By: Will Burchfield
The mood around a basketball team, an athletic department and a university at large came into grim focus on Friday night when Tom Izzo was asked a plain, clerical question.
In the wake of Michigan State losing both its president and its athletic director, both in decidedly unceremonious fashion, to whom does Izzo answer?
“Probably my wife,” Izzo said flatly, which drew laughter from a couple media members in a packed press room at the Breslin Center.
But Izzo, typically in a jaunty mood after a win, was in no mood for levity. He fixed his gaze in the direction of the offenders and offered a stern reprimand, like a father to his child.
“That wasn’t even meant to be funny,” Izzo said, “because it’s not a funny moment.”
Silence reclaimed the room.
It was another dark day in what’s been a dark fortnight at Michigan State. Amid growing evidence that the university egregiously mishandled the Larry Nassar case, it was reported on Friday that the football and basketball programs have been riddled with sexual assault allegations over the past several years — allegations that were mostly swept under the rug.
What’s emerged is the portrait of a university that prioritizes its image and its athletic department over the safety of its female students.
Mark Dantonio spoke to the media early Friday evening, calling the allegations that he mishandled sexual assault complaints “absolutely false,” and later that night, after the Spartans had knocked off Wisconsin, it was Izzo’s turn.
He was less declarative than his counterpart.
“I’ve seen the report, it came out a little late for me,” Izzo said. “It’s been an interesting two days with the things that have gone on and still trying to prepare for a game, so I’ll hold judgment on that until I really get a chance to sit down and look at everything.”
He added, “We will cooperate with any investigation going forward, as we have always done. That’s about all I have to say about it.”
Izzo faced follow-up questions about when he learned of the sexual assault allegations described in Friday’s Outside the Lines report, whether the university is in need of a culture change, and how his opinion has changed of former president Lou Ann Simon, who he endorsed last week. In each case, he declined to answer.
This came as little surprise after Izzo talked himself into trouble at the same podium last week when discussing the Nassar case. He went off-the-cuff in response to a reporter’s question, said something he didn’t mean and found himself under fire the ensuing day.
This time, he stuck to his written statement. And if there was one message he wanted to express, it was support for the victims of Nassar.
Izzo vows to help them heal.
“There’s nothing I’m going to say right now after a game in a press conference except that I support the survivors to the nth degree and I hope that I’m a big part of the healing process for them and our campus community. That’s what I hope I can do here since I’ve been here longer than anybody,” he said.
To that end, Izzo reached out to a victim’s father this week in an effort to relate, to empathize with his pain.
“To just kind of try to understand,” Izzo said, “We all, you all think you know what everybody goes through. I don’t think anybody had a clue what anybody went through because this horrific thing has not happened here before to many of us.”
In a press conference that lasted for about 11 minutes, Izzo fielded three questions on basketball. And even those were slanted toward the bigger issue at hand. (How did you keep your players focused with so much outside noise?) The coach put the situation into perspective when discussing his departed bosses, both of whom he worked with for over 20 years.
These are people he’s close with, people he admires.
“As far as who’s going to be president and who’s going to be athletic director, it would a shame for us to be worrying about that when we have to worry about what these students and people have been through,” Izzo said.
Changes have come to Michigan State, and several more are on the way. A purge of sorts is necessary. Rumors began swirling on Friday that Izzo could be part of the next wave of departures.
On a dark day, that was maybe the only thing the coach found amusing.
“Well,” Izzo said with a chuckle, “I’m not going anywhere, in my mind. I’m definitely not retiring. … I’m going to worry about my team, I’m going to worry about the survivors and I’m going to worry about what I do.”