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Spokane’s Jud Heathcote, longtime coach at Michigan State, dies at 90

UPDATED: Mon., Aug. 28, 2017

By John Blanchette For The Spokesman-Review

He was Spokane basketball’s droll godfather but legendary in the game nationwide, and not only because he unleashed Magic Johnson on the world and won a national championship.

Only in the end did Jud Heathcote go peacefully, dying in his sleep Monday morning at Sacred Heart Medical Center after a series of health issues over the years. He was 90.

From his start and 14-year stay at West Valley High School to being Marv Harshman’s invaluable assistant at Washington State to resurrecting the program at the University of Montana to building an NCAA power – and champion – at Michigan State, Heathcote’s reputation as a teacher and steward of basketball was impeccable, buffeted by a colorful courtside demeanor that ranged from hang-dog to volatile.

His wit – sharp yet somehow without lasting sting – was no less heralded. Heathcote grew into one of the sport’s go-to voices, the comedy as welcome as his common sense.

All that was recognized in 2009 with his induction into the College Basketball Hall of Fame.

“No one cared more about the welfare of the game than Jud,” said Michigan State coach Tom Izzo – who Heathcote groomed as his successor – in a statement released by the school.

And when Heathcote retired, he returned to Spokane – staying connected from his seat just off the McCarthey Athletic Center concourse at Gonzaga games, weekly lunches with Gonzaga coaches Dan Monson and Mark Few and by traveling with his beloved Spartans on their many treks through the NCAA tournament bracket.

His Final Four gatherings of coaches became legendary, and often included members a vast coaching “tree” of former assistants who went on to become outstanding college coaches in their own right – Izzo, Don Monson, Jim Brandenburg, Mike Montgomery, Tom Crean and Kelvin Sampson just a few among them.

Heathcote became a head coach straight out of college at Washington State, landing at West Valley in 1950 and compiling a 165-129 record that included four trips to the state tournament.

Then it was back to WSU to coach the freshman team to a 99-9 record – though it was his role as Harshman’s assistant where he made his greatest impact, the Cougars rising to become UCLA’s biggest challenger in the late 1960s.

In 1971, Heathcote landed his first collegiate head coaching job at Montana, a veritable basketball backwater before his arrival. It was there he made his first national splash – pushing John Wooden’s final UCLA team to the limit before losing 67-64 in the NCAA West Regional semifinals.

But he won a national championship at Montana, too. An avid handball player – he played into his 70s – Heathcote coached the Grizzlies’ club handball team that won the intercollegiate title in 1973.

And in 1976 it was off to Michigan State, where the program did a brisk 180 with the recruitment of Johnson – whose showdown with Indiana State’s Larry Bird and victory in the 1979 NCAA championship game changed the face of the college game. It remains the highest rated televised college game in the history of college basketball.

In 24 years as a college coach, Heathcote compiled a record of 417-276. That included three Big Ten and two Big Sky championships, and 10 trips to the NCAA tournament.

A native of Harvey, N.D., Heathcote was the son of a coach, though he was only 3 years old when his father died. His mother, a teacher, moved the family to Manchester, Wash., and Heathcote developed into a fine three-sport athlete at South Kitsap High School. After a year in the Navy V-5 program as World War II ended, he enrolled at Washington State and played basketball for Jack Friel.

Heathcote is survived by his wife of 59 years, Beverly, and children Barbara, Carla and Jerry.

No date for a memorial service has been set.

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