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Dwayne Stephens - The man behind the legend

MSU’s associate head coach is one of the best assistants in the business

NCAA Basketball: Michigan State at Oakland
Dwayne Stephens can get into Tom Izzo’s face whenever he feels like it.
Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

Over the course of a TV broadcast there are usually countless shots of the Michigan State Spartans head basketball coach Tom Izzo. Of course there are, in the end he is a true legend of the game, a Hall Of Famer and on top of everything a walking emotion when he paces the sidelines. During many of those shots there is someone else in the background, though. Someone who quietly gathers behind him, whispers something in his ear or every once in a while also has to restrain the fiery Iron Mountain man from going completely berzerk at something or nothing. The name of that man in the background is Dwayne Stephens. And no matter who you ask about MSU‘s associate head coach, he is someone who is more than ready for the bright lights himself.

The Spartans story of Dwayne Stephens, affectionally known as “DJ” around East Lansing, started a long time ago when he himself was a young college student and starred for Michigan State on the hardwood. He was a four year letterwinner (yes, that‘s how basketball players were described once upon a time) under Jud Heathcote from 1989 to 1993 and was part of 84 MSU victories during that stretch. The gritty, make something out of nothing forward secured his place in Spartan lore early on as a freshman, when his last second bucket against Gene Keady‘s Purdue Boilermakers secured the green and white their 1990 outright Big Ten title in the last game of the regular season.

But people who watched him play remember him for way more than this huge career defining bucket. He was a 3rd team Freshman All American according to Basketball Weekly, appeared in three NCAA Tournaments (10.6 points per game) and was voted team MVP his junior year (11.1 points, 5 rebounds and 2.8 assists per game on 53.4% shooting from the field). The 6-7 power forward embodied the Spartans culture with his tough, hard nosed defense, smart offensive play in the post and fearless attitude, virtues that also made him a co captain as a senior. Yet there were other things that left an impression on people, too, most notably his future bosses.

“As a player he was already probably our best recruiter,” says Tom Izzo, who during Stephens‘ playing days was an assistant coach under Heathcote. “When we tried to get Chris Webber, DJ was trying his best to bring him to East Lansing. And I mean we are talking about a guy who played his position, a guy who might take his job. That says a lot about him.” Former Indiana head man and today‘s Georgia Bulldogs coach Tom Crean, himself a grad assistant at MSU during Stephens‘ freshman year, also sensed something else. “I realized early on during his playing days that Stephens would one day make an exceptional coach,” Crean says. “He was always an outstanding worker and a high achiever as a player. Plus he had a great understanding of the game.”

It was also Crean who would give Stephens his first real coaching chance in big time college basketball and set him up for everything that was about to make him the second man behind Tom Izzo. After playing professionally for three years in Europe and earning his early stripes in the coaching profession, Stephens accepted a role as Tom Crean‘s assistant at Marquette University. The storied program was struggling at the time yet after two assistant years for the Oakland Golden Grizzlies Stephens jumped at the opportunity. “This was a great chance for me, not only because I didn‘t have that much experience before but also because Tom Crean was someone I felt really close to,” Stephens remembers. “I was extremely thankful at the time.”

Success would quickly come for Crean, Stephens and the Golden Eagles and culminated in a memorable Final Four run in 2003 on the back of a certain shooting guard named Dwyane Wade. The publicity was more than enough to recommend Stephens for another position, this time at a place he until today always called home. Tom Izzo hired Stephens for his staff in 2003 and it was a dream come true for the former Spartans player. “Having played at MSU it is a dream of every coach to return to the school where you played,” Stephens said at the time. “I‘m very excited for the opportunity to realize that hope.”

Stephens became part of the Tom Izzo‘s staff and soon carved out his role next to the head coach. He excelled in recruiting, building countless relationships with kids and sealing the deal for commitments on many occasions. As a coach he not only featured prominently in the development of future NBA big men like Paul Davis, Draymond Green, Adreian Payne or Jaren Jackson Jr but also developed into the bench‘s second defensive mastermind. “There is a reason why he‘s my defensive coordinator,” Tom Izzo says, never shy of implementing a football term. “He does understand it, he‘s very analytical and he has a great understanding of the X‘s and O‘s. Sometimes coaches get labeled as recruiters only but DJ is a very good coach who can and will help me with a lot of things.” It is a sentiment that‘s widely shared among the Spartans staff, some even say that Stephens is on par with his head man when it comes to defensive prowess.

Michigan v Michigan State
Dane Fife, Tom Izzo and Dwayne Stephens watching closely.
Photo by Rey Del Rio/Getty Images

“I tell you, Tom Izzo in terms of basketball understanding is unbelievable, a Hall Of Famer, and his main expertise and the foundation for it all is defense,” says assistant coach Mike Garland, who is working his second stint as an MSU assistant (1996-2003, since 2007). “But DJ is right there with him. Some of the coverages he comes up with, especially on so called problem plays, are absolutely next level and off the charts. That kid is an unbelievable basketball coach.” In hoops circles many people know about Stephens‘ accomplishments and coaching talent, he is regularly featured on lists of the best assistant coaches in the country. Just recently he was also inducted into the Assistant Coaches Hall Of Fame, an honor that came with a little bit of a surprise for the Ferndale, Michigan, native. “When I got the call, I was asking if this was truly a real thing,” Stephens laughs. “But then I learned a little bit about the process and thought it was really interesting. Considering all the other great names who were in that inaugaral class it surely was a true honor for me.”

Stephens mentions that one person in particular was almost more excited than him and that was none other than his boss. Whenever you hear Izzo talk about or mention Stephens, you can feel the mutual respect and friendship these two have for each other. A big part of it is that Izzo gives Stephens plenty of opportunity to leave his mark as a coach, to redefine his own role and to speak up whenever he feels like it. “Tom and I we challenge each other constantly and then we figure out what‘s best for the team,“ Stephens says about the working relationship. “I feel appreciated, I feel I have a big role in what we do. We all do as a matter of fact.”

It might be part of the reason why the 47 year old is still an assistant in East Lansing instead of leaving for a head coaching gig somewhere else. There are other reasons, some understandable for many, some not for others. “You have to show me one assistant in the country with his resume, even head coaches, out there,” says an almost angry Mike Garland, who himself left MSU for a head coaching gig but only lasted three years at Cleveland State. “I think it is a sham that he hasn‘t been hired yet as a head coach. Then again, I also always tell him that he has to wait for the right job and not take any job, especially in today‘s environment.”

Stephens‘ gentle, calm and almost relaxed personality might also play a part and according to Izzo his second man doesn‘t always promote himself enough. Or as Izzo would put it “sometimes you have to be more of a bulls...r”. Something a lot of coaches are good at and others like Dwayne Stephens don‘t believe in. “It‘s weird, I always tell my kids that you‘ve got to be who you are,” the 47 year old says. “Being something you are not, I don‘t believe in that.” So far Stephens has only turned down one job and didn‘t make the final cut for a few others that he would‘ve liked. According to Izzo, Garland and many others though, DJ‘s time will come. Maybe even at MSU, you never know.

Until then though Stephens isn‘t “wasting time” on finding the next job, he is plenty happy where he is right now. “This is home for me and I can see myself here as long as MSU wants to have me,” says Stephens, who lives with his wife Sarah, daughters Skylar and Taylor and son Noah in East Lansing. “Also, if the right opportunity presents itself and someone wants me to take over their program, than I‘m willing to do that, too.” Before that day comes Stephens will continue to engineer the plans behind Michigan State‘s dominant defense and come up with special game plans and adjustments, like when he made Izzo switch Aaron Henry on Michigan‘s Ignas Brazdeikis during the Big Ten Tournament Final in March. And he will work toward his one big goal – a national championship. “I almost get jealous when I hear Mike and Tom talk about their win in 2000,” Stephens laughs. “When I look at my own career, that definitely is something I want to accomplish.”

The chances next year are looking pretty good. Many consider the loaded Spartans a favorite to win it all and have them as their preseason number one team. In case some are worried about MSU coming in a little overconfident, Dwayne Stephens can quicky soothe these feelings. “This guy next door to my office – Tom Izzo – he will keep everybody in check and nobody will get a big head, I can assure you that,” says Stephens with a smile. “We talked about it as a group and as a staff, we got plenty bigger goals than a number one ranking.”

The ever gentle, humble and relaxed Dwayne Stephens will certainly be part of that process aswell and help the Spartans stay level headed throughout the season. He has done so his entire career and will continue to do so. And it surely has taken him a long way already...