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 Monday, November 6
Spartans can relate to Izzo's winning ways
 By Jay Bilas
Special to

In Tom Izzo's 12 years as an assistant to Jud Heathcote, the Spartans had often been good, sometimes very good, and in 1979, Michigan State was special.

Heathcote guided the Spartans to three Big Ten titles in his 19 years: two with Magic Johnson and one with Steve Smith in 1990. Michigan State had some nice teams, but the program wasn't mentioned in the same breath with UCLA, Kentucky and North Carolina.

In other words, Michigan State didn't have a program that truly contended on an annual basis.

Since Izzo took over in 1995, the Spartans' image has changed.

Tom Izzo
Tom Izzo has certainly been the right man for the Michigan State head coaching job.

Michigan State has won the past three Big Ten titles under Izzo, has gone to two consecutive Final Fours and will enter this season as the defending national champions. In the past three years, Michigan State has lost only seven conference games in arguably the nation's toughest league over that time period.

Izzo has averaged 24 victories a season in his five years (120-48), and just under 32 victories in his past three seasons. What Tom Izzo has done at Michigan State is absolutely remarkable. He has built the Spartan program into a national powerhouse.

Izzo is one of the college game's very best coaches, and he is in heavy demand. He turned down a $15 million offer to coach the Atlanta Hawks, and his phone rings constantly with people asking for a chunk of his time. However, even though he just won the national title, you are just as likely to see Izzo speaking at a junior high school graduation, doing a favor for a longtime friend, as you are to see him on national television.

Tom Izzo hasn't changed, although perceptions of him may have, and the demands upon his time certainly have.

"A problem with this job is, people put us up on pedestals," Izzo said. "The demands on me have increased, and that's a good thing, I guess. But I still want to be a regular guy and be with my family."

There is no question Izzo has all of the technical skills of an outstanding coach. He is a fine tactician, teacher and recruiter. But what sets him apart are his intangibles, including his ability to relate to his players. Izzo connects with his 18- to 21-year-old crowd, and it's not because he's the basketball equivalent of Oprah. Izzo works at it.

"After my family, my players come first," Izzo said. "One thing we do is spend a lot of time with the players, away from the court. I have a lot of events at my house, and I like to do some goofy stuff with the guys, too."

The time spent with the players builds trust, and the trust between Izzo and his players allows him to challenge them without any questioning of his motives.

"I think the time we spend together convinces the kids that I am on their side -- that they can really trust me," Izzo said."I believe that discipline is a form of love, and the guys know that I want the best for them."

His players understand Izzo and have a healthy regard for his regard for them.

"He stays on us to get better, and he does a great job of motivating us to do well every day," Charlie Bell said of his coach. "He reads us because he knows us, and he can sense when we're down, and he'll do something to get us going."

Mike Chappell agrees. "I am most impressed by his passion, and his dedication to getting the most out of us. He's the same for all of the players, whether its the best guy or the twelfth best guy."

"He's a players' coach," Andre Hutson said of Izzo. "He pushes us, but he understands how to push us and how far. He's on our butts every practice, and I may not like it at the time, but he's earned our respect with what he does off the court.

You wouldn't believe the respect he's got off the court from us. He spends time with us, at his house, in his office. He knows what each one of us is about."

Michigan State enters the 2001 season with something to prove. The Spartan players want to prove they are as capable as those that went before them, and Izzo wants to ensure that he continues to build a quality program that will last, and last around the top.

With the emergence of Jason Richardson as a potential star, and the arrival of immediate contributors in point guard Marcus Taylor and Zach Randolph, Izzo knows he has the ingredients for another outstanding team.

However, Izzo is concerned more with the intangibles that need to be mixed in with talent to produce a title contender.

"I think we have a chance to be very good," Izzo said of this year's team, which starts the season No. 5 in the ESPN/USA Today preseason poll. "We have depth, with a deeper team than last year and we have really good players. But my biggest concern about this team is leadership. We need good leadership."

Izzo expects the leadership to come from Bell and Hutson, both of whom are seniors, and know nothing else but winning.

"Its time for me and Charlie to go out and shine," Hutson said. "It's our senior year, and it's our time. It's up to our leadership."

Bell, like Hutson, is anxious to break out of his status as a role player.

"I've always been happy with my role, but (winning) would be bigger this year because I would know that I led these guys. The success would reflect us," Bell said.

Izzo is working hard on cultivating leadership. But leadership is more than just being a senior, and it is more than just setting an example.

"He talks to us every day about it," Hutson said. "He wants me and Charlie to lead this team on the court and off."

To be a leader, a player has to be vocal and willing to challenge his teammates to respond when things are toughest. For many, that role is not within their personalities. But Izzo does not accept that as a defense.

"I hear a lot about being a leader by example. That can be good, but it can also be a cop-out," Izzo said. "If a player can't shoot, we work with him on his shot. If he's hurt, we get him to the trainer and aggressively rehab the injury. If a player isn't strong enough, we build up his body. But if a player doesn't have the personality to be a leader, we just seem to accept that. Well, that's bull.

"I want to try and develop (leadership ability) like I would any other aspect of a player's game."

Because of Izzo's sheer will, and his ability to get his players to believe in him, don't count out the Spartans for another shot at a Big Ten title, and the chance to be the first team since Indiana from 1973 to 1976 to win four straight. It seems clear that under Izzo, Michigan State has a program that is built to last among the best programs in the nation.

Izzo is that good.

If it's a 'War' under the boards, the Spartans usually win

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