Photo: Tom Izzo on the sidelines and with Mateen Cleaves celebrating the 2000 NCAA title.
Michigan State senior Branden Dawson, the target of many Tom Izzo motivational outbursts, commented last week that Izzo has mellowed.
Izzo, his voice strained as it always is this time of the year, was asked for a reaction at one of those NCAA-sponsored press conferences leading up to what now numbers seven Final Four trips for the Spartans' 20th-year head coach.
“Mellowed? Of course it's not like the Cleaves days,” said Izzo,
referring to the demanding captain of his 2000 NCAA championship team.
“Those things back then were fistfights. That's the way it was then. You look at some of the guys I admired then – John Thompson, Bo Schembechler, John Chaney, Bobby Knight, Gene Keady; it was the way of the world."
“I've grown to understand a little better the different personalities of everybody. But I still think there's only one way to get it done, and that one way is you better be spilling it every minute or you're not going to make it once you get this deep in the tournament.”
Izzo’s motivational methods have his team in a familiar place. Michigan State plays Duke Saturday with Kentucky meeting Wisconsin in the nightcap at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis. The winners play for the NCAA title Monday night.
Of Izzo’s list of intimidating or fiery coaches from yesteryear, retired Temple coach John Chaney stood out to me. His name reminded me of covering the 2001 NCAA South Region press conferences at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta (with retired Michigan State Sports Information Director Nick Vista serving as moderator, by the way). The field was down to the Sweet Sixteen with defending national champion Michigan State facing Gonzaga and Temple meeting Penn State.
Michigan State ended up beating Gonzaga and Temple en route to a third straight Final Four, but Chaney created off-the-court memories. He entertained the media talking about Izzo before his team earned the right to face the Spartans with a win over Penn State.
At the opening-day afternoon press conferences, Chaney explained Temple’s locker room was on the other side of a concrete wall from the Michigan State locker room as his team dressed for practice. He recounted how he and his players listened in stunned silence as Izzo’s voice bellowed through the wall while yelling at his players following their practice.
His face cringed in horror, prompting laughter. He went on, shaking his head as he mimicked tilting his ear to the wall to listen to Izzo. He expressed more mock horror, drawing laughs. He emphasized the walls were made of thick concrete. He said his players reacted the same way, although their own coach was no shrinking violent.
Chaney, of course, infamously went after then-Massachusetts coach John Calipari in a 1994 post-game press conference, shouting “I’ll kill you” as he was restrained by others.
Chaney in awe of an Izzo outburst is like Bobby Knight grading an opposing coach’s chair-throwing ability with a 9 out of 10 (no one can match Knight).
But there is the difference: Izzo may get on his players at loud decibels, but there are no infamously embarrassing moments of lost self-control. He hasn’t shouted he wants to kill an imposing coach or thrown a chair across the court to protest a referee’s call. It also should be pointed out Izzo may lead the nation in post-game celebration hugs from those same berated players. His veteran players help the younger players to listen to what he says and not how he says it.
Bobby Knight loves his players and their devotion to him all these years later is indisputable, but that's not how he's remembered for treating people by the general public. The same can be said of another Big Ten bully, Woody Hayes, the late Ohio State football coach remembered for punching a Clemson player on the sidelines.
“I’ve said a million times to our writers here that one of the goals is for my players to get to have what I have,” Izzo said. “I've lived my dream as a kid growing up, figuring out where I wanted to go, getting to the pinnacle, being at a university like this, winning some championships, winning the national championship.
“I just think it's such a memory making experience when you do things that few can do. That was my battle cry to my team on Sunday (the NCAA East Region final win over Syracuse). I just said, two hours of work for 60 years of memories. That's about the way it is. Those two hours of work is going to get you a lifetime with your kids, with your grandkids. You always can state something that few can state.”
That, unlike Bobby Knight’s mixed legacy, is Tom Izzo’s most prominent legacy. Izzo is in his seventh Final Four, but he’s always quick to mention Michigan State’s first Final Four in 1957, led by Johnny Green, and the second one, with his mentor, Jud Heathcote, guiding Earvin "Magic" Johnson and Greg Kelser to the school’s first NCAA trip in 21 years in 1978 and first NCAA basketball title in 1979. He mentioned how proud he is Michigan State alums and fans are excited about another Final Four run.
“That's really why I'm still here,” said Izzo, referring to the many people along his path from Michigan State graduate assistant to 20th-year head coach. “For me, I swear to you it's not as big a deal. In my humble opinion, the only way I can give back to what you did for me is to help take you to some place that very few people get to go. We're headed to one place. If we can make it to Monday night, we head to the ultimate place.”