We all have our own Tom Izzo stories. The moment you first got to meet him, shake his hand and hear his frequently raspy voice in-person. Everyone remembers it.
For me, it was in the summer of 2019, when I was in East Lansing for a few days with my dad. It was one day before my freshman orientation, so we decided to take a walk around campus, since the only other time I had ever seen it was a snowy November weekend.
Seemingly out of nowhere, a golf cart whizzed by as we stood at an intersection. It was Tom Izzo.
My dad and I were in awe. In just my second time ever on campus, I got to see one of the greatest college basketball coaches of all time.
Izzo has been Michigan State’s basketball coach for nearly 30 years. He’s won numerous Big Ten titles, advanced to countless Final Fours, raised a national championship banner and graduated a myriad of Spartans.
Rather than running up and down the sidelines of a packed Breslin Center, chewing out an official for a missed call against Minnesota, he was tasked with guiding not only his own team, but an entire MSU community through something that doesn’t exist on any head coaching job applications.
Izzo spoke at Wednesday night’s vigil, trying to put together his best words to enlighten and repair a wounded community. However, one of the first things he said on the breezy steps of the Fairchild Theatre was a lie.
“Wow,” Izzo said, then releasing a sigh. “I normally speak more off the cuff, but you’re following the governor, the president, the doctors and you’re just a basketball coach, (so) I decided to put a little more into it.”
Did he put more into his seven-minute speech than he would at any ordinary press conference? Yes. Is he "Just a basketball coach?" No way.
I’m an out-of-state student, one that didn’t start closely following MSU’s men’s basketball team until the 2019 Final Four appearance that I attended as a senior in high school. Having me say today that Izzo is more than just a basketball coach doesn’t mean anything. Any Spartan, Michigander or college basketball fan already knows that. I was quick to realize it.
But when three of my fellow Spartans were killed and five others were critically injured, I found myself putting my neutral sports reporter instincts aside and fell back into my seat as a Michigan State student. It’s Izzo’s words among the many statements and speeches from community leaders that I sought out the most. Perhaps it was my sports-wired mind, but I know there were plenty of other Spartans – students or alumni – feeling the exact same way.
“Well, there were a lot (of people) that I saw that weren't holding back tears,” Izzo said Thursday of speaking at the vigil, followed by a long, silent pause. “I'm honored that you'd say, ‘my people.’ That means you've been here a long time. But I was overwhelmed, to be honest with you, standing there looking out over that crowd. What a tribute to those three students. What a tribute to Michigan State. What a tribute to their families that people cared enough … You're right, I've been through some celebrations. I've been through some tough times, but that was one of the more moving moments in my career. It really was.”
That Monday night, he received the same frightening news that countless other Spartan parents heard too. His son, Steven, a senior and walk-on to the basketball team, was in danger too.
Steven Izzo had driven to the MSU Union to pick up his girlfriend from class when a police officer stopped him and ordered him to turn around. He retreated to the familiar confines of the Breslin Center, where he barricaded in a suite inside the arena before later moving downstairs with staff members to the weight room and alumni locker room.
Meanwhile, Tom Izzo had been at home after recording his weekly radio show earlier in the night. On any other night, he likely would’ve been at the Breslin Center, instead of sheltering at his home where he listened to the news and prayed his kid and others near and dear to him and would make it out safely.
“It was fairly traumatizing for Steven,” Tom Izzo said. “I thought he was okay and then yesterday he had some moments and some people really helped him out. So I was greatly appreciative of that.”
Shortly before making his speech at the vigil, Izzo stopped by the Rock, where numerous people silently circled around the painted names of the three killed: Brian Fraser, Arielle Anderson and Alexandria Verner. To his left stood a group of boys, some of which were hugging each other, uncontrollably emotional and wearing Phi Delta Theta shirts – the fraternity in which Fraser was the president.
“There were some people that just couldn't hold it in and I said, 'Did you know somebody?'” Izzo said. “A couple said yes and a couple said no, and that was pretty powerful.”
Now, Izzo is working an insurmountable task of preparing his players for a Saturday night rivalry match at Michigan. No coach or player is properly trained for it. There’s no playbook or user manual on how anyone can effectively recover from tragedy, or when the appropriate time is to start moving on.
But sports are what unite, even in a rivalry that’s turned suddenly nasty. It’s part of why the game will be played – to bring a sense of normalcy for those that need it.
“That'll be the hard part,” Izzo said of his expectations for Saturday. “Game could start, we could get off to a great start, or we could lay an egg. I don't know.”
Izzo’s ability to win basketball games is what has kept him in East Lansing for longer than I’ve been alive. Sure, the last three seasons haven’t been all that spectacular to the standards Izzo has built, but that must be pushed aside.
His humility as a person is what touches many so dearly and why people – including me – are proud to wear the green and white and call themselves Spartans.
Tom Izzo, the person, overtook Tom Izzo, the coach, this week when Michigan State needed it the most.
It’s OK if you shed a tear during his Wednesday night remarks. I know I almost did.