EAST LANSING, Mich. – Tom Izzo is 58 now, rich, famous and headed to the Hall of Fame one day, all those Final Four banners he's hung up here at Michigan State serving as proof of that.
There is no complacency in the man, however, certainly not when the maize and blue of Michigan, hated Michigan, is across the way. Just the thought of it turns him back into a young assistant for Jud Heathcote.
Back in the late 1980s and most of the 1990s, Izzo would relentlessly recruit some star out of Detroit, all but wearing out I-96 in pursuit. And just when he'd think he was going to close the deal and finally deliver the player for the Spartans, the rug would get pulled out from under him. That Izzo never felt the deal was clean is no secret. NCAA sanctions against U of M eventually confirmed as much.
No amount of victories will ever cleanse the memory or douse the anger. Not for Izzo. No matter how many dominating defeats he's laid on how many different Michigan coaches, things like Tuesday – a two-hour, nationally televised 75-52 annihilation of the Wolverines – never stops meaning everything.
"George Perles says they all count for one," Izzo said of the former MSU football coach. "He's full of [expletive]."
Izzo was standing postgame in the back halls of the Breslin Center, exhausted but exhilarated, a parade of well-wishers – old players and new recruits – coming by to congratulate him on the glorious beat-down his Spartans had just given those Wolverines.
Oh, did Izzo want this one, his staff said. They've come to accept that Michigan week is always a different level. It was like that, even back when juggernaut State teams were routinely punishing the undermanned, sanction-riddled Wolverines, 30-point victories almost assured. Izzo would stay up all night grinding film anyway. He'll never forget how Michigan once tormented him, even as he's come to thoroughly respect current Wolverine coach John Beilein.
"Coach never relaxes," said top assistant Dwayne Stephens. "But it always turns up a notch for Michigan. A few more hours, a lot more film."
This was a little different. For once, State, even at a lofty No. 8 in the polls, was ranked below No. 4 Michigan.
For a change, this was a season when the team in Ann Arbor received more of the attention, the hype, the spotlight, both nationally and locally. It was Michigan with the breathtaking star, Trey Burke. It was Michigan with the highlight shows playing old Fab Five clips. It was Michigan everyone was hailing as a national title contender.
And somehow it was Michigan State that was just plodding along, albeit 21-4 now, trying to make it work in a cutthroat Big Ten. If you can be ranked eighth in America and under the radar, State was managing it. After all, it was Izzo who needed to send emails to his fans and speak out in the media in an effort to return the old noise to the building.
Yes, this was different. Heck, Izzo can't help but truly like this Michigan team – its talent, its toughness, its attitude. These Wolverines would be a little hard to hate … if not for the name on the front of the jersey, of course.
And that jersey, those colors, were all Izzo needed to make this a reminder of what the pecking order in this state still is.
Michigan came looking to make its own statement, focused on bullying the bully. "I'm not going to say we weren't ready to play," Beilein said. "We were pretty pumped up in the locker room."
Behind the Wolverine bench sat Michigan football coaches past (Lloyd Carr) and present (Brady Hoke). Football coaches don't often travel to road basketball games, and despite the recruiting gimmick, they certainly came expecting an historic victory as their reward for getting heckled all night.
"All I can say is I'm glad they came down," Izzo said with a laugh.
It was a laugh fueled by a woodshed beating out of Izzo's dreams. Nearly 50 percent shooting, a plus-12 rebounding edge, a plus-eight turnover margin, ferocious defense, long bombs and violent dunks. It was so outrageous that at the end Izzo put three guys into the game who didn't even have a name on the back of their uniforms. One of them actually scored.
"We probably played our best game in three years," he marveled. "It was like the perfect storm, we played about as well as we can play."
Later, as he walked the halls, the deafening buzz of Breslin still ringing through his ears, he thought back even further.
"Reminds me back when Mateen [Cleaves] was here," Izzo said, recalling the glory days of the turn of the century, when Final Fours weren't considered a birthright, when the energy in the building never waned, and when every victory was to be toasted.
"One of those special nights," Izzo said. "Memory makers."
He smiled and trudged on. He looked like he needed a 12-hour nap or three. He just laughed at it all and hugged another supporter.
Fifty-eight years old now, every accomplishment and accolade in the game in his possession, nothing to prove, nothing to lose, and just past midnight Tom Izzo couldn't contain a smile. He wasn't going to lie. Beating Michigan – this Michigan and this Michigan like this – felt as damn good as it ever did.
"Yeah," he said, with a laugh, "I wanted this. I did."
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