Sunday, March 07, 2010

Tom Izzo: Still Crazy After All These Years

Nothing’s ever good enough for Tom Izzo.

You can read that two ways, and that’s by design.

Izzo has coached basketball with utter brilliance for 15 years at Michigan State University, and every year you watch him and listen to him, you wonder why he puts himself through the pain.

Izzo dies a little inside with every turnover, every missed defensive assignment, every ill-chosen jump shot. He’s been at it in East Lansing since 1995, which I suppose means he must be a walking dead man by now.

Well, not exactly.

Izzo dies inside, but he regenerates himself. He’ll on the one hand wonder how the heck MSU can win another basketball game, then on the other he’ll promise the fans and the media that his team will be back with a vengeance.

He puts himself through these rigors every winter, and you’d like to say he does it because he loves coaching. But does the guy who walks on hot coals love heat, or is he a little bent in the head?

I think Tom Izzo is a little nuts, and that’s OK, because you can’t be a coach in any high-profile setting, college or pro, and not have a little part of you that’s demented.

Izzo might be having fun, in his crazy mixed up way, but he sure as hell doesn’t look like it. His Spartans were 9-0 with a three-game lead in the Big Ten a few weeks ago, and Izzo sounded like Chicken Little, as usual.

“I keep telling you guys (the media are always “you guys” to Izzo) that the back end of our schedule is as tough as it gets. This thing isn’t over yet,” he warned through his grimace in his hoarse voice. Izzo always looks like a hostage when he talks to the media, and his raspy voice makes him sound like he’s been screaming at his captors all night.

No one wanted to listen to Chicken Little, because we’ve all heard it before. Izzo can make former Pistons coach Chuck Daly, the self-proclaimed Prince of Pessimism, look like the president of the local chamber of commerce.

Izzo warned us guys, and damned if he wasn’t right.

The Spartans indeed have stumbled since that 9-0 start in the conference. They’re 4-4 in their last eight games, including three straight losses to fall back to the pack. Chicken Little’s team now can do no better than tie for the Big Ten title, with Ohio State and possibly Purdue.

The other night with the media in his post-game chat, Izzo shifted in his chair and bit off his words, trying like mad to control his anger. The voice was even hoarser this time. He had the demeanor of someone who’d just been cut off in traffic.

And that was after a victory.

The Spartans had just squeaked by Penn State, and no one squeaks by Penn State, unless they’ve played the game with one hand tied behind their back. Penn State is awful. They’re lucky the Big Ten can’t count, because they sure play like the 11th team in a ten-team conference.

Izzo’s post-game discussion eventually turned downright ominous and diabolical.

“This is gonna be a fun couple of days,” he said. “I’m looking forward to it. It’s gonna be fun. I’m gonna have some fun like I used to have some fun. At the end of it, there will be some people standing and playing their tail off, and there will be some people not playing.”

It’s never a good thing to tick off a crazy person.

The Spartans finish their regular season with a home tilt against Michigan on Sunday.

The players were rightfully shaking in their sneakers, because they knew that Coach Izzo had something rotten up his sweaty sleeve.

Sure enough, he had them back at the Breslin Center at 7 a.m. Friday morning for a walk-through, then Izzo planned on putting them through a full practice that evening.

“We never do that,” one of the players said, of having a walk-through and a practice on the same day, just two days before a game.

“This program is bigger than me, and some players are going to find out that it’s a whole lot bigger than them, too,” Izzo added. “We’ll play better on Sunday.”

Or else.

This is what Tom Izzo lives for. It’s almost as if he’s not happy unless he’s miserable, or worried, or mad. He coaches basketball like he’s passing a kidney stone.

Izzo succeeded Jud Heathcote, who wasn’t exactly Prince Charming either, but Jud was never as cynical and pessimistic and as much of a worry wart as his former assistant Izzo, who never met a favorable situation he didn’t like—to tear down.

Izzo not only doesn’t count his chickens before they hatch, he’ll wring his hands that the hens will lay any eggs at all.

It’s been that way since he took over for Heathcote in 1995, and it’s getting worse. Time hasn’t mellowed him. Tom Izzo is aging like fine vinegar.

Yet it works. It must, because there haven’t been too many college basketball programs as successful since ’95 as Izzo’s MSU, which has been to so many Final Fours over the years that the NCAA should owe the university frequent flier miles.

This season, Izzo has picked on guard Kalin Lucas. Relentlessly. Lucas has been the hen-pecked husband to Izzo’s nagging wife. But just as in the world of marital bliss, the bottom line is that Izzo loves the kid. To Izzo, love means never having to say you’re sorry.

But Izzo doesn’t just reserve his vitriol for his players. Sometimes the biggest punching bag for Tom Izzo has been Tom Izzo.

He didn’t have his players prepared. He made some boneheaded decisions. He stinks as a coach. Tom Izzo has heard it all—from his own hoarsey mouth.

Still, for all his success at MSU, Izzo has but one National Championship to show for it, and that came 10 years ago. Not that it’s for the lack of trying, or for not having come close. Izzo looks like he’s the most tormented man in America at times, coaching his kids in East Lansing, but somewhere deep down inside, he must like it.

But like I said, the guy’s a little nuts.

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