A new century had just dawned, and Tom Izzo was a fresh-faced 45-year-old the last time Michigan State was celebrating an NCAA basketball title.
This is the seventh time since that 2000 championship run that Michigan State has reached the Final Four, giving Izzo, 64, a score to settle in Minneapolis.
He doesn’t want to be another one-and-done. He knows some critics believe he needs a second title to validate the rest of his accomplishments.
“I’d say they’re right because I need to validate it for me,” Izzo said. “I have my own goals. … And what I want to do is put Michigan State University in rare air.”
Of course, there is more to a coach’s legacy than championships.
Izzo took heat two weeks ago for an aggressive, on-court tirade at freshman Aaron Henry, but Michigan State’s players rushed to their coach’s defense. The rest of the NCAA tournament has been an extended lovefest for Izzo.
Consider these words from the coach of Michigan State’s opponent Saturday: “Coach Izzo is always one of my, you know, idols,” Texas Tech coach Chris Beard said. “In our program, we have terminology: ‘Michigan State toughness,’ ‘Tom Izzo rebounding.’ … It’s almost surreal that we’ll be having a chance to coach and play against him.”
Inside Michigan State’s locker room Friday, Henry was talking about all the things Izzo has taught him since he arrived on campus last summer.
Two games after Izzo’s televised tongue-lashing, Henry scored a career-high 20 points with eight rebounds and six assists in the Spartans’ Sweet 16 win over LSU.
“You’d be wrong to judge [Izzo] in that clip that you saw in the Bradley game,” Henry said. “The relationship is much more than him yelling at me or him getting on me. He sits down and talks to me as well and tries to help me the best way he can.”
Anybody who watched Michigan State’s upset of Duke last Sunday knows Izzo hasn’t softened. Xavier Tillman made a basket, starting the Spartans’ late comeback. After Duke’s next possession, Izzo called timeout and started laying into Tillman before captain Cassius Winston grabbed the coach by both shoulders to calm him down.
Izzo gathered himself and drew up the inside-out play that set up Kenny Goins’ game-winning three-pointer.
“That’s what we do,” Izzo said. “They say we’re a family. You’ve got to push people, and you’ve got to compliment people. It’s kind of sad that certain things happen and nobody sees 95 percent of what goes on. And in that 95 percent of what goes on, there’s a lot more pulling and hugging than pushing.”
Izzo loves the way this team has responded. He compared it to his first Final Four squad — the 1998-99 team of Mateen Cleaves, Morris Peterson, etc., the season before they won the NCAA title.
“This team isn’t as physically tough as that one,” Izzo said. “But they might be as mentally tough as any team I’ve ever had.”
The only coaches with more Final Four appearances than Izzo’s eight are Mike Krzyzewski (12), John Wooden (12), Dean Smith (11) and Roy Williams (nine).
But when it comes to NCAA titles, Izzo isn’t in such select company. Many coaches have won one national title. The group that has won two or more has just 15 members.
For those who say Izzo needs a second title, he said: “Five years ago, fire and brimstone in me would have wanted to fight that person. Now I want to say, ‘You’re right.’ ”
Izzo is relishing the chance to do it in Minnesota, where his late friend Flip Sanders carved his basketball legacy before dying of Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2015. Izzo and Saunders often called each other late into the night, just to talk.
These days, there’s often another Saunders on the phone for Izzo at 1 a.m. It’s Flip’s son, Ryan Saunders, the Timberwolves interim coach.
“He actually told me the first time I called him in the middle of the night he got a little choked up because he saw ‘Saunders’ and he had missed that over the last couple of years,” Ryan Saunders said.
Izzo said he hopes to see Ryan and his mother, Debbie Saunders, while he’s in town.
As for Flip, Izzo said he hopes he’s “enjoying a beer up there with Jud [Heathcote, his predecessor at Michigan State], and my father, and Gus [Ganakas, Heathcote’s predecessor] and all the other guys who are looking down upon us.”
Staff writer Chris Hine contributed to this report.