On a rainy, gloomy, sticky afternoon in September of 2013, Michigan State played a football game against South Florida at Spartan Stadium, and it was on that afternoon that I fully grasped what Tom Izzo meant to Michigan State University.
A week earlier, a late August storm rolled in during the Friday night opener against Western Michigan and the numerous lightning strikes near East Lansing meant that the game had to be paused and the stands cleared. Most fans obeyed the orders from the jumbotron, but most of the students did not. They stayed in their hard-earned spot in the southeast corner of the stadium, getting rained on and risking electrocution because, outside of Terry Braverman’s voice from above, who was going to do anything about it? The game resumed, MSU won, and everything was wonderful.
Fast forward to September 7 when the Bulls came to town. The humidity in the air gave way to yet more lightning, and the stadium had to be cleared again. The students were initially just as disinterested in moving as they were a week earlier. It turns out that MSU hadn’t brought out its big gun - the basketball coach. Tom Izzo grabbed a microphone and explained that the “ugly orange stuff and the putrid yellow that reminds me of Michigan” was on the radar, and that meant that it was potentially dangerous. If the students moved to the concourse, Izzo said, he would sit in the middle of them once the game resumed. Nobody else had that credibility. Just Tom Izzo.
If you look up at the rafters in the Breslin Center, you will see banners. Many banners. Conference championships, conference tournament championships, Final Four banners, retired numbers, if there’s a banner, it’s hanging there. The vast majority of them are from the Izzo era. Jud Heathcote was an excellent basketball coach, winning three Big Ten championships and a national title in 1979. He brought Magic Johnson to campus, and perhaps even more consequentially, he brought Tom Izzo to campus as an assistant in 1983. Heathcote took the Spartans to the Sweet Sixteen or further four times in his nineteen years at the helm, which is a perfectly respectable figure in a power conference. After being upset by Weber State in the NCAA Tournament, Tom Izzo took over the program in 1995, and after two NIT bids, Izzo has made it into 25 consecutive NCAA Tournaments.
To say that Tom Izzo is the greatest basketball coach of all time would be an overstatement. He’s made the tournament 25 times, but only has one national title to show for it. There’s a laundry list of frustrations that Izzo’s responsible for (cough, Ben Carter against Syracuse) and his personnel decisions in-game can be enough to drive you to drink. He hasn’t had the lasting dominance of a Mike Krzyzewski, or Bob Knight, and he doesn’t have the smarmy high flying success of a John Calipari or Bill Self, but he has single handedly raised the floor of the MSU program to something the Spartans had never seen before. The NCAA Tournament is the floor.
Because of Tom Izzo, MSU plays an annual showcase against Duke, Kentucky, and Kansas. The Spartans have played in both occurrences of the Phil Knight Invitational, the Nike founder’s personal November basketball exhibition amongst the most prestigious programs who don the swoosh. People want to see the Spartans play basketball, they want MSU in Maui, in their NCAA regional sites. Once, in Belize City, a local commented on my Spartan hat saying “Izzo is just the best.”
We’re spoiled. Just on the basketball court, we’re spoiled.
Off the court? There might not be a better representative for a university community in the country than Tom Izzo is for MSU. Whenever the university needs a voice, it doesn’t come from a president, or a board member, or a professor. It comes from Izzo. After the tragic shooting last month, Izzo’s speech at the vigil caught fire, articulating the feelings of the community better than anyone else could have at that moment. During the worst of the Larry Nassar scandal, when most of the university had completely abdicated any authority, Tom Izzo was thrust behind the podium in the midst of that strange basketball season.
Because of what he’s built, Tom Izzo is an irreplaceable part of the MSU community. It starts with consistently winning basketball games, but he and the university have become inseparable. You could see it in February 2023, just as you could see it in September 2013. While longer runs would be fantastic, it’s important that we appreciate what we have. In East Lansing, March means the NCAA Tournament. For others, March means subdued home games against Toledo.