Bob Wojnowski: As the sports world flickers, Tom Izzo keeps the passion burning

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It’s late March and Tom Izzo is busy cleaning his garage, and his attic, and his home office with the overstuffed drawers. He’s thinking about going back to woodworking and refinishing furniture. And he finds himself talking more to his 93-year-old mother, Dorothy, about surviving the polio epidemic.

In this upside-down world, everyone’s finding things to do and things to think about (and not think about.)

“I’m being a human again,” Izzo says. “It’s a scary time for our country. I feel like, who needs to hear about basketball?”

The menacing new world affects people in such starkly different ways, it’s almost impossible to reconcile. Health-care workers labor in horrific circumstances and businesses struggle to stay open during the pandemic. For everyone else, the best way to help is by going nowhere.

Like most of us, Izzo is a captive of the times, stuck in place. This usually is the defining month for his Michigan State basketball program, and he finds being home unsettling, and also enlightening. Before contemplating what lies ahead, he wistfully considers that could have been — the peaking Spartans rallying behind the incomparable Cassius Winston to win the national championship. In a flash, the feisty Izzo is back, a burst of normalcy in a world gone crazy, in a sports world gone silent.

“You can say a lot of teams had a chance, but I think we seriously, seriously, seriously had a legitimate chance,” Izzo says. “I was texting Magic (Johnson) the other day and I said, even a pessimist like me thought we had a real shot at the end. We had four or five guys that played in the Final Four last year, including my quarterback (Winston) and my center (Xavier Tillman). We had things some of my teams never had.”

It’s late on a Friday night — Sweet 16 weekend — and Izzo is talking about resetting, refreshing, and most important, recharging. At times, he sounds angry — at the coronavirus, at the ever-shifting college basketball landscape, at the constant whir of scrutiny, at transfer portals and leaps to the pros, at cruel fates.

Before we talked, I truly wondered if he wanted to do the job much longer. By the time we were done, there was little doubt.

“All we went through, I probably would have just hung it up in a couple years,” he says. “But you know what? I might go longer now just because I’m (ticked) off at the world.”

Nearly three weeks later the games seem inconsequential, but life goes on, and there will be basketball again. When he’s not calling recruits, or current players, or current players’ parents, or former players and other coaches, Izzo watches tapes from this past season, and is convinced something was forming.

The Spartans were on a roll, winning five straight to capture a piece of the Big Ten title. Winston had rebounded and seemed to be handling the mental anguish of losing his brother, Zachary, to suicide. After being ranked No. 1 in the preseason, the Spartans had lost Joshua Langford to a foot injury and briefly lost the focus of Tillman, as he awaited the birth of his second child.

But here they were again, a fashionable NCAA title pick as the Big Ten Tournament began in Indianapolis. And then, in an unprecedented blur, there it went, canceled like every other event in America, and the toughest part was telling a tear-streaked Winston his college career was over.

“That was a hard deal,” Izzo says. “Cassius is smoother than I am, I’m more up and down like a yo-yo. But it was a tear-jerker. I mean, wouldn’t this have been such poetic justice? Ranked No. 1, then unranked, then went through death and babies being born and came back and won it all? Tell me that wouldn’t have been a book.”

It might have been a fitting final book, the long-coveted second championship for Izzo. With all he and the Spartans had experienced the past three years, it might have been time to wrap it up, 25 extraordinary seasons with 10 Big Ten titles and eight Final Fours.

Izzo, 65, has been considering his career mortality for a while now, compounded by the Larry Nassar scandal that swept the campus and affected everyone, even those who had nothing to do with it. Then there was a crushing first-weekend NCAA loss to Syracuse in Ford Field, followed by a rejuvenating Final Four run last season.

And then something no one could ever prepare for, the Winston family tragedy that buckled one of the greatest, most-stoic guards ever to play at Michigan State. The toll on Winston was obvious. He wasn’t as sharp, turning the ball over, missing easy shots. But remarkably, he was finding his way just as the tournaments were to begin.

The toll on Izzo was less obvious, because although Winston needed help, he couldn’t bring himself to coach with the same fervor. He’d feel guilty if he yelled at Winston, and guilty if he didn’t.

“I mean, it was the worst,” Izzo says. “I’d come home and beat myself to death, saying what a (jerk) I am. We’d sit in the locker room after big wins and I felt guilty celebrating. …. Then we lost a few games and people are saying, what’s wrong with Michigan State? They’re ripping me, saying I should retire, the game’s passed me by. Everybody says to have thick skin, but man, it really bothered me.”

Izzo was miffed by the narrative that the Spartans were underachieving, that people didn’t understand the impact of injuries and Winston’s situation. He also was shaken by the controversy surrounding Mark Dantonio, and he spent nights at the football coach’s house, counseling him on how to handle the criticism. At the height of it all, Izzo suggested to the media that if Dantonio were to leave under pressure, he’d be right behind him.

Circumstances got murky and Dantonio suddenly retired Feb. 4 — “It was tough the way the whole thing went down, but there’s a lot more to it,” Izzo says. He talks to Dantonio periodically and finds his former compatriot upbeat but a little bored. When the topic of retirement comes up, Izzo brushes it aside.

“I just hate sitting around, this isn’t me,” he says. “I gotta admit, there were times in the last couple years, I said just go to the NBA, because I see the changes in college. I said this to (John) Beilein when he left, and I know why he left. But man, if you don’t get guys to trust you in that league, you’re dead. You’re dead.”

Maybe that was a well-timed cautionary tale for Izzo, nothing further to explore there. Now, he doesn’t sound beaten down or detached from basketball. Frankly, he sounds as passionate as ever, especially about the one-time transfer proposal that potentially could turn the postseason into a free-agent frenzy.

“I complain all the time about this transfer rule because I say we’re teaching kids when the going gets tough, just bolt,” Izzo says. “And sometimes I look at myself and say, the harder it is, the more I’m going to fight. I still work a zillion hours. I’m gonna be ornery until I win another title, and that doesn’t mean I’ll quit then either.”

Even before the world flipped, Izzo was concerned about the game. He was agitated that in the midst of so many transfers, his candidate, Joey Hauser, wasn’t ruled eligible.

The issue of rampant player movement is growing, in all directions. Tillman, who was a dominant defender by the end, said he’ll put his name into the NBA draft, but could return to Michigan State. Izzo expects Aaron Henry and Hauser to do the same to get feedback. But with the uncertainty over when sports will resume, can players even get an accurate assessment of their status? Izzo said he’s been calling NBA GMs to gather information for Winston and Tillman, but teams had expected to use the tournaments to evaluate.

By Izzo’s current count, he could have eight of his top nine players back — Tillman, Henry, Rocket Watts, Gabe Brown, Malik Hall, Marcus Bingham Jr., Thomas Kithier and Foster Loyer. Early top-25 projections have the Spartans as high as sixth.

“If Xavier stays, we’re gonna win big,” Izzo says. “If he goes, we’re gonna win pretty big. Xavier is really good, Hauser is really good, Rocket’s gonna be way better. We gotta find a point guard, either already here or in recruiting.”

Izzo is looking at transfers too, and roster management has become a major issue for coaches. He understands it, and recognizes players deserve freedoms they haven’t received in the past. Allowing one transfer for any player, regardless of the reason, is the hot-button plan advocated by Jim Harbaugh.

As in basketball, football transfers produce mixed results. Yes, high-profile quarterbacks — Joe Burrow, Justin Fields, Jalen Hurts — improved their situations and their new teams. But NCAA statistics show nearly half of football players in the portal are walk-ons, and there’s no guarantee they’ll land a scholarship anywhere else. Last year, 1,066 players entered the basketball portal, and the number keeps rising.

“To me, these transfer rules are going to ruin our profession,” Izzo says, heating back up. “I’m gonna get ripped because I’m going against the portal until the day I’m done. I think we’re teaching kids how to quit on something immediately. You didn’t start this year? Well, quit. Oh, you didn’t score 30 points? Well, quit. It’s not because I’m worried about losing a kid or roster management. It’s because I think we’re hurting them. You know, (Spartan great) Morris Peterson would’ve left 100 times!

“So you’re recruiting and re-recruiting all the time. I met individually with each of my players on that Friday (after the tournament was canceled) and I told them, ‘By the way, if you want to get in the transfer portal, save yourself the time, just leave. I understand you got to do what you got to do, but if I get kids that want to be here, I’m gonna win anyway.’”

Isolation isn’t easy for most, but for a social being like Izzo, it’s particularly disorienting. He goes on jogs and bike rides. He drives his daughter to the grocery store but stays in the car, for fear of succumbing to glad-handing. He jokes with his wife, Lupe, they should “eat off the floor in the garage because I think it’s cleaner than the dishes.”

Reset time doesn’t stop the mind and if anything, there’s more time to ponder the future and revisit the past. He doesn’t binge-watch any TV shows so he spends a lot of time on the phone, and watches a lot of Michigan State games.

“If I can keep myself sane, I can be reflective and say, what should I have done different, what could I have done better?” Izzo says. “I’ve looked at that Syracuse game a bunch of times. I even went back and looked at the Middle Tennessee State tape.”

That was the biggest upset of his career, when the second-seeded Spartans fell to a hot-shooting 15 seed in the first round in 2016. He hadn’t watched it in a long time, so why torture himself now?

“Because I don’t look at the torture now,” he says. “I loved that team and we played hard, and (stuff) happens. I look at it as, let’s face it, I don’t have 20 years left. I have a burning desire to win another national championship, and think about this — the last seven years, from ‘14 on, we were right there knocking on the door every year but one (‘17). I’m gonna get another shot, I am. And I hope, if we all can live through the pause button, we’ll start appreciating more.”

He speaks with assurance in the most uncertain times, almost out of motivational reflex, to feel normal again. Nothing will ever be exactly as it was, but whatever is next, the guy with the cleanest garage in East Lansing plans to be ready for it.


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