Michigan State Basketball: Why Spartans Fans Should Be Thankful for Tom Izzo

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Michigan State Basketball: Why Spartans Fans Should Be Thankful for Tom Izzo
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MSU basketball may not be MSU basketball had it not been for Tom Izzo.

Be thankful for the missed game-tying free throw in 1972—if not for that miss that cost Iron Mountain a place in the U.P. title game, Tom Izzo may have chosen a different career path. 

Be thankful for 30-plus years of service, not to mention the past 19 years as head coach—if not for Izzo, the No. 1-ranked Spartans (6-0) could be in a very different place than they're at today. 

Would MSU basketball be MSU basketball without Izzo?

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Yes, it's Thanksgiving weekend. But this isn't another one of those cleverly worded pieces that aims to pull out every holiday-inspired, sappy, "be thankful for what you have" line in the book. No, this piece is merely coincidence. 

Being thankful for Izzo means as much this weekend as it means on Aug. 1 or on any other completely random day. It just so happens that now is an appropriate time to take a harder look at exactly what Izzo has done for Michigan State—and not just for the basketball team but the university in general. 

He's one of rare ilk, that Coach Izzo fella. There aren't many hard-nosed coaches like him left in college hoops. You know the type, the "I eat nails for breakfast" and "walked 20 miles uphill during a snowstorm just to get to practice" guys that we've grown to revere. 

Six Final Fours, a handful of Coach of the Year honors, a national title and mutual respect from those around him serve as testaments to Izzo's effective nature. 

Chris Trotman/Getty Images

You don't have to be a Spartans fan to appreciate what Izzo's done, either. He's a true ambassador of the game who's held in high regard within the basketball community at large. From the NBA to Team USA, all the way down to prep hoops, those who know ball love Izzo. 

An NCAA legend, coach Mike Krzyzewski of Duke, is perhaps the only one above Izzo in the contemporary pecking order. However, Coach K doesn't often look at it that way.

Over the years, he's praised Izzo, both in victory and in defeat. Coach K said the following to Luke DeCock of the News & Observer prior to beating Izzo in the 2013 Sweet 16. 

There's nothing about Tom that I don't think is good. If we lose to them, believe me, I'll hug him and shake his hand, and he'll do the same for me. I like that. I think it's more the way it used to be in coaching, and probably we both have great teachers in that regard.

As a favorite to cut down the nets at Jerry's World this spring, Michigan State will continue to be an elite cornerstone of NCAA basketball for as long as Izzo is involved. For all intents and purposes, the program will always be his, whether or not he's actually coaching from the sidelines. 

Izzo's success
Feat Frequency
Final Fours 6
Coach of the year 4
Big Ten titles 7 (regular season)
Tourney apperances 16 (consecutive)
National championships 1

Coach Izzo.com

 

The Beginning

Brian Bahr/Getty Images
It didn't take Izzo too long to put together something special in East Lansing.

After a four-year stint as Northern Michigan's assistant, Izzo made the trek downstate in 1983 to join Jud Heathcote's staff. At the time, the Spartans were four years removed from winning it all with Magic Johnson and Greg Kelser and three years from hitting the Sweet 16 with Scott Skiles. 

As a young assistant, Izzo helped navigate Michigan State through interesting times. Recruiting picked up in the late 1980s and early 1990s—the Spartans were building a powerhouse. 

But in 1989, they nearly missed on getting Shawn Respert, who wasn't initially a top priority for Izzo and then-assistant Stan Joplin. Thankfully for the Spartans, Izzo changed his mind. Respert went onto reach All-American status in 1995, finishing as the team's all-time leading scorer with 2,531 points. 

During an interview in 2011, Respert said the following about his relationship with the will-be Hall of Famer:

I knew that he was excited to have me up there. He spent a lot of time getting to know me; he didn't owe me anything. He didn't have to sit there; he could have stuck with the guy he recruited (Eric Snow) and been loyal to his player.

Tom was selfless and able to say "Hey, whatever it takes for us to win." He was just like "Whomever needs to play; who can help us win - get him out there"

Respert's thoughts are likely similar to several others who played for Izzothe consummate "team" coach. It may have not been crystal clear in the early '90s, but Izzo was on a collision course with greatness.

From the star guards to the third guy off the bench, Izzo's team-first mentality struck a chord and directly contributed to the wealth of success awaiting just years down the road. 

 

Taking Over for Jud

Duane Burleson/Getty Images

It's easy to praise Izzo, but in reality, if not for Jud, there may not be an Izzo to reference.

In 1995, the Spartans lost in the first round of the NCAA tournament to Weber State. It was Respert's curtain call, and it happened to be the final game of Jud's head coaching career at Michigan State. 

All but written beforehand, Jud handed over the keys to Izzo, who scoured Flint for his next group of superstars. The fall of 1996 marked the arrival of "The Flintstones," and four years later, Izzo cut down the nets in Indy. 

In 1999, that same team took him to his first Final Four, which was Michigan State's first since 1979not to mention just the third appearance in program history (1957, 1979, 1999). 

 

Developing Players

Gregory Shamus/Getty Images
Never far away, Izzo takes time to guide his players.

People are drawn to college basketball for different reasons. Some like to watch guys moonlight the year before hitting the Association, while others enjoy watching athletes develop from a kid with promise to a man with a future. 

Izzo has done that just as well as anyone. A champion of the four-year player, Izzo has sent each one of his veterans to the Final Four. This season, seniors Adreian Payne and Keith Appling have the duty of extending that tradition. 

Appling and Payne are both great examples of the "Izzo touch." Both were raw entering college, but they've since morphed into prototypical Spartans seniors thanks to their dedication (and coaching). Payne is considered one of the premier bigs in college hoops. In all likelihood, he'll be mid-first-rounder come draft day. 

Appling, a 'tweener at 6'1" and 190 pounds, could sneak his way into the early second round if he continues ripping stat sheets as he has through the first six games. 

Talent flocks to East Lansing for obvious reasons—it's home to a winning program. But it took time to get there, and efforts from players such as Draymond Green, Drew Neitzel, Goran Suton, Andre Hutson and Charlie Bell won't be forgotten. 

Geting more when "more" seems to be scarce is what Izzo does. He's transformed 3-star recruits into all-leaguers, and he's helped the 4- and 5-star recruits polish their games.

In 2000, a trusting Izzo put the weight of the world on the shoulders of Mateen Cleaves, the bum-ankled senior who led the Spartans to Izzo's first title.

"He's the best motivator I've been around," Cleaves said of Izzo in 2012 (via Greg Bishop of The New York Times). "And he got a little more intense with it each March."

 

Michigan State Man

The University of Michigan has the term "Michigan Man," which is used to describe coaches such as Bo Schembechler or players such as Tom Harmon—you know, the men of all of men. 

With a slight change of wording to "Michigan State Man," that term could be easily applied to Izzo, who without question deserves a plot on the Spartans' Mt. Rushmore. In 2011, his family donated $1 million to the university. That's not something an ordinary coach would do. In fact, it's quite rare. 

But that's what separates Izzo from the rest. He's in the upper echelon of his profession for a reason. Michigan State has given Izzo a career, but at the same time, Izzo's given as much or more to the Spartans. 

He just doesn't coach their basketball team. He's one of them. 

 

Follow Bleacher Report's Michigan State Spartans basketball writer Adam Biggers on Twitter @AdamBiggers81

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