75-64, sending the Spartans to their second consecutive Final Four under Tom Izzo. They went on to win the national championship in Indianapolis, defeating Florida.
It’s a memory the team won’t get the chance to try and recreate this year, following the cancellation of the NCAA tournament due to the COVID-19 outbreak, but it’s a moment that shines in Izzo’s 25-year tenure.
“The whole stadium embraced us and that was when I felt like, ‘This is Michigan State here' ... from hotels to gas stations to bars to people in the streets,” Izzo said. “This one sent us to the national championship. It was in our home state. It doesn’t get any better than that.”
This year’s season was cut short for Izzo and his team.
“It goes without saying, this is something that none of us have ever experienced," Izzo said in a statement. "I feel most for our seniors, for guys like Cassius (Winston) and Kyle (Ahrens) and Conner (George), who wanted to have one last shot at March Madness. Telling them their career was over was extremely emotional. But these are unprecedented times and some things are bigger than basketball. The primary concern for all of us is the health and well-being of our (student-athletes), staff and fans.”
But the abrupt end to his 25th season doesn’t erase the legacy Izzo has developed after becoming head coach in 1995.
Being a best friend
Flashback to 2016. Senior guard Cassius Winston and Izzo went to a Wendy’s drive-thru, Izzo got a burger and Winston got a 10-piece chicken nugget meal with a strawberry lemonade. Izzo found a spot in the parking lot and the two talked.
Despite their 2019 trip to the Final Four or Winston's decorated career in the green and white, that trip to Wendy’s stands out to him, Winston said.
“We talked about the season, talked about things I wanted to do in the future,” Winston said. “That really helps you see him not just as a coach but as a person.”
Izzo’s 25 years makes him the longest-serving active head coach in the conference — and in those years lie many unforgettable moments.
In Izzo's basement, there's the picture somebody painted for him after his first Big Ten win as head coach against Bob Knight — that’s a moment. There’s the first Big Ten championship in 1999, another moment. Or the Kentucky game that sent him to his first Final Four that same year, another shining moment.
But it’s the times Izzo steps back from being a coach and instead acts as a friend that define him as one of the greatest MSU has ever seen.
“I want to enjoy their lives with their kids. I want to see them be successful. There’s so many things I want there because I owe those guys the most,” Izzo said. “Those are the guys that put me on the map. As I’ve said a million times, coaches don’t get to do as much as people think.”
“To have your coach being so cool with your daughter, that is sweet for me, personally, and my wife, as well,” Tillman said. “Just to know that he’s not just a coach, but he’s a guy that my family can come to if we have any problems is huge.”
Twenty of Izzo’s players have moved on to become selections in the NBA draft. Mateen Cleaves, Draymond Green and more recently Miles Bridges and Jaren Jackson Jr., go down as just a handful of Izzo’s players who have made a name for themselves beyond the collegiate level, largely due to the dedication Izzo has to his players' growth.
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“He’s the reason I play a lot harder than I did when I came in,” Winston said. “He’s constantly pushing, constantly teaching me about energy, leadership, being vocal — things like that help me with my game.”
Tillman said Izzo pushes him to "go harder" each day.
“Obviously that’s kind of cliché, but that’s a real thing,” Tillman said. “His energy — it's contagious. He’ll literally get you going. He’ll be angry or he’ll be happy, but either way he’ll get you going.”
But it's all worth it, because for Izzo, his players mean the world.
“Those guys that have done so much for me,” Izzo said. “I want to be able to thank them. I want to be able to enjoy the time with them. I want to be able to hopefully see them have some of the same success and dreams that I got to have as an adult instead of a college guy.”
‘I owe everything to the place'
Another flashback. This time, to Northern Michigan University in 1977. On the court stood two guards: Izzo and now-MSU men's basketball assistant coach Mike Garland. Garland said the two coaching together is simply a “fit.”
“A lot of the system that we use, like our fast break for instance, the way we play defense and things like that, is the same system that we grew up playing,” Garland said. “So to implement that, and know how one another is thinking was kind of second nature. On top of that, we’re friends, so it has a natural connection to it.”
Izzo graduated from Northern Michigan University in 1977, and moved on to begin coaching at Ishpeming High School in Ishpeming, Michigan before transitioning to the college coaching scene as an assistant at his alma mater.
In 1983, Izzo moved to East Lansing as a graduate assistant at Michigan State before taking on the head coach position in 1995.
With three Big Ten Coach of the Year awards, eight Final Four appearances, six Big Ten tournament championships and one national championship, Izzo has a decorated reign. Izzo’s 25 NCAA tournament wins are the most ever for a Big Ten coach and rank sixth all-time.
Izzo acknowledged that not many coaches stay in the same place for a long time, but above the championships and successes, the one thing that keeps Izzo in East Lansing is simple — the place is his home.
“When I say it’s my home, when you get married here, you raise your kids here, kids went to school here — it's given me so much financially, status-wise, enjoyment-wise and dreaming big with the dreams I’ve had,” Izzo said.
Izzo’s son, Steven, joined the Spartan team this season as a freshman. Steven said he grew up spending time in the gym, shooting around with his dad’s players and, most importantly, being a firsthand witness to the passion his dad has for MSU basketball.
“It’s everything to him, being in the state that he was born in,” Steven said. “It’s cool just to be around him every day and be able to spend some time with him and enjoy his presence (on the court).”
The night that captured more than the Spartans' third straight Big Ten title. The night that proved this team could work through the adversity that came along the way with Joshua Langford's injury, Joey Hauser's ineligibility, team injuries and most prominently, Winston's family tragedy.
Garland said this season was "special" in the sense that it was probably the greatest coaching job he and Izzo have done so far.
“A big part of coaching is not just coaching the X’s and O’s, but there’s a psychology part of it,” Garland said. “We had to kind of get our team back, try to convince them that things weren’t over, the season wasn’t over and that if we got it going again, we could be pretty good. … In some kind of way, we managed that.”
There won't be a tournament run. We won't get to see Winston's last trip through March or Izzo's tournament game plan. There will be no bracket betting, there will be no national champion.
But Izzo will be back and ready to achieve his goal of leaving MSU better than how he found it.
“I owe everything to (Michigan State),” Izzo said. “My goal still is to get this place where, when I leave, it's better than when I got here. And when I leave, it's strong enough to carry on some of the great things we’ve done.”
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