Photo: Jud Heathcote and then-assistant coach Tom Izzo. Below, Mark Hollis.
There may not be a more tightly packaged example of mentor and protégé in college basketball than Jud Heathcote and Tom Izzo.
Consider that Bob Knight groomed Mike Krzyzewski as a player at Army and assistant at Indiana, but he became Coach K at Duke. Also, Knight and Krzyzewski once had a falling out until they patched things up. And Coach K’s former players and assistants have moved on to other schools with no clear successor in place.
North Carolina’s Dean Smith tutored Roy Williams, but Williams left for success at Kansas before he returned home to Smith’s seat on the bench at the Dean Dome in Chapel Hill.
Denny Crum departed John Wooden’s bench at UCLA for Louisville. He never returned and UCLA has played musical chairs with its head coaches ever since the Wizard of Westwood retired 40 years ago with his 10th and final NCAA title.
Well, Heathcote coached Michigan State for 19 years and won a national title in 1979. Izzo learned at Heathcote’s knee for 12 years as an assistant, starting in 1983, and is his 20th year as a head coach with his own national title in 2000. That's 39 years of continuity -- nearly 10 complete freshmen classes of Jud's Spartan Spirits and Tom's Izzo Zone cycling through to graduation.
Unlike the Knight-Krzyzewski spat, Izzo has never stopped quoting Heathcote’s wisdom or revealing he calls him to ask for advice even as he has topped his mentor in victories, Big Ten titles and Final Four trips.
“People ask me the secret to Tom’s success,” said the 87-year-old Heathcote, who follows the Spartans since retirement from his home in Spokane on the satellite TV system Izzo bought for him. “I tell them there are three things:
“One, he’s a workaholic; the second is he probably better than anyone at preparing for an opponent; and the third is he has the ability to look forward and not backward. And that’s tough to do in today’s world.”
Izzo needs to be able to transfer that look-forward ability to his players this week as the Spartans (23-11) open the NCAA Tournament in the East as the No. 7 seed against No. 10 seed Georgia (21-11) at 12:40 EDT at the Time Warner Arena in Charlotte.
“They had it won and gave it away,” said Heathcote of Michigan State’s overtime loss to Wisconsin in the Big Ten Tournament final on Sunday in Chicago that the Spartans failed to put away in the final seconds of regulation.
Heathcote says he’s not happy with the Michigan State’s No. 7 seeding.
“I think the (NCAA tournament) committee had them set at No. 7 regardless of the outcome of the Wisconsin game,” he said. “Georgia is a tough game. And if they beat Georgia they probably have to play (No. 2 seed) Virginia. That’s a tough go.”
But one reason to think the Spartans can bounce back is their improvement in the final weeks of the season was driven by defense. Defense, assuming the team plays with energy, is more reliable than offense.
“Tom has done an unbelievable coaching job this year,” Heathcote said. “They are not a talented team, but they work like hell. He sold them on team defense and it is working.”
Heathcote credits the Spartans' recent spartk to Izzo adapting a similar defensive style that Virginia coach Tony Bennett has employed with the Cavaliers to climb his program to the top of the ACC.
“In the Virginia ‘Pack-Line Defense,’ one guy puts pressure on the ball and the other four pack in the key area," he said. "Michigan State is doing almost the same thing. Their team defense is very good. Their individual defense is suspect, but you can make up for a lot of mistakes if you have guys covering for you when you make a mistake. That’s where they are now; they are able to cover for one another.”
That doesn’t explain a 96-90 overtime loss at home to Minnesota on Feb. 26 followed by a loss at Wisconsin that wasn't as close as the 68-61 final score.
“It still boggles my mind Tom scored 90 points and lost,” Heathcote said.
But defense does explain why the Spartans bounced back from those back-to-back losses to Minnesota and Wisconsin to win four straight. Improved defense can also feed the offense.
Michigan State defeated Purdue at home and Indiana on the road to finish the regular season and then topped two NCAA tournament teams, Ohio State and Maryland, in the Big Ten Tournament quarterfinals and semifinals before nearly upsetting Big Ten regular-season champion and No. 1 NCAA seed Wisconsin for a Big Ten tournament banner.
“No one got taller and no one got quicker,” Heathcote said. “They just got tougher and better defensively.”
Heathcote says the Spartans have been “hard to watch at times this year” but he will have his satellite system tuned into the Spartans and Georgia 9:40 Pacific time on Friday in the NCAA East Regional opener. He might also dig into a ham from Michigan State athletic director Mark Hollis.
“Mark sent me a great big ham and bread and mustard; it’s a big Easter package,” said Heathcote, who can’t resist throwing in some humor throughout an interview by adding: “At least will we’ll able to eat when our social security checks run out.”
Hollis was Heathcote’s team manager in the early 1980s. Come to think of it, there may not be a tighter example of mentors and protégés than Heathcote, Izzo and Hollis.