Jud Heathcote's oft-overlooked influence at Gonzaga is also a key piece of his legacy

When his father was an assistant coach on Jud Heathcote’s Michigan State staff in the late 1970s, Dan Monson most looked forward to Tuesday and Thursday evenings during the offseason.

On those nights, the ninth grader would often get to serve as a fill-in for absent Spartans players during 4-on-4 pickup games Heathcote organized.

Monson’s foursome had just won the right to stay on the floor for the next game one Thursday night in 1977 when a kid he didn’t recognize entered the gym. The kid, rocking a giant afro, orange polyester pants, a flowered silk shirt and bright white adidas shoes, approached Monson and told him, “Hey, coach says I’m in for you.”

“I go sit down and I’m pissed,” Monson said. “Jud comes over and he says, ‘Dan, see that guy who came in the game for you? His name is Earvin Johnson. He’s the No. 1 ranked high school player in America. Someday you’re going to sit around and tell people he came into the pick-up game for you, so quit your damn pouting.’ Jud was just a prophet. I’ve told that story hundreds of times.”

Monson’s story cuts to the heart of what made the wisecracking Heathcote one of a kind. He was a brilliant coach and talent evaluator who was always bluntly honest, no matter if he was speaking with a colleague, counseling a star player or scolding a petulant ninth grader.

Michigan State announced late Monday night that Heathcote died at the age of 90, sad news that has hit hard not only in East Lansing but also in his home state of Washington. While Heathcote is best known for guiding Magic Johnson’s Michigan State team to the 1979 national title and for championing a future hall of fame coach named Tom Izzo as his successor, his post-retirement influence at Gonzaga is also an important piece of his legacy.

One of the first things Heathcote did after retiring to Spokane in 1995 was purchase season tickets to Gonzaga basketball games. He soon became a familiar face at Zags practices and open gyms and an advisor and mentor to Gonzaga coaches, Monson (1997-1999) and Mark Few (1999-2017).

“Jud was first and foremost a good and loyal friend to me,” Few said Tuesday. “He was also a great mentor to me and a large number of coaches who leaned on him in good times and tough times. He taught me that you could win at the highest level and still abide by all the rules and keep your core values intact. He was a fierce guardian of our game and stood for what was right. He also had an incredible sense of humor and delivery that could capture a room, and it is all those laughs together that I will remember the most.”

The first game Heathcote attended at Gonzaga was a sparsely attended matchup with Central Washington during Thanksgiving break. It was a jarring scene to Heathcote’s wife, who had grown accustomed to crowds 15,000 strong at Assembly Hall, Mackey Arena or the Breslin Center.

“My wife, who was used to sold-out Big Ten arenas, asked, ‘Is this Division I basketball?’ Heathcote wrote in the afterword of Bud Withers’ 2002 book, BraveHearts: The Against-All-Odds Rise of Gonzaga Basketball. “I said, ‘Yes.’ She said, ‘There is no atmosphere.’ After watching five minutes of play, I turned to her and said, ‘There may be no atmosphere, but there are three players that could start on most of my Michigan State teams.”

The atmosphere and talent at the Kennel only improved the next two decades. Heathcote had a up-close view as Gonzaga evolved from little-known lightweight, to charming underdog story, to perennial national power.

For Monson, having Heathcote five rows behind the bench during his Gonzaga tenure was equal parts terrifying and helpful. This was Monson’s childhood idol, a man who won more than 400 games, helped popularize the 2-3 matchup zone defense and forged a reputation for identifying and developing unsung prospects like Scott Skiles, Shawn Respert and Eric Snow.

“With him and my dad sitting up there every game, it was very intimidating for my first job,” Monson said. “Every game, they were critiquing. I didn’t want to hear it but I needed to hear it and I’m very grateful for it.”

It wasn’t just Monson who received tongue lashings from Heathcote when Gonzaga didn’t play well. The Zags players sometimes heard firsthand too.

“He would show up to open gyms in the spring and fall just to watch,” former Gonzaga guard Dan Dickau said. “He’d pull up a chair, critique and coach. I remember one time I shot a deep pull-up 3 in transition that missed and he started cussing me out from his chair on the sidelines. He always had time to tell a story or talk hoops.”

Legendary former Michigan State coach Jud Heathcote also was an influential figure at Gonzaga in retirement. (AP)
Legendary former Michigan State coach Jud Heathcote also was an influential figure at Gonzaga in retirement. (AP)

Until Heathcote’s health worsened recently, he and Few had a monthly lunch date at Jack & Dan’s, a Spokane bar formerly owned by the father of Gonzaga legend John Stockton. Heathcote would crack jokes, draw up plays and needle Few about recruits he missed on.

“Mark told me once, ‘Every time I go to lunch with him, I’d think, ‘Gosh I’ve got to do this more often,'” Monson said “He’d tell you things about your team you needed to hear. Your assistants sometimes aren’t honest with you, but he was going to tell you exactly how he felt.”

Whether it was Leon Rice at Boise State, Ray Giacoletti at Utah or Monson at Minnesota and Long Beach State, Heathcote considered every former Gonzaga staffer one of his guys and kept up with each of their teams as best he could. Anytime he and Monson spoke in recent years, Heathcote knew Long Beach State’s rotation from top to bottom.

It was no different when Monson visited Heathcote in the hospital two weeks ago, a 45-minute conversation both men knew was likely goodbye.

“He still was evaluating my team, who I had coming back and who wasn’t,” Monson said. “Who’s going to be my point guard? If you gave him an answer he didn’t like right up to the end, he’d let you know.”

Monson said he’ll remember Heathcote for his ethics, loyalty, honesty and sense of humor. And, of course, for his prophetic words four decades ago when Monson was sulking after being subbed out for some kid in orange polyester pants.

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Jeff Eisenberg is the editor of The Dagger on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at daggerblog@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!