By: Jamie Samuelsen
Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo is clear on two things.
1) He’s happy at MSU.
2) He will never say never because you never know what might come along.
Both are totally logical feelings. He should be happy at MSU. He created a monster and he’s paid well for his efforts. And he should never say never because he’s right, none of us know what could come next and people should keep their options open. Some of the greatest coaches in sports history of listened to offers. Mike Krzyzewski almost left Duke for the Lakers. Bo Schembechler almost left Michigan for Texas A&M. Rick Pitino did leave Kentucky to try running the Celtics. Steve Spurrier did leave Florida to coach the Redskins.
Izzo deftly swatted down the rumors yesterday in interviews saying, “I’ve so much more work to do here. I have a great president, a great AD in Mark Hollis and a football coach that I really get along with. So this is a pretty good place for me right now. We’re in a pretty good spot. Program’s in pretty good shape. So, ain’t broke, why fix it?”
I believe him. I don’t think he has any intention of leaving MSU. But I also think if Pistons owner Tom Gores calls him this summer and talks about millions of dollars and some level of control over an NBA team, he’d listen. Izzo came close to bolting twice which tells you that the NBA is at the very least intriguing to him.
Izzo hates the notion that college coaches can’t win in the NBA. His belief has always been that college coaches get lousy NBA jobs, which are looking for a rebuild, making it nearly impossible to succeed. He’s right. The Spurs, the Heat and the Clippers aren’t looking at Izzo. It will be the Pistons, just as it was the post-Lebron Cavaliers back in 2010. You can run down the list of college coaches who have failed in the NBA. And almost without fail, you can list off the bad teams that hired those coaches giving them almost no chance to succeed.
Just look at the two jobs that Izzo turned down. In 2000, he passed on the Atlanta Hawks who then hired Lon Krueger from Illinois. The 2000-2001 Hawks featured the likes of Jason Terry, Lorenzen Wright and Nazr Mohammed on their roster. Krueger lasted two plus seasons and is just now getting back into the big time of college basketball, coaching Oklahoma. In 2010, Izzo passed up the chance to coach the Cavaliers and the job was given to Byron Scott. Scott, a former NBA Coach of the Year, lasted three seasons, posted a 64-166 record and is now out of basketball.
Is it a guarantee that Izzo would follow those paths? Of course not. He’s a great coach who’s earned the chance to try. But the NBA is a league where you’re
“hired to be fired” and it’s almost certain that same fate would befall Izzo just as it did Pitinto, Krueger, John Calipari, Mike Montgomery, Jerry Tarkanian, P.J. Carlesimo and other good college coaches who tried and failed in the NBA.
The problem here is Gores. Instead of focusing on the roster or the upper management structure of his team, he’s looking for a name. He’s looking for some sizzle. A report surfaced last month that Isiah Thomas might be a candidate to replace Joe Dumars. Now we have Izzo’s name out there via a report from ESPN’s Sam Amick.
This isn’t about what’s best for the team or about winning a title (or even a playoff berth). This is about making a splash and bringing some fans back to the Palace. But even that notion is shortsighted. Has any fan ever purchased a ticket to watch a coach? Izzo would win the press conference and the media would love him just as they do in East Lansing. He’s a great interview and a flawless leader.
But the larger question remains, what impact could he have on the NBA player? Is Josh Smith going to listen to Izzo? Is Brandon Jennings going to stand there and take it as Izzo erupts on the sideline? If Rodney Stuckey is still around, is going to have a great relationship with Izzo as he’s had with exactly zero coaches that he’s played for.
The fascinating part about watching Izzo coach at MSU is that there are certain players he reaches and others that he doesn’t. For every Draymond Green or Morris Peterson who flourish under the heavy hand of Izzo coaching, there’s a Drew Neitzel or a Chris Hill or a Raymar Morgan who seems to regress under the constant strain. He’s a tough love coach. And he needs tough love players who can learn and develop in his system. The NBA is not a tough love league by any respect. It’s full of millionaires who want their touches and want their endorsements and give little thought to anything involving the team.
Like so many others, Izzo is a great college coach. He’s the best MSU has ever had and the best we’ll ever see. They’ll rename the Breslin Center after him when he retires. And he’ll take his place alongside Bo, Scotty and Sparky as the greatest managers/coaches this state has ever seen. If he leaves for the Pistons, that fact won’t change. But his legacy will. He’ll be another coach that tried the NBA and most likely failed. Then he’ll be in broadcasting or at another college when he could be burnishing his legacy at MSU and burnishing his legacy as one of the greatest college coaches ever.
Izzo has earned the right to try. He’s given his heart and soul to MSU and he in no way would be shortchanging anyone at the school. But I think he’s the perfect coach for MSU. And I still think he’s driven to accomplish more than he already has. A year from now, I think he’d much rather be prepping the Spartans for another Final Four run rather than playing out the string with late March games against the Pelicans and the Jazz. He’d be making a ton of money. He’d be facing a new challenge. But in the end, I believe he’d be missing his true calling.