Henning: Heathcote stressed basics, won with ‘Magic’
MSU head football coach talks about the passing of coaching legend Jud Heathcote, support for victims of Hurricane Harvey, and the season opener.
This was college basketball’s world in 1976, the year Jud Heathcote arrived as Michigan State’s newest head basketball coach.
It was a Saturday morning in July and most people, even in East Lansing, knew little about a man who that spring had decided to leave the University of Montana and accept a Big Ten job that paid, yes, $25,000 per year.
That is correct. Jud Heathcote’s starting salary at MSU was $25,000. MSU’s new football coach, Darryl Rogers, also hired in the spring of ’76, was making a whopping $40,000.
The market then was, uh, a bit different.
On this summer morning Heathcote, who on Monday died at 90, was sitting in his office at Jenison Field House. It was the size of a 1970s-era high school principal’s chambers. And furnished in roughly the same way.
Michigan State, in style with most major-college basketball programs at the time, was a long way in pay, prestige, and trappings from the Tom Izzo era.
The man who had told a Lansing State Journal sports writer to, sure, come on by, we can visit, was a portrait that morning of non-celebrity.
He was low-key, not into ingratiating himself. He was so light in profile he could slip into one of MSU’s revered nearby watering holes, Dagwood’s, for a beer and burger and it was likely not a soul other than the bartender, Bill, had a clue about him.
In like fashion, he was about to make basketball at MSU as simple as he believed the game necessarily must be.
Gotta play D
Defense. Shooting mechanics. Roles. Heathcote had a kind of figurative stone tablet on which were etched his basketball commandments.
They included: Thou Shalt Not Fail To Defend Or Block Out, Lest You Find Yourself Immediately On The Bench.
Players soon enough were going to absorb that edict. And just as quickly, to violate it, the game being what it is, played by humans.
At such an intolerable moment for the coach, Heathcote would rise to his feet, hunched a bit because of knees that had sustained tough years in baseball and basketball. He would whip his right hand across the chest of his Spartan-green blazer, index finger extended, motioning one of his momentary bench boys that he was headed onto the court to replace a certain offender.
The Spartans were 10-17 during the winter of 1976-77, playing before a community that essentially had given up on basketball and was far more concerned about football’s reconstruction.
Heathcote had no idea what was about to change. No one did. Not in any comprehensive way.
There was in Lansing a young man, Earvin Johnson, who that fall was heading into his senior year at Lansing Everett. He was a certified prep superstar. And not many expected he would stick around. Not when North Carolina, Duke, UCLA — and the University of Michigan, fresh from a NCAA championship game — were, in line with any other college basketball team in America, fantasizing about a kid who hadn’t yet acquired his moniker, Magic.
The next part is easily summarized. Part of the fallout from a cruel and impulsive firing of Gus Ganakas that spring of ’76 was that Heathcote could easily lose a star player Ganakas figured to have a real shot at landing.
But as Johnson’s senior year took on more and more national luster, and as the community sensed one teenage basketball player could bring to MSU grace and glory and healing following some impossibly turbulent years for football and basketball in East Lansing, there became a kind of gravitational will by which Johnson was being drawn to play for the Spartans.
He wasn’t a born salesman
In truth, it wasn’t Heathcote who sold Johnson. And if it would have been left, solely, with Heathcote to keep Johnson home and away from Ann Arbor, where Johnson was headed in the recruiting season’s waning days, the Wolverines rather than Spartans would have been custodians of the Magic man’s legacy.
Heathcote, as most know, hated recruiting. It’s a little like a baker being opposed to flour, but Heathcote, as many subsequent Spartans rosters were to confirm, disliked the salesmanship, the courtship, the — for him — demeaning process of coaxing teenagers to play for his university basketball team.
The man who got Johnson to sign was Heathcote’s assistant, Vern Payne, who had coached at Wayne State before joining Heathcote’s staff and who would later be head coach at Western Michigan.
Payne took charge, at a precise and pivotal moment, and in tandem with Johnson attache Charles Tucker, pulled Johnson from class one day at Everett and told a 17-year-old why it would be absolutely right and Providence-mandated for him to sign with MSU.
And he did.
Two years later Johnson was riding down Michigan Avenue as the main celebrity in MSU’s national championship parade.
That’s the Cliff’s Notes version of what transpired in three short years under Heathcote and with Johnson.
Other details are otherwise known: Johnson and Gregory Kelser rebelling after Jud’s screws-tight ways helped the team spin into a four-game January losing streak. The unconstrained winning streak that followed. Mike Brkovich’s one-and-one free throws that beat Iowa in what yet remains, for one scribe, perhaps the single most courageous and crucial, closing moments free-throws act I’ve seen on a college basketball court.
Accordingly, there was the Spartans’ close scrape getting into the NCAA tournament. That tri-champion Purdue didn’t even make the 32-team NCAA bracket that existed in 1979 illustrates the tension, the fragility, the pathos, of that winter in East Lansing.
What is remembered, though, as much as any of those preceding moments to that championship night in Salt Lake City and Heathcote’s tactical mastery in containing Larry Bird (zone with man-and-a-half harassment), are the facets to a championship season, and to the years preceding and following 1979, that were pure manifestations of a fascinating, complicated, sometimes vexing, astonishingly amusing man named George Manly (Jud) Heathcote.
A funny side, the flip side
He might have been the most comically talented football or basketball coach in Big Ten history.
And it was all timing.
Droll humor, the kind that makes you snicker days or weeks or years later at a particular line, is sourced in timing and delivery.
The flip side is that, during a season’s tumult, Heathcote could be toxic, especially for those who wrote or talked about his team.
Any word, any reference to his team, if not upbeat or praiseworthy, he saw as a potential threat to his “program” and to his personal stewardship as coach.
The fallout could be nuclear. And, personally, it was, especially during – ironically — the championship season of ’78-79.
It was a case of the head coach being fixated on reporting and commentary from, especially, the local paper. And if things weren’t going particularly well at a particular time, and the sports press was chronicling it in ways a head coach would not interpret as “helpful” — which Heathcote believed the local press should be — well, here would come the fury, not terribly unlike media responses you might see today from Donald Trump.
The difference, and this difference says everything about Jud Heathcote, is that it was always a short-term war.
Once the season ended and he was back to playing golf and we were back to writing about baseball or whatever, Heathcote was Heathcote. Funny. Incredibly warm.
And astoundingly caring.