By RJ Walters / Daily News Sports Editor
A column published in the Hillsdale Daily News on April 1, 2009
I guess you could say Tom Izzo and I are basically the same person, I’m just a little younger.
We both went to Northern Michigan for college, we are both elated to see the Spartans headed to the Final Four in D-eee-troit and we’ll both “play anybody, anyplace, anytime. It doesn’t matter, morning, noon or night, and it doesn’t matter who it is.“
The only real difference is that he’s talking about his tremendous big-time college basketball team and I’m talking about NCAA Basketball 09 for Xbox 360 or a game of laser tag.
Yeah, I realize I may seem just like everyone else with a big screen and brackets filled out (by the way mine is an atrocity, but gold compared to that of News Editor Thomas Marcetti), but the truth is being a Northern alumni, as well as a three-year attendee of Izzo’s hoops camp in East Lansing has given me several insights.
First of all Izzo is even shorter in person than on TV, especially when you’re standing right next to him, and I’m amazed that he demands the attention of big hefties like Aloysius Anagonye and Zach Randolph so well. But I guess if I grew up as the tiny white point guard from Da Yoop I’d probably have learned how to gain respect too.
The thing that really gets me about the former Wildcat (when you can put yourself in the same club as this guy you purposely refer to him this way as much as possible) though is his loyalty. Loyalty as in if you are willing to listen to him and buy in to what he’s selling, he will return the favor.
At every one of the camps I attended he focused on the mantra “learn to listen, listen to learn.” It wasn’t just some nice catch-phrase though, because despite there being more than 300 campers he would allow each teenager to come up to him and actually chat with him and ask questions about the game before their experience was over — which is invaluable to kids and says a lot about Izzo’s character when he could’ve simply “said cheese” and used a Sharpie to move campers along.
It should be no surprise however that Izzo, who grew up in Iron Mountain, Mich., population 7,800 — unless you count the couple thousand deer and touring snowmobilers — is the way he is, because he learned to stay loyal to his roots a long time ago.
After four years as a Wildcat assistant Izzo was hired as a graduate assistant for MSU in 1983, which paid a mere $7,200. Even though the paycheck was paltry Izzo took the job in a heartbeat and it was a major victory for the small-town 20-something, especially considering he had interviewed for an assistant position with the Spartans in 1982, only to get turned down.
Now 26 years later, after 12 seasons as an understudy, and 14 as the “little engine who could” on the sidelines Izzo is still “90 percent sure” Michigan State is the place he wants to be for the remainder of his career as long as he can continue to “have success while doing things the right way” as he put it in a radio interview with Dan Patrick Tuesday afternoon.
The NBA’s Atlanta Hawks tried their best to sway him to the pro game several years ago and Izzo’s name is constantly in the rumor mill when major college programs go on hiring searches and many many dollar signs are attached to the speculation. Yet he is entrenched in the Spartan way, just as he is still the greatest example of the Wildcat tradition.
He helped fund the Izzo Marriucci Academic Center in Marquette, which is used for communications courses and he is constantly providing help in securing funds for the university where he once taught an archery class during his assistant coaching days. Likewise, both he and Steve Marriccui have hosted an annual golf tournament in Iron Mountain for years, raising funds for the community and a fitness center for their old high school.
And as ESPN.com’s Pat Forde wrote in a column earlier this year, despite being seven hours away from his childhood stomping grounds, Izzo is always quick to honor his fellow Yoopers.
“What he does have is an abiding loyalty to the (U.P.) Every season, he invites a busload of locals — Yoopers, as they’re affectionately known — to a Michigan State home game, providing them with tickets and even entertaining them at his house. The trip is so popular that there’s a waiting list to get on the bus,” Forde wrote. And now, as Izzo prepares for his fifth Final Four as Spartans’ head coach the cerebral 54-year-old should be the state’s most popular spokesman, even with Wolverine fans.
Izzo remains active with Coaches Vs. Cancer, Sparrow Hospital and the Catholic Social Services/St. Vincent Home for Children in Lansing. At the same time he remains loyal to his players, promising each of them he will do everything in his power to give them the opportunity to play in a Final Four, a pledge he has been able to honor for every player who has donned the green-and-white since 1995.
Quite frankly Tom Izzo is just like so many of the blue-collar workers in our state, in Detroit, where his team will try to help him win another national championship, and even here in Hillsdale County.
I am no more like Tom Izzo than millions of Michigan citizens, other than the same NMU employees call us asking for donations once a month.
We should all take this opportunity to show how we are dedicated to what’s best for the state, even it means rooting for a school that half of Michigan would rather see get thumped most of the time.
All I’ve got to say is go Wildcats, I mean Spartans.
Tom Izzo isn’t just a guy who is a media brown-noser so people will like him, he is an example of steadfast devotion to everything that has shaped who he is.
Everyone, even Michigan Tech Husky graduates and University of Michigan season-ticket holders can applaud that.