By: Will Burchfield
When Mark Dantonio marched to the podium at the Breslin Center last Friday, looked a horde of reporters in the eye and shot down accusations — heavy accusations — lobbed against his program, it was assumed that Tom Izzo would do the same later that night.
He did not.
Typically forthright with the media, Izzo sidestepped questions related to an Outside the Lines report that suggested multiple Michigan State basketball and football players have gotten away with sexual assault in the last several years. The report painted Izzo and Dantonio as central figures in a scandal of cover-ups and neglect.
One coach felt the need to clear his name, and that of his program. With a stern voice, a clenched jaw and a finger held authoritatively in the air, Dantonio deemed the accusations that he had mishandled complaints of sexual assault “completely false.”
Izzo, hours later offered the opportunity to do the same, quietly said he needed more time to review the report. In the moment, his response seemed appropriate. With two days until his team’s next game at Maryland, Izzo would have time to, in his own words, “sit down and look at everything.” Then he could speak on the matter decisively.
But when that opportunity arose Sunday, Izzo waffled. He even seemed a bit staggered by an intense line of questioning from an Outside the Lines reporter. If the coach was being advised to deflect certain questions, he wasn’t exactly deflecting attention. Cracks were beginning to show.
The most glaring was Izzo’s claim that he didn’t know why former player Travis Walton left his program. Walton, who helped out on Izzo’s staff in 2010, was accused of punching a female student in the face at a bar and raping another at an off-campus apartment in the span of one month that year. He was gone a few months later.
Walton adamantly denied these allegations on Tuesday. His statement, though not delivered in person, was as firm and defiant as Dantonio’s.
This set the stage for Wednesday, when Izzo would face the media following Michigan State’s game versus Penn State. (The Spartans won, 76-68. Alas, there is basketball being played.) Supporters of Izzo’s program were hungry for some definitive answers. At the very least, they wanted to see the coach withstand the heat.
What they got was the latter. And for now they’ll probably take it.
Soon after taking the podium, Izzo was asked if he believes Walton’s claim that he’s innocent. It was a pointed question about Walton on Sunday that made the coach visibly uncomfortable. This time there was no wide-eyed stare, no panicked retreat, no contrived confusion.
“I appreciate the question,” Izzo replied calmly. “One thing I’ve done my whole career, I’ve had great respect for the media. You have the right to ask, and unfortunately I have no additional comments. I’ve given my comments.
“I will cooperate with the investigation, as I always have with any investigation, but that’s about all I’m going to say about it.”
The time will come to speak openly, Izzo said, but he isn’t sure when. He feels things are too turbulent at Michigan State right now, between this and the Larry Nassar storm, to add another voice to the fray. He’s also likely under legal counsel to keep quiet.
If that’s the case, Izzo did about all he could on Wednesday to reassure an uneasy fanbase. He was composed under scrutiny. He was as honest as the situation would allow. At the conclusion of about a 12-minute-long press conference, he had sealed the cracks that started to form on Sunday.
Izzo isn’t keeping mum out of callousness or shallowness, that much is clear. The gravity of the situation isn’t lost on him. This is a university man who cares deeply about the university’s reputation. If he could defend it, he would.
“The healing process of Michigan State matters to me,” he said.
Later, he apologized for not being able to say more.
“‘I’m sorry, I really am. Everybody has the right to ask a question, and I’ve always believed that. … But I gotta have my rights too,” Izzo said. “When the time comes I’ll be able to speak out. I know it might be frustrating, but that’s just what I have to do.”
That may be a decision Izzo made on his own. It could also be an edict coming from above. Either way, he seems convinced that no further comment is the right comment, at least for now. That he intends to open up likely means he has nothing to hide.
He wasn’t defiant on Wednesday night, not like Dantonio was last Friday. Those hoping Izzo would stand up and vouch for his program were likely disappointed. But he left calmer waters in his wake, which bodes for smoother sailing ahead.