Tom Izzo's success no surprise

Those who know the Michigan State coach explain why he's so good

Originally Published: July 2, 2014
By Dana O'Neil | ESPN.com

Michigan State coach Tom Izzo has amassed 468 wins, 17 consecutive NCAA tournament bids, six Final Fours and one national championship in his time in East Lansing, Michigan, a career that numerically more than speaks for itself.

But what makes Izzo tick? How did he achieve that success? There are the obvious answers -- a smart basketball mind, savvy recruiting and maybe a little luck -- but to get the real answers, you have to dig a little deeper. So we asked some people who know Izzo well just that.

Here are their thoughts:

Georgia Tech coach Brian Gregory, Michigan State assistant from 1999 to 2003

To Gregory, Izzo's greatest attribute is one that might seem a little daring, even downright risky, in college basketball -- his brutal honesty. He doesn't tell his players what they want to hear, but rather what they need to hear, even when they don't want to hear it.

Gregory vividly remembers an experience with a recruit, a high school junior, back when coaches could meet with players at high schools.

"We were sitting in this classroom, me and Tom, this kid and his parents. The mother asks, 'Is my son going to be the focal point of your program and your offense as a freshman?' Tom says, 'God, I hope not.' The kid's jaw hit the floor. The parents nearly fell out of the chair. Tom says, 'If your son is the focal point of our team as a freshman, we're not going to be very good.' The visit lasted about two minutes, but you know what? That kid went somewhere else and he was the focal point of that team and his team won maybe 10 games. We went to the Final Four.''

Michigan State athletic director Mark Hollis

Before one became the athletic department boss and the other the face of Michigan State athletics, Hollis and Izzo were roommates, back in the scrimp-the-penny days when Hollis was a basketball manager and Izzo was a graduate assistant. Hollis watched Izzo learn how to be a leader and a coach from mentor Jud Heathcote, but thinks the biggest trait Izzo picked up was the art of paranoia.

Says Hollis of the man who served as best man at his wedding:

"Tom worries about everything. It doesn't matter if it's related to basketball, the university, the state of Michigan or the country. If there's a negative story about one of our colleges, he wants it fixed. If there's a negative anything about social activities on campus, he'll dive into that issue. His mind is constantly maneuvering through what's wrong in the pursuit of perfection and, sometimes, to the demise of his sanity.''

All that worry and that endless quest for perfection, though, can make Izzo a rather tightly wound ball. He's had his share of on-court outbursts with players and officials, ones that make even those who adore him cringe. Hollis might be the only person aside from Izzo's wife, Lupe, who can sit Izzo down and tell him when he's crossed the line:

"He had an instance this year where he had an outburst on the bench. I was trying to think of strategies to talk to him and I knew the reaction of several. So I sent a chair masseuse to his office and then I followed it up and said, 'OK, now can we talk about this?' If you do something with intent and purpose, he won't forget about it. If you just say, 'You can't do that anymore,' he's going to blow it off."

Draymond Green, Michigan State player, 2008-12

Izzo, the demanding coach, reminded Green a lot of his mother, Mary Babers, who was her son's biggest fan and toughest critic. If Green had what was, in his opinion, a good high school game, she'd remind him he didn't rebound enough. Izzo was much the same:

[+] EnlargeDraymond Green, Tom Izzo
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesTom Izzo and Draymond Green didn't always agree, but they understood each other.

"Coach Izzo will give you the opportunity to take film home and then sometimes he'll bring you in his film session, just you and him and you realize it's like you aren't watching the same film at all. He'll look at a play and say, 'You took a bad shot, which caused Keith [Appling] to get his third foul with 19 minutes to go in the second half. We didn't get back, Keith got a foul and it's all because you took a bad shot.' I'm thinking to myself, 'Man, Keith picked up his third foul,' and everyone else who is watching would be blaming Keith but in reality it's my fault.''

Green and Izzo are cut from an identical cloth. Both are blue-collar workers, emotional and full of passion that can at times border on combustible. In Green's four years at Michigan State, there were as many fireworks between the two as warm embraces, but the connection between them is fierce and loyal.

Here's why:

"I don't know if every coach in the country has their door open like he does, or if their phone is on at 4 in the morning. You can call him no matter what time, he answers. I did that a few days ago, called him at 2 in the morning, and he answered. He doesn't need to do that anymore for me. I'm not one of his players anymore, but he will always do that. Past, present and future players, he's always there for them.''

Equipment manager Dave Pruder

Pruder has the distinction of serving alongside Izzo longer than anyone on the Michigan State bench. He's in his 25th year with the Spartans, dating back to Izzo's days as an assistant. He's like most behind-the-scenes guys at big-time programs, publicly anonymous but privately vital to the lifeblood of the team. As equipment manager he gets a bird's-eye view from the bench to watch Izzo work and to listen to him work the refs.

Says Pruder, who asked Izzo to be godfather to his 13-year-old daughter:

"The ref will be walking by during a timeout and he'll say something and I have to hold my mouth from laughing. He's so damned intense, it's crazy.''

But Pruder, who works with many of the other sports at Michigan State, has seen another side of Izzo, too.

"He's a sounding board for every single coach we have here. He's the godfather of the whole department. He'll sit with a women's golf recruit and spend an hour with her and her parents. I'm not exaggerating. He doesn't have to do that. No one knows if he does and no one would know if he didn't, but he does it because he cares so much. That's why he's godfather to my daughter. It's got nothing to do with basketball. It's how he relates to people.''

Dana O'Neil | email

College Basketball

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