Target of Tom Izzo's tirade seemingly defends coach, as do former Michigan State players

Yahoo Sports

The biggest controversy on Day 1 of the 2019 NCAA tournament was not a referee’s call. It was not a coach’s strategic decision or a player’s mistake. It was Tom Izzo’s rage.

Izzo screamed at Michigan State freshman Aaron Henry. Then, while Spartans players restrained him, he screamed some more. Reaction devolved into debates over whether Izzo was out of line, whether society has gone soft, and so on.

The following morning, Henry himself chimed in to settle them:

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Henry queued up a bull’s-eye emoji to quote tweet a video that featured former NFL wide receiver Cris Carter arguing the following:

“I’m old school as far as coaching, and what a coach can bring to a young person. ... A lot of times the optics don’t look good. But it boils down to a few small things. Coach Izzo made a promise to that kid and his parents. And last night, when he was yelling at that kid, I was wondering, if the kids parents were at the game, how would the kid’s parents feel? And you know something? The kids parents would be like, ‘That’s what we signed up for. When he say in our living room, he told us, I’m gonna promise you, I’m gonna be on your son, I’m gonna grow him from a young boy into being a real man, and I’ma get him his college degree.’

“Those are the things that Coach Izzo promises kids and their families. And that’s what Aaron Henry got last night. You don’t want to rebound? You don’t want to run back on defense? You gon’ get chewed out by the coach. And I believe this coaching will always be effective. I talked to coach Izzo last night. We went over this. The things he was saying, why he was disappointed. And he just believes, in society, people are just getting soft. They don’t want to be pushed, they don’t want to be driven. And there’s a certain standard in every business. And in his business, he set the standard. He is one of the icons we have coaching. And if I had a kid who can play basketball, he could play for coach Izzo.”

Henry’s tweet would seem to indicate he agrees with Carter’s take.

Former Michigan State players defend Izzo

Former Michigan State players agree as well. Several tweeted their support for their former coach in response to the criticism:

Draymond Green, perhaps the most well-known of Izzo’s former players right now, added some perspective:

Charles Barkley: Izzo critics are ‘jackasses’

Charles Barkley had his say the following day as well. On CBS’ Friday pregame show, while discussing takeaways from Thursday’s action, Barkley went on a mini-rant regarding Izzo’s critics:

“One of the reasons Tom Izzo is one of my favorite coaches, he coaches his team,” Barkley said. “And I was so disappointed to hear all these jackasses on other networks complaining about a coach actually coaching his team. Coach Izzo, you keep doing your thing. It’s alright for a coach to yell at a player. When did we get to a point where every time a coach yell at a player, it becomes a national emergency? So shoutout to coach Izzo, keep doing your thing.”

Thanks for that, Chuck.

So does this settle the Izzo debate?

It probably settles one, but not the other. Let’s approach this topic with a bit of nuance. There are two separate debates: 1. Whether Izzo’s behavior is acceptable, and 2. Whether his behavior equates to effective coaching.

The answer to the first question is the one Henry and Izzo’s former players provided. Acceptability is a culturally dependent term. Izzo-esque tirades might be unacceptable in many contexts; in other programs; in most cases at the next level. But Henry and others have willingly chosen to be part of a culture where this is commonplace. They’re the ones who get to decide whether it’s acceptable.

(Of course, they aren’t going to come out and say it’s unacceptable. The dynamics of power are repressive. If they felt that way, though, they wouldn’t have committed to Michigan State; Izzo has been doing this for decades.)

Tom Izzo's verbal tirade directed at Aaron Henry was the biggest controversy of the 2019 NCAA tournament's opening day. (Getty)
Tom Izzo's verbal tirade directed at Aaron Henry was the biggest controversy of the 2019 NCAA tournament's opening day. (Getty)

But is it the right way to coach?

Those same players, and many former athletes from previous eras, have been brainwashed to believe it’s the only way to coach. Many excellent younger coaches have shown it isn’t.

Intense voice-raising will always be a part of competitive sports. But Izzo’s Thursday antics went beyond the norm. Was it necessary to stick a finger in Henry’s face? To repeatedly go at him in such an aggressive manner? For Izzo to jump up out of his seat and confront the freshman with the entire team huddled around?

Wouldn’t a combination of yelling and a composed conversation on the side have been a better way to communicate a message?

There are other ways to hold players accountable. Other ways to push them. Other ways to set a standard.

It’s noteworthy, and perhaps instructive, that 21-year-old Cassius Winston understood how to get that message across more effectively than his 64-year-old coach. Winston not only stepped between the two and restrained Izzo, he also had that composed conversation with Henry. He was able to translate Izzo’s rage into something instantaneously comprehensible.

"I just felt at that moment, I could get the message to him better than coach," Winston told the Detroit Free Press postgame. "I know what it's like to be in [Henry’s] shoes. So much is going through his head."

So Izzo can continue “coaching” like that as long as teenagers continue signing up for it. But that doesn’t mean he’s getting the most out of them via his unchecked anger. The idea that chilling out equates to not coaching is ridiculous.

March Madness embed image
March Madness embed image

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Henry Bushnell is a features writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Question? Comment? Email him at henrydbushnell@gmail.com, or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell, and on Facebook.

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