State of pride for Izzo

EAST LANSING, Mich. – First and foremost Tom Izzo is a Michigan man – the state, not the school. Raised in the hardscrabble Upper Peninsula and a graduate of Northern Michigan, he’s spent all but a few months of his life working out of Michigan State, where he’s recruited nearly every big city and small town he says “from the tip of Detroit to Ironwood, Michigan.”

“I embody the state,” he said Tuesday. “I’m from here.”

Izzo is soaring, his Spartans making their fifth Final Four appearance under his stewardship, this time just down the road in Detroit.

The state, however, is hurting. The lifeblood auto industry is in shambles. Manufacturing job losses have been overwhelming. Highly skilled engineers, the kind they churn out at Michigan State, are being laid off.

When things were good in America, Michigan suffered a “one-state recession.” Now that there’s a 50-state one, well, it’s 12 percent unemployment state-wide, a catastrophic 22.5 percent in the City of Detroit.

Izzo, 54, has seen the tough times come and go around here, but nothing like this.

When he was a kid growing up in Iron Mountain, the area mines started closing. At least there was always the option of heading south to a factory in Saginaw or Macomb County. There was still the hope of the American Dream, the belief a guy with just a high school diploma could raise his family and send his kids to college.

Now the kids are out of work too.

“So many that have lost jobs,” he said, shaking his head.

I live outside Detroit. The whole place is on edge. Not just my friends who work on the line at an auto factory and are hoping to survive. It’s not that this time is any easier, but we’ve seen that. We’ve seen those jobs shipped overseas. Now, though, it’s the businesses that rely on them, the restaurants and shops and stores. The construction jobs. Now it’s the white-collar workers with the rug pulled out from under them.

I have a friend who managed a plant that made axles for the Ford F-150. The F-Series was the best-selling car or truck in America for years, often by 20 percent. That crack about Detroit not building products America wants? Not in this case. They could barely make enough of them.

Then last summer the price of crude oil goes through the roof for no physically tangible reason. It’s not like the world was out of oil. It’s not like it became more expensive to draw from the earth. It was all the market. Global oil speculators went crazy. Gas went to $4 a gallon. Everyone cut back on buying trucks. Not because the trucks aren’t great, but because of an out-of-control financial market.

My friend gets laid off, just like that.

It’s why everyone is in a daze, no idea what hit them or what will hit next. You study, you work, you do the right thing, you make the best truck, the most popular seller and it doesn’t matter. When the gas prices fell, it was too late. Now there’s a credit crunch. Next, who knows?

Everyone who lives here can tell you dozens of stories like that. Izzo too.

So all week when asked about the State of Michigan, the Michigan State coach takes the opportunity of a rare bully pulpit. Promoting his team can wait a few minutes. He wants to promote his people.

Not just alerting America to the problems here, but reminding them that all is not lost, that Michigan’s best asset remains its workers – skilled and unskilled, white and blue collar. Explaining that the state just needs a chance.

It has too much to offer to be forgotten, a place desperate for investment, home to a lot of folks who’ll work long hours to make truck axles, or computer programs or anything else you can dream up.

“It’s a blue-collar state,” Izzo said. “Michigan, it’s a pretty cool state to live in. We got the water. We got the change of climates. And we got Midwest people. I love Midwest people.”

The Spartans’ Final Four run is being hailed as a rallying point, a distraction and a ray of sunshine. It’s certainly a unifying experience. Even Michigan coach John Beilein has offered advice for preparing for Connecticut. Izzo is so likeable he’s won over all but the hardcore Wolverine fan.

College basketball can’t do much, but it can do this. It can temporarily lift spirits. It can create a little pride. It can allow fans to rally in downtown Detroit and cheer for something. The same thing will happen when the Red Wings churn up another run at the Stanley Cup.

“I think this is a great opportunity for the whole state,” Izzo said.

The thing that makes the Spartans different is so many of the players are homegrown. Izzo doesn’t just say he loves Midwest people; he proves it with his recruiting. He rarely ventures outside of the region. He’s got nine kids from Michigan on this team, three more from Ohio.

He loves recruiting basketball players that also played football, who’ll understand why he does a sign of the cross after mentioning Bo Schembechler and Woody Hayes. He wants a certain characteristic. As much as anyone, he looks for a mind-set not a skill-set.

“That’s why I love Detroit, Flint,” he said. “Those guys didn’t have silver spoons in their mouth, that’s the way they’re raised. That’s the kind of guys I’m probably going to do better with.”

He was asked Tuesday if the Final Four would help him recruit nationally, he shrugged. “It might be able to open up doors. I’m not sure I’d walk through them.”

This is Michigan State. Playing in Detroit. Izzo will live and die with his guys, the Michigan guys. He hopes the rest of the country notices what his people, when given the chance, are capable of accomplishing.

Dan Wetzel is Yahoo! Sports' national columnist. He is the co-author of the book "Death to the BCS: The Definitive Case Against the Bowl Championship Series," which following five printings of the first edition was re-released in a second, updated edition in October. Follow him on Twitter. Send Dan a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Wednesday, Apr 1, 2009