There have been a lot of sleepless nights for Tom Izzo this winter. That’s what happens when you have been to six Final Fours in the past 12 years and start the season ranked No. 2 in the country, only to find your Michigan State basketball team limping along in early February with a 13-10 record less than five weeks from Selection Sunday.
And yet, somewhere along the line, for reasons he doesn’t totally understand, he’s not sure exactly where or exactly why, Izzo found himself enjoying the experience.
“I know it sounds ridiculous or masochistic or both,” he said one morning last week after a stunning 82-62 loss at the hands of Big Ten bottom-feeder Iowa. “I honestly think that maybe I needed to go through this. I’m not saying I like losing on any level. But it probably isn’t a bad thing when you start to hear that you’re God or you walk on water to be reminded that you’re not and you don’t.
“I’m completely convinced one way or the other, I’m going to come out of this a better coach and a better person and, I hope, a better father. I’m learning how to deal with not having things go my way all over again. I’m not so sure I’m great at it, but I’m trying to get better at it.” He laughed. “Why would anyone want to be great at it?” Coaches, myself included, always talk about fans and media and players getting fat and happy. You know what? It can happen to us too.
“Every once in a while I’ve found myself feeling sorry for myself. I mean I look at our last five games and the teams we’ve played have been shooting 51 percent. My God! We’ve had seasons in which teams didn’t shoot 51 percent in five games altogether. That upsets me. I’ve always believed if I have DOGS I should be able to coach them to play defense.
“But when I catch myself doing that, feeling sorry for myself, I sit back and say, ‘how can you complain? Look at the last 15 years. You can live through one bad season—if this ends up being a bad season—and come back and be better at what you do as a result.”
Izzo, who turned 56 last month, acknowledges he saw some warning signs long before the season began. Point guard Kalin Lucas, who went down with an Achilles’ injury last March, decided to come back for his senior year. Izzo was told Lucas should be 100 percent six months after he was injured against Maryland in the second round of the NCAA tournament.
“Friends of mine in the NBA told me I was crazy if I thought he’d be better in six months,” Izzo said. “They said it was at least a nine-month injury. They were right.”
In August, Izzo had to kick rising senior guard Chris Allen off the team after a series of academic problems. Two other freshmen also had surgeries that slowed them, and starting forward Delvon Roe missed preseason time after his fourth knee surgery.
“I knew when the first polls came out we weren’t the No. 2 number two team in the country,” Izzo said. “But I hate coaches who talk their teams down and say, ‘We’re not that good; we don’t want any expectations.’ I wasn’t going to do that. Plus, I still thought we’d be pretty good. Second-best team? No. But top 15? Sure, why not?”
As always, Izzo had a murderer’s row schedule: a trip to Hawaii that would include games against Connecticut and Washington; at Duke a few days later; Syracuse in Madison Square Garden; a sneaky-hard game against Oakland; and Texas. Michigan State went 2-4 against those teams.
“I know some people think I’m crazy to schedule the way I do,” Izzo said. Syracuse Coach Jim “Boeheim always looks at my schedule and says to me, ‘You really are dumb.’ Well, I might be. But it’s worked for us in the past. When we had all the problems in the summer I thought maybe I should try to get out of a couple of games. I know guys who do that when they get people hurt. But I didn’t want to do that. Maybe it was a mistake. Maybe if I’d scheduled a couple more wins we’d be 16-6 right now instead of 13-9 (pre-the ---- against Wisconsin this past Sunday) and people wouldn’t think we were so bad. We wouldn’t be any better than we are but it would just LOOK like we’re better.”
Izzo’s scheduling philosophy was borne of desperation. When he took over the coaching job from Jud Heathcote in 1995, the Spartans weren’t very good. Uncertainty about how long Heathcote would coach had hurt recruiting.
“The first two years we were supposed to be on ESPN twice each season according to the Big Ten contract,” Izzo said. “We were so badm they only put us on once each season. I knew I had to get more TV games. I ran into [then-Temple Coach] John Chaney that summer, and he said, ‘I’ll play you.’ I said, ‘No way, I don’t want to play you.’ No one wanted to play them. But he convinced me we’d get the game on TV and we did. I looked at John’s schedule and saw he played anyone and everyone. It had clearly worked for him. So I started doing it.”
It worked. Izzo’s teams lost some tough games early but played their best basketball in March.
“One year we lost five of those games,” he said. “One was at Syracuse where Boeheim reminded me that I was a dumb ---- even before the game started. But it helped me coach. Losing some games knocks the cockiness out of everyone. The kids listen better, you coach better. This year was a little different because we travelled SO much we didn’t have any practice time for almost a month. That was a mistake on my part.”By his fourth season, Michigan State was in the Final Four for the first time in 20 years when Magic Johnson’s team won the national title. A year later, the Spartans won the national championship, and last spring made the Final Four for a second straight year even after Lucas got hurt against Maryland. With Lucas and a host of players returning this season, the Spartans were a popular pick to perhaps win Izzo’s second title.
Then came the injuries and Allen’s dismissal. Last month, Izzo had to toss another player off the team: Korie Lucious, the guard who broke Maryland’s heart with a buzzer-beating three-pointer last March.
“It’s just been a perfect storm,” he said. “I don’t like to be an excuse-maker, but with the injuries and the guys I’ve had to throw off the team, it’s been difficult. I blame myself for most of it. Jud [Heathcote] always used to say it’s hard for your leader to lead if he’s struggling with his own game. Kalin’s been doing that all season.
The injury affected his speed, and that changed his whole game. I don’t think I’ve done a good enough job helping him with that.
“Honestly though, I still think we could get our act together before this is over. Kalin’s 95 percent now. I have to be able to get them to defend and rebound better. I still think we can be a tough out in March if we can get some confidence back and get there.”
“Either way, though, I’m not upset that this has happened. I’m not HAPPY but I can see the good in it. I have friends in coaching who tell me the schedule caught me. Maybe it did—once in 15 years, I can live with it. Every once in a while in life you take a punch in the mouth. It doesn’t have to be a bad thing. It hurts, but you get up from it. We all need to get punched in the mouth once in a while. Gives you some humility.”Throughout the season, as he always does, Izzo has talked to coaches about what he has been dealing with. His best friend is former Detroit Lions Coach Steve Mariucci, who has been a friend since high school.
But he also has talked through the years to people such as former Florida football coach Urban Meyer and Penn State Coach Joe Paterno.
“During the season I like talking to football coaches,” he said. “If you talk to basketball coaches they pretty much have the same issues that you do, so it’s almost like talking to yourself. Football coaches see things a little differently than we do.
“I talked to Coach Paterno last fall when they were struggling a little bit. I asked him how he dealt with it, if he tried to make changes tactically. He said, ‘Nah, coaching isn’t about x’s and o’s; it’s about dealing with distractions and issues that come up with your kids.’ I think about that a lot because he’s right.”
He paused. “On the other hand, it would be nice if we could defend every once in a while.”
He laughed, finding a way to see humor in the middle of a long winter. “If I go through this once every 15 years, I can take it,” he said. “I’ll tell you one thing though: The next time I do go through it, I think I’ll be better at it than I was this time around. If nothing else, I think I know now I can take a punch.”
For more by the author, visit his blog at www.feinsteinonthebrink.com.