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Nothing spartan about friendship

Heathcote, Izzo share lifetime of basketball

On the nickname of “Magic” alone, it seems indisputable that the most significant recruit in the coaching career of Jud Heathcote was Earvin Johnson. A spot in the Hall of Fame, five NBA rings and the 1979 NCAA title that changed the course of college basketball are persuasive, too.

But here’s another contender: Tom Izzo.

Consider: six trips to the Final Four in 16 seasons as Heathcote’s successor as coach at Michigan State, a national championship, six Big Ten titles, national coach of the year in just his third season.

OK, technically, Jud didn’t recruit him. It was Izzo, then an assistant at his alma mater of Northern Michigan, who knocked on Heathcote’s door. A decade later, Heathcote had become convinced that he’d found his replacement and engineered a rare-to-that-point royal succession, cajoling MSU leadership to name his lieutenant as the head-coach-in-waiting. And after the 1995 season, Heathcote and his wife, Beverly, moved back to Spokane where they’d met 39 years before, tossing the car keys to Izzo, who has done more than just keep the motor running.

He’s become one of college basketball’s iconic figures – without the self-importance of many of his contemporaries. MSU’s raucous student section is named The Izzone. To hype the Carrier Classic earlier this season, in which the Spartans and North Carolina played on the USS Carl Vinson, Izzo made his entrance at MSU’s Midnight Madness in a tiny fighter plane in a “Top Gun” get-up. He even sat still for an “interview” with Will Ferrell’s Ron Burgundy persona at an MSU appearance during which he tried to keep a straight face while Ferrell asked, “Have you ever been bitten by a fruit bat – two parter – and have your head swell up the size of a pumpkin?”

Heathcote, meanwhile, has remained close to Izzo and the MSU program – while adopting the one at Gonzaga, where he’s a season-ticket holder. He’s attended nearly all the Spartans’ NCAA games. He was ringside when MSU and Gonzaga hooked up in the 2001 Sweet 16 – a ruthlessly efficient Spartans win. He was in the steamy civic center in Maui when the Zags beat the Spartans in their epic triple-overtime drama in 2006.

So, of course, he’ll be on hand Saturday night – in MSU green and white – when Izzo brings the Spartans to the McCarthey Athletic Center. It’s the return game for Gonzaga’s 2010 visit to East Lansing, delayed because of scheduling circumstances last year – the topic of a typically barbed phone conversation between Izzo and his 84-year-old mentor.

“Are you ever going to play that game here?” Heathcote demanded

“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” replied Izzo. “We’re working on it.”

“Well, could you do it before I die?”

“How long do I have?” Izzo wondered.

“Not long,” Heathcote cracked.

Heathcote on Izzo

On how Izzo was hired: “He came down one year and said, ‘If there’s ever an opening, I’d like to be a part of this staff.’ He’d come down for the state tournament. When you’re from the Upper Peninsula, well, I say all the people in the UP do is shovel snow and root for the Green Bay Packers. They celebrate summer on July 4 and winter starts July 5th. Then he comes down the next year and he’s got a broken jaw, and he’s saying ‘I’d stll lke to be prt of yr prgrm.’ And I said, ‘What did you say, Tom?’ Finally the next year, we had an opening as a graduate assistant.”

On his loyalty: “He had that position for three years and I think it paid $8,000. Now he’s out of money. So he gets a chance to go to Tulsa as a full-time assistant – and he doesn’t want to go, but we make him. So he goes to Tulsa, but another of my assistants, Mike Deane, gets the Siena job so we call Tom and he can’t get back fast enough. J.D. Barnett, the head coach at Tulsa, was all upset but I call him and say, ‘Look, if you’re in Tom’s shoes, would you rather work for a good guy like me or a jerk like you?’ ”

On his work ethic: “He grew up working in his dad’s and uncle’s business. They sold shoes, did siding – all kinds of things. Tom laid carpet and shined shoes. He grew up working and never changed. No one works harder. And the reason why he does so well in the NCAAs is that he knows how to prepare for each game.”

On Izzo’s role: “I don’t think assistants thought I was hard to work for because they had freedom to coach. I don’t think all assistants have that. Tom took more control over practices than my other assistants did, other than Don Monson.”

On why he greased the succession: “I remember what happened to Marv Harshman at Washington – they wouldn’t let him recruit his last year and it killed them for two years, and maybe for 15 years. Tom deserved the job and he probably wouldn’t have gotten it otherwise, and I wanted continuity in the program.”

Izzo on Heathcote

On getting hired: “I knocked on his door two times and he wouldn’t hire me, and finally the third time there was a graduate assistant position open and I took that. Then he told me I was a dumb ass because I was overqualified for a GA job.”

On why he was so persistent: “I’m one of the rare birds here that was a Michigan State fan. When I graduated from college, my college coach took me to the Final Four in Salt Lake City and, of course, it was Magic and Jud that year. And I’d just heard so much about him – and everything I heard is what he is: a funny guy, a phenomenal coach and an incredible human being. He would never ask me to do something he wouldn’t himself.”

On what about Heathcote’s approach rubbed off: “Work ethic. Jud worked. And how to deal with the media. I was here through some tough years with him and I couldn’t believe how he treated the media. It was a valuable lesson. He said, ‘Everybody has a job to do and a boss to answer to.’ And that’s good to remember when I get mad at somebody.”

On the Heathcote dichotomy: “He was so intense and ornery, I guess would be a good word, on the court, but he could take a player he was mad at and walk off with his arm around him and tell him a joke and crack him up. That was an incredible talent to have.”

On dealing with the caustic side: “If he was mad at me, I knew it. What people struggle with is really a plus. He never tells you what you want to hear, but what you need to hear. That’s another Judism. There’s about 4,000 of those.”

Staying connected

Proud of where Izzo has taken the Spartans since he left, Heathcote is gratified that his protégé has also preserved his entrée to the program.

“I used to go to all the NCAA games and sit in the ‘war room’ and watch video and make suggestions,” he said. “I think I helped them a few times. When they listen to me.”

That appraisal draws a laugh from Izzo.

“I listen to everything he says – I just don’t like to admit it to him,” Izzo said. “When he tells me what my team’s missing, I hate that he’s always right. He’ll say, ‘When are you going to play some damned zone once in a while?’ Geez, couldn’t you just ask me if I’d like to? Then we’ll hang up and I’ll think, ‘He’s right.’ I hate that.”

It won’t take a phone conversation to get advice Saturday. Heathcote will be sitting near the Spartans’ bench rather than in his usual perch up near press row.

Can Izzo stand the heat?

“If he had any courage, he’d take my seat,” he said. “I’ll sit with Bev.”