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Mike Garland - Of foxholes, fathers and fantasies

MSU assistant Mike Garland has left a big impression on the program and many people

Rutgers v Michigan State
Mike Garland, pacing East Lansing sidelines for 20 years...
Photo by Rey Del Rio/Getty Images

Muhammad Ali once said “If God ever called upon me to fight a Holy War, I would want Joe Frazier at my side”. Considering their three legendary heavyweight fights, a rivalry that has to be ranked among the most fascinating ones in sports history and all the back and forth these two had over the decades both inside and outside the ropes, it is a quote that carries incredible weight. It was not only Ali‘s way of praising his once arch nemesis and paying hommage to the great champion Frazier was. It meant more. The analogy of the shared foxhole, of standing side by side staring tough times in the face, has before and since been used by many other people in order to describe companions who they would trust with their lives. People who are great friends and who they can rely on even in the most dire of moments.

When Tom Izzo was hired as the Michigan State basketball head coach in 1995 and was thinking about putting together his staff, he uttered the words “if you ever go to war, you want Mike Garland in a foxhole with you”. Now boxing and basketball, sports in general, are not war – despite the often articulated correlation between the two worlds. Yet Tom Izzo saying those words tells you how much he values the relationship he has with his longtime assistant Mike Garland. And looking at Garland‘s story it is easy to see why he wanted Garland on his staff back in the nineties and why he has never regretted the decision. Not even for a minute.

Mike Garland was born on May 31 in 1954 and grew up in Willow Run, a township east of Ypsilanti that was formely known as Air Force Plant 31 because of its original purpose as a bomber plant in World War II. Garland describes it as a “tough place”, a segregated community long before the civil rights movement that still mixed numerous different cultures and backgrounds. Growing up there with his large family but without a father, Garland learned early how to deal with tough situations, how to avoid certain ones and how to become a man at an early age. During that time his grandmother, who helped his very young mother where she could, turned into a huge influence for him. It didn‘t take young Mike long to shift his focus to sports as an outlet and a place where all the different people came together for a shared goal. “That was the first time when I saw how sports not only can bring young men together but an entire community,” Garland remembers vividly. “That‘s when I started to love it.”

His love grew when he moved on to Belleville High School at 14 years of age. He became a star on the football field and even moreso on the basketball hardwood. Then MSU coach Gus Ganakas even offered him a scholarship but Garland‘s grades came in the way. With the help of different people, among them then Belleville assistant and future University of Michigan football coach Lloyd Carr, he atleast managed to attend slightly known Division II school Northern Michigan on the Upper Peninsula. What at first must have come across as a shock for the young hopeful athlete, would prove to be a life altering twist of faith only a year later. That was when a young, diminutive walk on named Tom Izzo entered the picture.

“We were two of the smallest guys on the team. We talked a lot, roomed together some on the road, sat on the plane next to each other, stuff like that,” Garland says of their college days. “One day we sat down and talked about our dreams and goals and he goes on about how he wants to become a head coach, that I should join him and we would form one of the best programs in the country.” Garland wasn‘t having any of it, he was not only worried about how it would look if he worked for Izzo but also coaching wasn‘t in his future plans to begin with. “So he said that he would work for me,” Garland laughs. “I told him again that it wasn‘t my plan to coach, that I wanted to graduate, work and make all the money in the world. He said that I should do that then but afterwards, if he became a head coach, I had to promise him I would come and coach with him. Alright, alright.”

It would take a few years until that vision came to fruition. But Garland discovered his love for teaching and coaching after graduation and became the Head Varsity Basketball Coach at Belleville High. Throughout his nine year stint, that saw him accumulate a 153-49 record with the Tigers, he made himself a name in the Michigan coaching ranks and even became the state‘s High School Coach Of The Year in 1994. And after Tom Izzo was thinking about who he wanted to have in a foxhole with him, Garland‘s phone rang. A life altering event, in many more ways than one.

NCAA Final Four Practice
Comrades, college teammates... but first and foremost friends.
Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

After both started out Michigan State University, Garland was about to reconnect with his absent father Quentin after people helped discovering him in a nursing home. Right before the call though the usually confident and tough Garland got cold feet and turned to his best friend for help. Tom Izzo called and talked with his father and soon after Mike Garland would meet his father for the first time in his life. “We sat there and we talked for like six hours,” says Garland, who doesn‘t elobarate on the fact why his father wasn‘t present before. “He kept wanting to apologize. But I told him, at that point, I didn‘t need an apology. It was just good that we were able to get together. Even though he never raised me or anything, he was still my father.” The meeting, which from that point on would give Garland so much in life, was his earliest memory of his father and unfortunately also one of his last. Six weeks later Quentin would die. But he did so with a vivid memory of his son and vice versa.

“Just think if he wouldn‘t have seen him and would have lived the rest of his life not knowing things he got to find out,” Tom Izzo remembers. “It was one of those things you look at and say that you really helped to make a difference because it meant a lot to Mike. That‘s what friends are for.” For Garland himself it was among so many other emotions an inspiration. He vowed to from that point on, even moreso than before, be someone who would be there for others. “Everyone needs someone in his life who‘s real with them, someone to sit down with and talk, someone who tries to understand and help you,” Garland says today after many years in which he was just that type of person to countless others.

According to Tom Izzo that mindset was vital during the rise of the Spartans all the way to the upper echelon of college basketball programs. Conference dominance, the first Final Fours, the National Championship – Mike Garland played a part in all of that. It propelled him to a head coaching gig at Cleveland State in 2003 where he took over a struggling Vikings team from legendary Rollie Massimino. Garland only managed to win 23 games in three seasons and despite increasing the win total every year, he was fired in 2006. Many will consider his time there a failure but others do not agree. And it certainly doesn‘t tell the story about Garland‘s ability as a coach. “I think he did a good job there and finally got that program moving in a good direction again,” mentions Brad Stevens, head coach of the Boston Celtics and former Butler Bulldogs coach. “And it says a lot about you as a coach and as a person if Tom Izzo not only wanted him the first time but wanted him back.”

After a season as the associate head coach at SMU in 2007 Garland returned to his best friend‘s side and his legend in East Lansing, which was a pretty sizable one at the time already, keeps growing ever since. Today he is entering his 20th season for the Spartans and you almost cannot envision the green and white coaching staff without him. You just have to ask one his fellow assistant coaches. “Every staff needs a Coach Garland,” Dane Fife says in admiration. “He is a great coach, you can call him our secret weapon. We are blessed to have him.” Fife jokingly refers to Garland (and Tom Izzo and video coordinator Doug Herner) as “grumpy old men”, the players know him rather as “OG” - original gangster. Both terms, as far apart as they seem, are voiced out of affection, appreciation and gratitude.

What has really stuck with the players though is Mike Garland‘s ability as a story teller, it has become the stuff of legend around the Breslin Center and beyond. Regularly before games the players gather in Garland‘s hotel room and listen to his tales of present and past, of comedy and drama, of life and everything it has to offer. “We always needed those talks,” NBA star Jaren Jackson Jr of the Memphis Grizzlies remembers after he was able to experience Garland‘s stories during his lone college season. “It was like clockwork, we knew where we had to be. He talked about anything that got us going and focused.” Garland still remembers his first public speech as a seven year old, talking about Jonah and the Whale in vacation Bible school. It earned him a standing ovation, probably though not knowing that many of those would one day follow. And that his stories would have a profound impact on people‘s lives.

Tom Izzo always asks his players the morning after what Garland talked about the night before, well aware that with his friend a “minnow can turn into Moby Dick” in a matter of moments. Former MSU center Aloysius Anagonye says he still gives himself “story time” daily as it helps him focus on the day to come. Joshua Langford, captain of the current Spartans squad, maybe pays the ultimate respect to his coach‘s ability of telling tales. “He has so much experience in all parts of life and his stories always have a meaning to them,” says Langford about the long tenured coach who is in charge of policing the team and keeping the daily operations in check. “A hundred percent of the time they correlate to the game the next day which is crazy. Someday I will tell my kids about the great Mike Garland.”

Whenever Garland hears praise like that, he is not only flattened but truly moved and touched by it. For it‘s exactly this kind of impact he envisions himself having and what keeps him going, even at the age of 65, a father of three and grandfather of five. “The greatest thing for me is to work with them and see them become men, go from boys to men,” Garland says about his relationship with the players. “To have them become responsible, viable men and have an impact on society. Weather it is in the NBA, with an MBA, running a company or working some job and raising a family… it is unbelievable and the greatest satisfaction for me.”

It certainly is a big reason why Tom Izzo thought of himself sitting in a foxhole next to this very Mike Garland all those years back.