It was summer 2011, another July evaluation period for college coaches was just a few weeks away and we here at CBS Sports decided to pursue a three-day project that might be interesting. The project would require one writer to spend basically every minute of three days on the recruiting trail with a high-major coach while another spent basically every minute of three days on the recruiting trail with a low-major coach, and then we’d tell stories that would contrast the differences by which things are done within what is technically the same sport.
I immediately said I was in.
“But I want to go with the high-major coach,” I added.
My former colleague, Jeff Goodman, was cool with that. So he set it up where he’d travel and stay with Texas Pan American’s Ryan Marks, and I set it up where I’d travel and stay with Michigan State’s Tom Izzo.
First and foremost, because he was a big name — a man who’d already won a national championship and coached in six Final Fours. From an interest-generating perspective, it’s always better to have a big name for things like this. So that was part of it, sure. But I also wanted Izzo for practical purposes. If you’re going to spend basically every minute of three days with somebody, it better be somebody who’s cool, likable, easy to talk with and not too full of himself, and I knew Izzo to be all of those things.
So I asked to tag along with Izzo.
He agreed to let me.
We met in the lobby of a Marriott in Indianapolis early on a Wednesday morning. And, for the next three days, unless we were sleeping, and we didn’t sleep much, we were pretty much side by side. We ate meals together. We watched games together. We rode in busses and cars together. We talked a lot about basketball, about recruiting, about how, as a young Michigan State assistant, he once thought he had Chris Webber on the verge of committing to the Spartans. Only later, after the scandal broke, did Izzo realize he never really had a shot.
Here’s the thing, though: when you spend almost every minute of three straight days with a basketball coach, you run out of basketball things to talk about fairly quickly. So the conversations eventually turned to real-life stuff. We talked a lot about our wives and children, and what I found is that when you strip away all of the accomplishments and fame and money, Izzo struggles with a lot of the same things many professionally successful men struggle with. He spoke about confliction — specifically about how when he’s with his family he often wonders if he should instead be working, and about how when he’s working he often wonders if he should instead be with his family. That resonated with me. I understand those feelings. And I guess my point is that I exited those three days with more respect for Izzo than I previously had, and I already had a lot.
My favorite memory from that week is this: after a first day of watching prospects that started early and ended late, Izzo had a private plane set to take us from Indianapolis to Akron, where we’d get a decent night of sleep before spending Thursday at the LeBron James Skills Academy. Bruce Weber, who was coaching Illinois at the time, did not have a private plane. He instead had a 3:45 a.m. wakeup call to catch a commercial flight from Indianapolis to Akron, and, if I remember correctly, it wasn’t even a direct flight. In other words, after going all day in Indianapolis, Weber was about to sleep maybe three hours, get back up, head to the airport, fly from Indianapolis to somewhere, then from that place to Akron, where he’d spend another 12-plus hours evaluating players in a gym while blurry-eyed and exhausted.
One way or another, Izzo found out about this.
When he did, he invited Weber to instead just travel with us on the private plane. And I was blown away by the gesture because these weren’t two men from the same coaching tree. This wasn’t Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski inviting one of his former players and assistants (like Marquette’s Steve Wojciechowski) to ditch a commercial flight for Coach K Airlines. This was a Big Ten coach essentially sacrificing his recruiting advantage — yes, a private plane for recruiting is a massive recruiting advantage — over another Big Ten coach from a rival school in a bordering state — yes, Michigan and Illinois are bordering states — during a time when Michigan State and Illinois were in recruiting battles for some of the exact same prospects.
Simply put, Izzo just thought it was the decent thing to do.
We had an extra seat on the plane.
Weber is a decent man.
So Izzo invited him.
And that’s the best story I know that’s symbolic of why the overwhelming majority, if not all, of Izzo’s colleagues won’t be anything but happy tonight when the 61 year old from The Upper Peninsula is inducted into the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame. He has a reputation of a good man who treats people well. I don’t know if he’ll give you the shirt off of his back. But he’ll definitely give you a ride on his plane. Or a seat at his table. Or an invitation to his home. Or a phone call at your request. Or a ride to the airport.
And that’s another thing about those three days that I remember.
After spending Wednesday, Thursday and Friday with Izzo, we were parting ways. I had a commercial flight to Atlanta for another event. So I had to leave the LeBron James Skills Academy sometime early in the evening while games were still going on and coaches were still evaluating players. This was pre-Uber. So I called a taxi, told Izzo I appreciated him letting me do what he let me do and that I’d see him the following week at the Nike Peach Jam in South Carolina.
“You called a what?” Izzo asked. “No, no. I’ll take you. I’ll drive you to the airport.”
Over and over again, I told him it was OK. I reminded him that he’s working, and that I didn’t want to interrupt his work. But he insisted. I told him, if he insisted I not take a taxi, then he could just let one of his assistants drive me. But he rejected that, too.
Long story short, my chauffeur to Akron-Canton Airport was … Tom Izzo.
He just dropped me off the same way Uber now does all the time, thanked me for letting him do it, and I always thought that was … I don’t know … just interesting. Most coaches at his level won’t even drive themselves to the airport. And yet here was a man five years from the Hall of Fame acting like a grad-assistant.
You can check out what I wrote about Izzo for the “2011 recruiting trip” series here:
- The highs and lows of summer recruiting
- Z-Bo and private planes
- Long days, little good
- Done with Izzo, in ATL
Bottom line, what you’ve probably heard about Izzo is true.
There’s a reason why his former players swear by him, why his colleagues respect him, why the people who work with him on a regular basis at Michigan State love him, why media members appreciate him, so on and so forth. It’s because he’s giant of the sport who doesn’t carry himself that way at all. It’s because he’s among the best teachers of basketball on the planet but would roll his eyes if you ever said that in his presence. It’s because he’s a fair and decent man who consistently treats people fairly and decently.
You can’t say all of those things about every Hall of Famer.
But you can say those things about Tom Izzo.
And that’s why people say them all the time.
FIVE OTHER THINGS ON GP’S MIND
1. I asked 10 college basketball coaches last week how they’d handle it if one of their players wanted to kneel during the national anthem like San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, and more than half said they wouldn’t allow it or strongly advise against it. That led me to conclude that this might not trickle into college sports the way it’s moving from Kaepernick to other people and places. But I might’ve been wrong. Because three West Virginia Tech volleyball players took a knee during the anthem this week. Here’s the story.
2. Former Morehead State, Southern Miss and Tennessee head coach Donnie Tyndall appeared before the NCAA Infractions Appeals Committee on Thursday and asked it to overturn the penalties the NCAA hit him with in April — most notably a 10-year show-cause penalty. “I thought it went well,” Tyndall’s attorney, Don Jackson, told me Friday morning. How the committee will ultimately rule is anybody’s guess. But this much is certain: if Tyndall doesn’t get a favorable ruling, this case will end up in federal court.
3. News that Oregon’s Dillon Brooks is recovering from foot surgery and isn’t expected to be available at the start of the season is less than ideal, obviously. But, I’m told, there’s no reason to think he’ll miss much time even if he misses some time. So, grand scheme of things, it shouldn’t be too big of a deal for the Ducks.
4. If you live in a town where a five-star recruit also lives, and you see somebody this weekend who looks like Roy Williams or Jay Wright or Tom Crean, it probably is Roy Williams, Jay Wright or Tom Crean. That’s because college coaches are allowed to to be on the road recruiting starting today. The commitments should begin to pop at a high rate soon.
5. The Brayden Carr Foundation is a non-profit charitable organization formed in memory of Jim and Natalie Carr’s late son, Brayden, who died in 2011, before the age of 3, of complications from epileptic seizures. Jim, of course, is an assistant at Rhode Island. And the foundation is designed to, among other things, provide athletic, social, rehabilitative and academic opportunities to children with seizure conditions. Among the biggest fundraisers for the foundation is an annual coaching clinic that will take place at Rhode Island next Friday. Boston Celtics coach Brad Stevens, former UConn coach Jim Calhoun, Yale coach James Jones and Rhode Island coach Dan Hurley are all scheduled to speak. For more information, visit BraydenCarrFoundation.com.
FINAL THOUGHT: When DeAndre Ayton, the No. 1 prospect in the Class of 2017, committed to Arizona earlier this week, I wrote a column detailing how, from 2011 to 2017, Arizona has now secured commitments from 15 five-star recruits, which is second only to Kentucky. Immediately, readers started questioning why Arizona has zero Final Fours in this span despite all of that talent, and some asked if Sean Miller is the best coach in college basketball who hasn’t yet advanced to a Final Four.
I discussed this with CBS Sports’ Matt Norlander on the Eye on College Basketball Podcast and the simple answer is: Yeah, probably. Either him or Virginia’s Tony Bennett.
But I don’t see that as an indictment of Miller as much as I see it as a byproduct of using a single-elimination tournament of 40-minute games to decide the champion of this sport. In other words, yes, Miller is 0-4 in Elite Eight games, and that’s a bullet point you’ll see on television the next time he coaches in the Elite Eight. But do you know what that tells me more than anything else? It tells me Miller has made four Elite Eights before the age of 47. And it suggests he’ll make several more before he retires.
Eventually, he’ll break down that door.
It would be silly to bet against him.
So, yeah, Sean Miller might be, right now, the best coach to never make a Final Four.
But I’d be shocked if he keeps that label much longer.
Source: CBS Sports Headlines / There are many reasons why Michigan State’s Tom Izzo is joining the Hall of Fame