No one necessarily sets out to get to the Hall of Fame. Instead one stepping stone leads to the next and the next, slowly building a career that winds its way to Springfield, Massachusetts. Izzo is no different. He was an ex-player who simply wanted to be a coach, and a coach who desperately wanted to win. All of that just so happened to add up to a Hall of Fame worthy career.
But some steps were bigger and more important than others, starting points or turning points that, when strung together, led the Michigan State Spartans’ coach to the 2016 class.
Here then are the moments that made Izzo’s defining moment possible:
1. A news brief
The news brief from The Mining Journal, the paper of record in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan is just that — brief. Posted on Nov. 6, 1977, it reads simply: Iron Mountain native Tom Izzo, captain of coach Glenn Brown’s last two Northern Michigan University basketball squads and the team’s most valuable player for the 1976-77 season, will replace Mike Mileski as the Ishpeming Hematites’ varsity boys’ basketball coach.
It’s also the official notice of Izzo’s first coaching step. He’d spend one year with the Hematites before returning to his alma mater as an assistant for his old coach, Glenn Brown.
2. A place in the dungeon
In town to watch the high school state championships and recruit for Northern Michigan, Izzo instead tried to market himself. By then four years into his gig at Northern Michigan, he was looking to begin working his way up the recruiting ladder.
The young assistant worked up his nerve to ask Jud Heathcote, then just two years removed from taking Michigan State to the Final Four, if he had an opening on his staff. Heathcote politely told him he did not. A year later, same drill. “That time he had a broken jaw,” Heathcote said. “I could hardly understand him.” Heathcote told Izzo he still had no openings.
Finally on Izzo’s third visit to East Lansing, Heathcote offered him a spot in the dungeon room — a $7,000 a year graduate assistant job.
“I figured with his perseverance, he deserved something,” Heathcote said.
Izzo accepted on the spot and moved into a two-bedroom garden floor apartment with one of the team managers. Back then, Mark Hollis, now the Michigan State athletic director, was the Oscar to Izzo’s Felix. Not that either spent a whole lot of time in their apartment. Izzo practically lived in the coaches’ offices. Hollis remembers the old office configuration, with the assistants all crowded into one room and their desks arranged so they could shout at one another. More often than not as Hollis was leaving, he’d peer in to see Izzo still watching film, long after everyone else left.
“He was probably more intense as an assistant than as a head coach,” Hollis said. “It was from the capacity of trying to learn things, pushing, asking questions, trying to do more than what it takes to just satisfactorily do the job.”
3. Finding that skinny skid
He was supposed to watch another kid at the Franklin Settlement Recreation Center in Detroit that day, but on his first recruiting assignment as an assistant, Izzo went off script. He kept eyeing a gangly player who made every big shot and eventually brought Heathcote for a second opinion.
“Tom, who the hell is that skinny kid who is always on the ball?” Heathcote memorably said.
His name was Steve Smith. He would go on to score 2,263 points and bring Michigan State back to the top of the Big Ten standings. Then he was a kid fresh off a late growth spurt. He also happened to be devoted to his mother. Izzo, starting a trend that would long serve him well, recruited Clara Smith as hard as he did her son.
Eventually Clara decided to send her son to East Lansing where Smith not only left a mark on the basketball court, he has left an indelible one on the university. Smith’s $2.5 million donation, at the time the largest by any professional athlete to a college or university (since eclipsed by Draymond Green’s $3.1 million gift), made possible the Clara Bell Smith Student Athlete Academic Center.
4. Jud’s promise
By the early 1990s, Izzo was an up-and-comer, the hot young assistant catching plenty of people’s eyes. Central Michigan went after him hard after Charlie Coles left in 1991, even thought it had a chance to snare him.
After that courtship fizzled, Heathcote realized he needed to entice his top assistant to stay. In 1993, two years before he’d retire, Heathcote tabbed Izzo as his successor. It wasn’t easy.
“Some people thought we should hire a black coach,” Heathcote said. “Some others wanted us to open it up and see who would apply. I had to work hard to get him the job.”
Heathcote thought the continuity would be best for the school. He remembered when his own mentor, Marv Harshman, was forced out at Washington and the school went outside for his replacement. The move began a downward spiral for the Huskies. More, though, he thought Izzo was ready.
“He got better every single year at the things a head coach has to do,” he said. “Work on the floor, recruiting, working with the media, he was the logical and best choice for Michigan State.”
5. Have basketballs, will travel
He has played on an aircraft carrier and at military bases, on the East Coast and the West. That mentality started quite literally in Izzo’s first season as a head coach. In 1995-96, the Spartans played at Maui, at Arkansas, at Louisville, at Kansas State and at Oklahoma State. Izzo, though, couldn’t get anyone to return the games, struggling to get any home-and-home series.
Finally in 1997, Izzo turned to the man who built a Hall of Fame career off of playing anyone anywhere, signing a home-and-home with John Chaney and Temple.
“I remember he said to me, ‘Just keep doing what you’re doing. You’ll get there,’ ” Izzo recalled.
Izzo got there that same season, with Michigan State earning its first NCAA tournament bid. The Spartans haven’t missed since, a run of 19 consecutive years.
6. Finding the Flintstones
Antonio Smith was the first recruit to sign with the new Michigan State head coach. He also started the Flintstone pipeline. Next came Morris Peterson and then Mateen Cleaves and finally, Charlie Bell, the four kids who grew up together in Flint, Michigan, pledging their basketball futures to Izzo and Michigan State.
If together they marked the turning point for Izzo, individually Cleaves served as the catalyst.
The point guard who would go on to forge such a tight bond with his coach that each would include the other in their son’s names — Steven Mateen Izzo and Mateen Izzy Cleaves. Cleaves was heavily recruited, wooed by Florida State just after the Charlie Ward hype, and Michigan, which still enjoyed the glow from its 1989 national championship. But Cleaves was memorably involved in a car accident on his official visit with the Wolverines. Later, it would be revealed, he and Michigan players were returning from the home of Ed Martin, the booster who would lead to the Wolverines’ issues with the NCAA. Izzo, through dogged determination and careful wooing of Cleaves’ mother, won the recruiting battle. Cleaves, in return, changed Izzo’s career. The three-time team captain and three-time All-American led the Spartans to their first NCAA tournament under Izzo, the coach’s first Final Four, and of course, the 2000 national championship.
7. Standing up the big boys
Today he is known as Mr. March, Izzo’s ability to win games when it matters most as good as any in the history of the game. Only five other coaches can match or better his seven Final Four trips. But in 1999 he was just beginning to build his reputation, his Spartans that year earning their first Final Four berth under Izzo. Michigan State rebounded from a 13-point deficit to beat defending national champion Kentucky in the Elite Eight to get there. Their reward in St. Petersburg, Florida, was a date with a loaded Duke team. Mike Krzyzewski who already was in the seventh Final Four of his career. “Been there, done that program vs. giddy newcomer,” one Florida newspaper reporter termed the semifinal. The Spartans would lose the game, 68-62, but serve notice that the newcomers were also a new force. “I think we showed the world that we can compete with them and that we’re a good team,” Charlie Bell said afterward.
8. A call that changed it all
With 3:43 left in the Midwest Regional final and Michigan State up by one, officials simultaneously whistled Charlie Bell for a block and Iowa State’s Paul Shirley for a charge on Shirley’s made bucket.The basket was waved off and Shirley hit with his fifth foul. The Spartans would go on to win the game (an irate Larry Eustachy, the then Iowa State coach, would watch the end from the locker room, ejected after arguing the call). A euphoric crowd at the regional site in Auburn Hills celebrated Michigan State’s return to the Final Four.
This time, Michigan State no longer was the new kid on the block. With Cleaves — coming back from a sprained ankle — leading the way, the Spartans beat Florida and its upstart coach, a guy by the name of Billy Donovan, to win their first national championship.
“It was painful, but I wasn’t thinking about that,” Cleaves told the Lansing State Journal, reminiscing about the championship game years later, “All that I was thinking about was winning a national championship — a goal we set when I was 18 years old, and coach Izzo was in Flint, Michigan, sitting in my living room. That’s all I was thinking about, accomplishing that goal.”
9. Home-court advantage
A record crowd of 72,456 packed into Ford Field for the 2009 Final Four. Esimates that 72,000 were wearing Michigan State gear were greatly exaggerated. It was more like 72,400.
If there was a moment that crystallized the love between school and coach, this was it.
“I told the players before the game that I’d coached in four Final Fours, but I didn’t think anything that happened in them could prepare me for what it was going to feel like walking out of that tunnel tonight,” Izzo said after the Spartans beat UConn in the semifinals to move on to the title game against North Carolina. “I was right; I’ve never felt anything quite like that.”
The emotional ride for Izzo, one in which he willingly shouldered the responsibility of giving downtrodden Detroit a reason to celebrate, was the end of a difficult road for the Spartans. Expected to win early, they survived myriad injuries to reach their dream destination — a hometown national championship game.
North Carolina, heavily favored all season, throttled the Spartans and silenced the crowd, but nothing would dull the shine on that unforgettable moment for Izzo, or for Michigan State.
10. Saying no to the NBA
It lasted only nine days. It seemed a lot longer. Izzo’s midsummer romance with the Cleveland Cavaliers dominated the news cycle in July, 2010, with the Cavs dangling upwards of $6 million a year to lure Izzo away from Michigan State. Izzo thought long and hard about leaving the Spartans.
He kept his old roommate — and current boss — apprised throughout the tap dance, sometimes talking to Hollis, his friend, and others speaking with Hollis, his athletic director. Hollis never tried to talk Izzo into anything, instead offering him the space to breathe, think and explore a possible new job. One time he even told his coach to leave, that the financial package was too hard to turn down for his family.
Ultimately Izzo opted to return. There was no grand pronouncement. Izzo and Hollis simply sat in the coach’s conference room and had one last conversation that ended with, “I’m going to stay.”
“He has that one line, where he always talks about if he’s home he feels guilty he’s not with the team and when he’s with the team he feels guilty because he’s not at home. The same feeling came out of this process,” Hollis said. “I think he felt like had he accepted, maybe he could have recruited LeBron to stay (LeBron instead decided to go to Miami).
“What’s that saying, 80-20? I think he was 80 percent excited and 20 percent of him always wondered what would have happened if I had gone?”
But when he recommitted to Michigan State, Izzo made no such wiggle room, declaring, “I knew at the beginning that whatever decision I made would be a decision for life. I am going to be a lifer. This is what I’m going to be, and I’m damn proud of it.”