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Michigan State Men’s Basketball: Tom Izzo and the “old” guard

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As numerous big name coaches have retired lately, the Spartans’ main man faces some questions regarding his future as well.

Syndication: Lansing State Journal
Okay, football team, we see you... Tom Izzo of the Michigan State Spartans.
Nick King/Lansing State Journal via Imagn Content Services, LLC

Tom Izzo has been an integral part of the Michigan State basketball program for almost four decades now and he has been its main man for the better part of 26 years (the 2021-2022 campaign will be his 27th season at the helm). During that time, he has guided the Spartans to almost unprecedented highs, made MSU a national brand and has impacted probably as many lives off of the court as his teams have scored points on it. But even a great man and incredibly successful head coach like Izzo will one day face an opponent that even he won’t be able to outmaneuver — Father Time himself.

This formidable foe reminded college basketball of his power most recently when three prominent head coaches in Mike Krzyzewski (following the end of the 2021-2022 season), Roy Williams and Lon Kruger called it quits in a matter of just a few months. These are men who have left their mark on this game in a similar manner or even more so than Izzo did, and they are also the reason why he had to face some questions regarding his own future lately. Much to the excitement of Spartan Nation, though, Izzo was quick to debunk any retirement talk, stating that he has “no intentions in following in some of my compadres‘ footsteps” and that he is “a little leery of where our profession is going right now,” but that he has a lot of “love for my job.”

Now the ultimate goal for Izzo is clear as well, and he has said on numerous occasions that he wants to chase that elusive second national championship. Recently he also made it clear that he feels as good physically as he has in about 10 years — using the downtime during the COVID lockdown to get in better shape — and that he will only ponder retirement when he doesn’t love what he is doing anymore. While that point seems to be quite a few years away, there is no denying the toll that college basketball takes on a man north of 60 years old (Izzo is 66 years old right now).

In addition to the actual games, there are things to consider, like flights all across the country, recruiting, keeping up with high school and college students, the practices, the media obligations and many more activities that the public rarely even recognizes. All of these things aren’t only time-consuming, but for a man like Izzo who is heavily invested emotionally in many of his endeavors and into the people he is dealing with, this lifestyle is married with an enormous amount of stress and mental sacrifice. Whoever wants to get an idea of that just has to look at Izzo’s Grand Canyon of eye bags every March when he probably gets about 20 minutes of sleep and studies as much film on a nightly basis as all Academy Award judges in the history of the Oscars combined. If they actually watch the films that is, of course.

Yet as of now, luckily for every Spartan, Izzo is enjoying every minute of his job and still has a lot of basketball, accomplishments and years in front of him. With some big names from the coaching profession leaving the sport in recent years, it might be interesting to look at some of them and how they did with their teams after the age of 66. Did age cause them to not win as many games with their teams, or is age also just a number for superstar head coaches?

Is there any limit on where coaches can seriously win in college basketball? Or is it possible for coaches to win big north of the age of 70, maybe? How does Izzo compare to the guys he has battled for many years and who are comparable with him in the sense of their major accomplishments and longevity?

Here is a partial list of the “old” guard and how they did in the “twilight years” of their careers, if you will. While the situations, of course, aren’t exactly comparable due to roster differences and varying circumstances, it should still nonetheless tell us a bit about what we might expect in the next few years, and that age shouldn’t be a factor, per se, in determining Izzo’s capability of guiding a successful program.

Mike Krzyzewski (74 years old)

Ever heard of that guy? Following the 2021-2022 season, Coach K is leaving college basketball as one of the most iconic figures that the sport has ever seen, and also as one of its most accomplished coaches. After his age-66 season, he still guided the Duke Blue Devils for eight more seasons and even won a national title when he was 68 years old. On average, Krzyzewski won 26.6 games in the last eight years of his career, even though that number is slightly affected by his last COVID-shortened campaign in 2020-2021. He also reached two Elite Eights and one Sweet Sixteen during that stretch.

Michigan State v Duke
Just when we started to catch up you ride into the sunset - Tom Izzo and Coach K.
Photo by Lance King/Getty Images

Roy Williams (71 years old)

Roy Williams has coached two big time programs during his career with the Kansas Jayhawks and most recently the North Carolina Tar Heels. He like Coach K also won a national championship towards the end of his career (the last of his three) when he was 66 years old. Over the course of his last five seasons in Chapel Hill he averaged 23.6 wins per year, a number clearly affected by the 2019-20 campain where the Tar Heels only amassed 14 wins. Last year UNC also just got 18 wins in total and bowed out in the first year of the NCAAs.

Jim Boeheim (76 years old)

Boeheim’s case is a hard one to judge since there are plenty of wins taken away from him in regard to certain NCAA sanctions. Yet, the Syracuse legend still managed to stay extremely steady in recent years, never finishing with less than 18 wins since 2010. While he “only“ averaged 21.6 wins over that period, he had remarkable success in the postseason, constantly outperforming his seed with the Orange. Syracuse made two Final Fours, one Elite Eight and two Sweet Sixteens during the last decade. Boeheim has no plans to retire anytime soon.

Jim Calhoun (79 years old)

After retiring from his position at UConn in 2012 due to fighting spinal stenosis, Calhoun started to coach again in 2018 at the University of Saint Joseph, a Division III school. In regard to Izzo, his last four seasons with the Huskies are fairly interesting since they represented exactly the age years that Izzo is entering now. Calhoun twice won over 30 games and twice finished with 18 wins. He won a national championship in 2011 at the age of 69 and reached another Final Four two years prior, losing to Michigan State in the semifinals in Detroit — fun to remember for every Spartan.

Bob Knight (80 years old)

“The general“ only coached for one-and-a-half seasons after his 66th birthday, and while his last days at Texas Tech didn’t come close to his legendary achievements with Indiana decades earlier, Knight certainly lifted the Red Raiders out of their conference’s basement. His last full season had Knight win 21 games and lose with TTU in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. All in all, Knight coached for 42 seasons, winning 902 games.

Lon Kruger (69 years old)

Kruger hasn’t won a national championship during his career, but he still created an impressive legacy that also saw him coach in the NBA for a few years. Kruger spent the last three years of his career at Oklahoma and he guided the Sooners to 20, 19 and 16 wins, respectively, after his 66th birthday. He reached the NCAA Tournament twice and most likely would have participated with his team if the 2020 Tourney wouldn’t have been cancelled.

The Ally Challenge - Round Two
A little handsy here on the bunker shot but the work on his short game might have to wait a few more years for Tom Izzo.
Photo by Stan Badz/PGA TOUR

How does Izzo compare?

There were other big names coaches like Dean Smith, who retired at the age of 66, or Adolph Rupp who coached six more seasons successfully at Kentucky, averaging 22.8 wins during a time where there were fewer games overall. Rupp also guided his team into three Elite Eights and two Sweet Sixteens during that stretch.

What’s interesting in regard to Izzo is that in terms of his total number of seasons, he hasn’t been active as long as many of the other legendary coaches. He sits in 45th place overall with 643 wins in 26 seasons, yet of all the coaches in front of him, only Bill Self (28 years, 729 wins) and John Wooden (29 years, 664 wins) have been a head coach for less than 30 years. Meanwhile, 14 coaches have exceeded 40 seasons of coaching and Phog Allen even coached for 50 years while also overseeing the football and baseball programs at Kansas for a few years. Interestingly, the six coaches coming in behind Izzo on the list also have all coached for more than 30 years.

Now as mentioned earlier, these numbers don’t really mean a lot to the individual, but they still show that many men had tremendous success in college basketball not only after their 66th birthday, but also after their 26th season in the profession.

Izzo also seems to still get plenty of strong recruits and is just a few years removed from a Final Four season. A lot can change in the future of course and you’ll never know what circumstances might impact his decision for retirement one day. But all in all, age shouldn’t prevent Tom Izzo from anything he wants to do in East Lansing and certainly won’t keep him from continuing to do all the great things he has done for the majority of 26 years now. And no matter how many years are still to come, Spartan Nation should and most likely will be grateful for every single one.