>Tom Izzo would hire Mateen Cleaves as an assistant coach in a heartbeat, he has a bit of a distaste for what the NCAA has come to stand for, and there was more to him turning down the Cleveland Cavaliers job last summer than national media outlets reported.
Just ask him.
Without a barrage of microphones and cameras in his face at Thursday night’s MSU Alumni Club of Jackson dinner a the Country Club of Jackson, the Michigan State basketball coach was candid about topics and stories he doesn’t always have time to delve into at five-minute post-game press conferences.
For one, he would gladly hire former Spartans star Mateen Cleaves to sit by him on the bench, even if he’s become a little “soft” in his former coach’s eyes.
“He’s turned wimpy — he’s gone into this TV and now he’s in it Fox with the Pistons (as a studio analyst), he’s out at ESPN, he was with CBS. He’s actually getting decent at it too,” Izzo said with a grin. “I tell him he’s getting soft, but if Mateen Cleaves ever wanted to come, you know, he’d be a guy I’d take in a heartbeat.”
His remarks came following a question about whether Cleaves would ever be a considered for a Spartan’s coaching vacancy, which Izzo has right now with the departure of assistant Mark Montgomery to Northern Illinois.
“Actually, tonight I’m meeting up with a potential candidate for that position at a hotel and I’ll interview him some more tomorrow morning,” Izzo said.
One constant for Michigan State the last 16 years has been Izzo as the head coach, but last June he took a hard look at jumping to the NBA to coach the Cleveland Cavaliers.
ESPN reported Michigan State alum and Cavs owner Dan Gilbert offered him in the ballpark of six million dollars a year to leave East Lansing— a sum that Izzo jokes could have changed his life in ways far removed from basketball.
“It was only a tough decision because as you know, I love the (Upper Peninsula), I really do and it’s my home, it’s where I’m from. And this guy offered me enough (money) I could have bought the whole damn thing,” he said. “So I had to make that decision — I could either own the U.P. or coach at Michigan State. Given the economic value of the U.P., I decided to coach Michigan State.”
Izzo said truthfully the support of the Michigan State athletic department and administration, along with the opportunity to continue “building a program and not just a team” made his decision fairly easy.
Gilbert and Izzo still stay in contact though, including a revealing text message Izzo shared with the crowd Thursday.
“When we had got beat and were on like a 4-game losing streak (this season) I got this text from him,” Izzo said. “He said, ‘Tom, hang in there, things are going to get better right around the corner. It could be worse, we’re going for a record-setting (losing) streak.’”
The Cavaliers ended up losing an NBA-record 26 consecutive contests.
Izzo was good-natured all evening, but he became more sober when someone asked him his feelings on how the NCAA was handling big-time college sports rules violations, like that of Jim Tressell with Ohio State football or Jim Calhoun with University of Connecticut basketball.
“The NCAA is a tough organization. I’m not a big fan of the NCAA — and I say that respectfully, I really do — but they are trying to put their arms around a cloud and it’s very hard to do that,” Izzo said.
He said his main quibble is rules are always changing and the NCAA “over-regulates, but we’ve done that a lot in society.
“The (NCAA handbook) is 478 pages and we get tested on it and all the testing you do — you can call the NCAA for an interpretation of a rule and get five different agents that give you five different answers,” he said.
Izzo said everything he’s learned from coaching major college basketball is ultimately a reflection of life itself — tough lessons to grow from and experiences that offer perspective.
He said one of the ultimate experiences his job has afforded him is the opportunity to visit military troops in Kuwait through the Hoops for the Troops program.
Twice Izzo has taken weeklong trips overseas to sleep in barracks with troops, work out with armed service men and women and coach them on occasion.
He said when he flew back to Detroit following his first visit he made a late-night call to his assistant coaches to arrange a special 2:30 a.m. meeting with his players.
“I pulled in and they were there…I told them they don’t ever even think about not appreciating what they get after what I had just seen and been through,” he said. “I wouldn’t stand for it, and it was really a life-changing moment for me.”
As published in the Jackson Citizen Patriot on April 15, 2011