Photo: Tom Izzo
Michigan State is again part of the Champions Classic, an “Early Four” event in its eighth year, but something clouded Tom Izzo’s image entering his 24th season coaching the Spartans.
Oh, he’s again directing a Final Four contender in a season that opens on Tuesday with the first game of the Champions Classic double-header at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis. Michigan State, ranked No. 10 in the preseason, faces No. 1 Kansas at 7 p.m. and afterward No. 4 Duke and No. 2 Kentucky tip off.
But two dubious off-court stories from the previous season splattered Izzo’s image. How to wipe clean the ramifications of misguided perceptions left in some people’s minds?
He just moves forward.
That’s what Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim, who has endured his own controversies entering his 42nd season, told me at the recent ACC basketball media day. I asked if he had reached out to Izzo, and Boeheim said they spoke during the NCAA Tournament, when the Syracuse upset the Spartans 55-53 in the second round in Detroit.
“It’s over. You move on,” Boeheim said. “That’s life. I’ve had things like that happen to me. Everybody has things they have to get through. We tell our players when bad things happen the only thing that matters is how you get through it. You’ll have adversity many times in your life, but you don’t quit.”
He added Izzo still has an impeccable reputation with the people that matter in college basketball. Over the years, Izzo is perceived to have lost players to schools breaking recruiting rules and as a result gained “positive” reputation for it.
“He is one of the best guys I’ve known in coaching,” Boeheim said. “If anybody is doing things the absolute the right way, I believe it’s him – and I still do. I haven’t been proven wrong yet. I go on faith, and I think he’s a great guy, great coach and a man of absolute integrity – 100 percent. He had a very, very tough experience.”
The first story that rocked Izzo and the Spartans last year was Miles Bridges’ name mentioned in the FBI investigation involving a shoe company paying recruits.
Bridges, and Izzo by association as coach of his highly recruited star, were cleared long before the convictions from a trial were announced last month in New York, but clouds are hard to clear.
The second was ESPN conflating Larry Nassar’s conviction for horrific sexual crimes against young gymnasts and female athletes. Nassar was a former Michigan State doctor that is now imprisoned. As he was sentenced last winter, ESPN broadcast TV lumped together with the Nassar news stories about sexual assault claims against Michigan State basketball and football players.
None of Izzo’s players were charged. Football coach Mark Dantonio dismissed four players that had been arrested a year before Nassar was sentenced. Dantonio angrily challenged the ESPN report, but Izzo’s teams were still playing games. He stuck to “no comment” the remainder of the season, although Izzo, his players, students in “Izzone” and fans at the Breslin Center wore teal to express support for the victims.
As this played out, I naively assumed most people continued to view Izzo similar to the perception Boeheim holds.
But one day I watched two guest hosts on the Paul Finebaum Show, an ESPN college football program that is a favorite of mine. They discussed an Athlon Sports magazine story that listed Dantonio and Izzo as the No. 1 college football and basketball coaching tandem with combined rankings over recent seasons.
That wasn’t news to me, since I had been writing such a story since 2015. What surprised me was how the guest hosts responded to the photos of Dantonio and Izzo on the screen. They cringed and expressed regret for showing the pictures as this was Miami football with Nelvin Shapiro or Baylor basketball with Dave Bliss.
That’s when it hit me, perhaps naively, that people without much background on Dantonio and Izzo might have been quick to believe ESPN’s conflated stories.
The charges were so ugly, when they first surfaced there were people that wondered if Izzo might fade into retirement with his seven Final Four trips and one national championship. The invisible foe of misconceptions is tough to fight.
I asked Boeheim about that, too. The reason I inquired was earlier in the ACC media day session he had answered a question about his own retirement. He said he thinks about it less now at age 73 than he did while approaching his late 60s. Izzo turns 64 in January.
“I never thought he would retire,” Boeheim said. “He loves to coach. Why retire? He’s good at coaching.”
With some people, the damage might be done and irreversible when viewing Izzo, but I believe most don't see a connection. They see Izzo as a Basketball Hall of Famer, Class of 2016, adding to a legacy as one of the game’s most honorable and successful coaches.
Izzo’s 24th season is moving on.
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Tom Shanahan, Author: Raye of Light http://tinyurl.com/knsqtqu
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