What Tom Izzo taught me about coaching

From my own undergrad days as an aspiring young coach, to our years together building the beginnings of his Michigan State program, the lessons Tom Izzo taught to me are long and deep and forever rooted.

Here’s one that burrowed deep inside and never left: He was in Hawaii on a summer trip and classroom issues cropped up for one of our Michigan State players. I had spent the afternoon and evening trying to track down the young man, but couldn’t find him. Now, I had to call Tom and tell him what was happening.

He was furious.

“I can’t let you be in charge of anything,” Tom told me. “I should never leave town.”

I’ll never forget standing in my house and feeling those words drop into the pit of my stomach. At first, I thought: “Hey, this isn’t my fault.” And then, I realized the message. You do the assignment – and you don’t stop until it’s finished. If I had searched eight hours, I should’ve stayed out for 12 hours. Get the job done. No excuses.

In that moment, I knew this: For the rest of my life, I never wanted someone else to say that to me – especially from someone I loved and respected like Tom Izzo. It drove me every day.

In those moments, Tom never feared telling you exactly what you needed to hear. Always, there was love in his bite. Never an agenda, though. Never manipulation. Tom is tenacious in his pursuit of excellence, and that’s true as a basketball coach, a father, a husband, a son and a friend.

I was an undergraduate at Central Michigan, coaching high school ball, when I met Tom Izzo in the mid-1980s. The first thing you remember about him? At that time, the moustache. You could never forget that moustache. I sat in the balcony in Jenison Field House [at Michigan State] and watched Tom and assistant Mike Deane working under coach Jud Heathcote on the practice floor. It was inspiring. The energy, the passion, the detail. It only further solidified my dream to become a college coach, too. We became fast friends.

When he was still an assistant to Jud, Tom let me come on a recruiting trip to the old Five-Star Camp in Pennsylvania and on to Indiana, too. He paid for everything: the food, the hotel rooms. He didn’t have to do any of it. We would talk for hours about recruiting, filling notebooks with conversations about philosophies and how to build a recruiting strategy. Eventually, I was hired as a graduate assistant coach at Michigan State under Coach Heathcote and Izzo, and returned as a full-time assistant years later once Tom succeeded Coach Heathcote after his retirement.

Our first summer together on the recruiting trail, it was difficult. Sanctions limited us to only one coach on the staff traveling on the road. Tom committed to do it. He conducted the evaluations of players across the country. We had to be in constant contact and communication. We had to share every bit of information, every day, to stay in lockstep in recruiting. Looking back, it was one of the most productive recruiting summers we ever had.

Tom Izzo and Tom Crean share a moment in 2013. (AP)
Tom Izzo and Tom Crean share a moment in 2013. (AP)

With Tom, he wasn’t always comfortable with delegating things. He was committed to mastering every part of the program: the X’s and O’s, the game prep, the scouting, the recruiting organization, the camps, the administration.

He wanted it done right, and he had to do it himself until he had the full trust in everyone else. His attention to detail was extraordinary. He felt incredible pressure to succeed, and we felt incredible pressure to help him succeed. It wasn’t that he just wanted to succeed for himself, but as much for Michigan State, too. He loved the school. He wanted to win for the Spartans. It’s one of the ultimate reasons he’s never left, because his investment is so deep into the campus and community, so unwavering.

In our third season together on the Michigan State staff, we had lost to the University of Detroit – for a third straight time – and dropped to 5-3. All around town, there were doubts about us: Could we win there? Did we know what we were doing?

The next afternoon, Tom and I were sitting in a Burger King booth near campus, trying to figure it all out. He wasn’t thinking about the Hall of Fame that day – just about keeping his job. At times, it was hard to get him to even find time to eat. He never stopped pushing. Ever. He would never turn down a speaking engagement in the state to sell the program, and he would be going and going and going.

We sat in the Burger King and he insisted that we had to get tougher. We had to practice harder. We had to do … more. Suddenly, we went from angry and disappointed to much more determined and much more driven.

We started on a run that season that ended in the Sweet 16, and set the table for a Final Four in 1999 – and Michigan State’s national title in 2000.

In those years together, there are so many lessons learned. Never once did Tom walk into the office after a victory and say to anyone, “We tricked them! We outsmarted them!” He never had that moment. Every day, he was hungry and determined and afraid we would lose every game. For everything he has done, Tom still acts surprised at his success. He’s never taken it for granted. He’s never eased back.

Something else that stays with me now at Indiana University: Tom Izzo never let the sun go down on a problem. He never let it wait until the morning. If there was an issue, he corrected it. If it meant bringing a player back in the middle of the night, he did it. If we had to stay in the office until 3 a.m., we stayed. He never went to sleep on an issue.

So when I sit in Symphony Hall on Friday night and watch Tom’s enshrinement into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, there’s an image that’ll be in my mind. Back in ’98, we were leaving on a flight for the Sweet 16 in Greensboro, N.C., and the rest of the traveling party – the players, the coaches, the administrators – were waiting on board. As Tom walked onto the plane, an announcement roared over the P.A. Tom Izzo had been voted the national coach of the year, and everyone erupted in a loud, roaring ovation. I’ll never forget the look on his face when he saw his parents standing there. I had the perfect view of the three of them making eye contact and the long, emotional hug that ensued. I nearly started sobbing.

To see Tom find his two idols in that moment – and witness the pride pouring out of his parents – is something that I’ll cherish forever. During the induction ceremony, I’ll be thinking about his father in heaven and hoping he has a perfect view of his son on the stage. I know Tom will, too.

Tom Izzo is a Hall of Famer, because he saw himself – and still does, in a lot of ways – as simply another hard-working coach trying to win the next drill, the next practice, the next game. All of it, like his career, depends on it. And to Tom Izzo, a man I love, it always does.


Tom Crean was the head coach at Marquette from 1999-2008 and has been the head coach at Indiana University since 2008.

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