Let’s travel back in time before the turn of the century. Despondent Michigan State basketball coach Tom Izzo needed a breath of fresh air, so he left his basketball office at Breslin Center in 1997 for a stroll across campus.
Izzo wanted to stay one step ahead of the wolves who were after his job.
Not everyone thought he should be the man to replace Jud Heathcote. A groundswell was building for there to be a replacement Izzo. That’s hard to imagine. Nevertheless, it’s true. And that bothered Izzo years later, as he talked behind a giant oak desk inside the coach’s office at the MSU basketball complex.
After two seasons at State Izzo’s record was 33-28 overall and 18-18 in the Big Ten. His highest finish in the conference was sixth.
Still, Izzo had big dreams as head coach.
He felt a little sorry for himself as he walked inside the Student Union. And it got worse when he glanced down and saw the shocking words etched into the walls near a staircase.
“That’s when I knew it was real,” Izzo said. “People thought I should be replaced.”
This is a story about patience and belief. The administrators at Michigan State believed in Tom Izzo. He was a hard-working tough guy from the UP. Also, he was smart, had a great basketball mind. He’d figure it out. They met and talked, but they had already made up their minds. Izzo would remain as head basketball coach.
Less than three years later, the Spartans celebrated their first NCAA championship since Magic Johnson spun and twirled the basketball at the old Jenison Field House three decades prior.
It’s hard to imagine Izzo being on the hot seat. But he was, and the memories of what could have been were scary.
Now Izzo is one of the great minds in college basketball, winning 10 Big Ten regular season titles and six conference tournament championships. We mostly talk about Izzo’s magical NCAA tournament runs where he’s made eight Final Fours.
You know the old joke, right? Every time we turn the pages of a new calendar year, it reads: “January, February, Izzo, April.” Mr. March entered the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in 2016. What if the impatient naysayers got their way?
If you are a fan of college basketball, great bucket list item would be sitting inside Izzo’s office in Breslin Center and listening to the man talk basketball and life and the state of college athletics. Once the man gets on a roll, there is no stopping him.
The sad part of this tale is a man like Izzo might not have survived today’s 24 second shot clock of survival. We grew up on the five-year plan. Now it is a three-year plan and at some spots you get one shot to show what you can do.
Undoubtedly, Michigan State is fortunate that administrators were patient with Tom Izzo. Who knows where they’d be without him.
Follow Foster on Twitter at TerryFosterDet.