Izzo struggles with NBA’s lure

Michigan State's Tom Izzo.
(Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

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After much consternation Tom Izzo decided to turn down the Cleveland Cavaliers’ head coaching job and remain at Michigan State.

Generally with these stories the theme is simple: in the end, beloved college coach couldn’t leave his home, his legacy and his decades-long relationships. That isn’t necessarily true in Izzo’s case.

It’s in the beginning he couldn’t leave his home, his legacy, his decades-long relationships. The end was just a formality.

The truth is Izzo desperately wants to coach in the NBA. He just can’t figure out how to pull the trigger and, he says, never will.

“I’m going to be a lifer and I’m damn proud of it,” Izzo said Tuesday, ending a nine-day contemplation that gripped the region.

He should be proud. The legacy he’s constructed as both a superior coach and person is unique. He’s a rare icon, perhaps the most popular person in the state of Michigan. It’s one reason he’s never found a way to leave.

Izzo’s desire to coach in the NBA is no secret. He’s seemingly discussed it a million times with a million people. If you’ve ever had an extended conversation with Izzo – and I’ve had many in the past 15 years – he’s likely to bring up his interest in competing at the highest level of the game while leaving the potentially corrupting grind of recruiting behind.

He’ll bare his soul about craving the chance to prove he can do it. He’ll talk about showing everyone a college guy can make it in the pros. He’ll wistfully speak of never having to return the call of this middleman or that handler again. He’ll get excited over the challenge of making so many X and O decisions in a four-game-in-five-night stretch – all basketball, all the time.

And he’s smart enough to not buy into the oft-repeated fallacy that NBA players can’t have mentoring coaches, that grown men can’t have positive relationships.

“[People asked me] are you sure you can have the same impact [on the players],” Izzo said. “I realized I could. I could. Everybody wants to be successful and a lot of people need direction to get there.”

This is what got him to almost take a bad Atlanta Hawks job a decade ago. This is why Izzo has long made NBA front offices aware he’d be willing to talk.

You want to know how much Tom Izzo wants to coach in the NBA?

He even considered taking the Cavs job even though LeBron James not only wouldn’t commit to returning but wouldn’t even get on the telephone with his would-be coach. Izzo said he spoke to members of LeBron’s vast inner circle but never got a word with the King himself.

With no assurance from, or even conversation with James, this job is a risky one (albeit with a $6 million a year salary). Almost every other successful coach would have run from it. You can’t trust newspaper stories that LeBron supports you “100 percent” if he won’t take “100 percent” of your calls.

Coach Tom Izzo feel the love from his players including Kalin Lucas, left, Austin Thornton, center rear, Korie Lucious, right front, and Garrick Sherman during a news conference Tuesday.
(AP Photo)

The Cavs are a disaster if James bolts as a free agent next month. The team will stink. The fans will be bitter. The media will be disinterested. The stands will be empty. The value of the franchise will be in the tank.

The coach of the post-LeBron Cavs is nothing but a cleanup crew. It will be the most toxic and depressing environment in the NBA and, yes, I’m aware Donald Sterling still owns the Clippers.

When word of Cleveland’s interest in Izzo broke, just about everyone’s reaction was the same – he can’t be interested in that job unless LeBron says he’s back. He just can’t.

Actually he could. He considered it and considered it and considered it. That’s how certain he was that he wanted to coach in the NBA. Despite being a 55-year-old with no pro experience and a returning powerhouse that is capable of delivering him a seventh Final Four and second national championship, he considered walking.

Izzo described the process as “agonizing.” He seemingly called everyone in basketball. He sought the advice of NBA coaches, of college coaches, of NBA coaches who coached in college and college coaches who coached in the NBA.

He spoke with his former players and his current players. He consulted his mentors, his friends, his bosses, his assistants, his family and even a babysitter. He went to Cleveland and met everyone there and took a spin around the facilities.

He did exactly what he should have done. And while Izzo spent much of his press conference battling with local media over coverage that at times painted him as disloyal or attention-starved, he too was apparently sheepish about the process.

“[One day] Magic [Johnson] called [and said], ‘Tom, you sound like you’re feeling guilty,” Izzo said.

This was Izzo’s conundrum. He’s based so much of his life on building a basketball family at State that he couldn’t rectify his public pursuit of another job.

Tom Izzo knows what he wants. He also knows what he wants to be. NBA coach or loyal leader? The two things don’t mesh. They never will. Most people would’ve gone for the gold, gone after the challenge, ignored the local radio show or newspaper column.

Not Izzo. Not this time. Not last time. Not anytime. It’s what makes him great. It’s what makes him miserable.

So he’s going to be a lifer. He’s going to be known as the devoted Spartan, a larger-than-life figure in the annals of college basketball.

If you’ve got to give up on your dream, that’s a damn proud alternative.

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 Tuesday, Jun 15, 2010