Beilein and Izzo respect the rivalry — and each other

James Hawkins
The Detroit News
They are rivals on the court, but Michigan’s John Beilein, left, and Michigan State’s Tom Izzo have a cordial relationship.

Ann Arbor — When Michigan coach John Beilein was resting and recovering after having heart surgery this past summer, his phone was flooded with messages from well-wishers.

One of the first people to reach out? Michigan State coach Tom Izzo.

It was a small gesture but one that shows the mutual admiration between the guiding figures at opposite ends of a passionate intrastate rivalry.

While the hatred and disdain might flow freely through the veins of the players and the fan base, it has seemingly never worked its way to the top at either program.

That likely won’t change come Sunday, even when No. 7 Michigan and No. 10 Michigan State square off in a highly anticipated matchup at Crisler Center, where emotions will be running high and one team will be knocked from atop the Big Ten standings.

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“I don't think we've ever been to dinner or anything like that,” Beilein said on Friday. “But we understand we are both really blessed to be coaching at these two universities. There's a lot of respect. Our escapes are similar — our family and getting out on a lake in the summertime for a short time. There's no animosity at all, but we don't text often, we don't call often.

“If there's something big in the league, he and I usually connect, and we say, 'OK, what do you think of this? (Commissioner) Jim Delany is going to do this. What do you think? Or the NCAA is doing this.' Both of us are involved with the NCAA — he worked for the NABC (National Association of Basketball Coaches) and with my ethics coalition experience during this last decade — there's been a lot of input about the changing world of the NCAA that he and I share.”

While Beilein and Izzo aren’t necessarily best buds off the court, they both come from small towns — Izzo from Iron Mountain in the Upper Peninsula and Beilein from Burt in Western New York — and share a similar outlook on their profession.

“We both understand the challenges of this life and it's a great life,” Beilein said. “I mean, we're compensated so well. We have so many great things. But the demands on our life — there's some connection there that just making sure that when your summers are all recruiting — you understand why you get a big paycheck.

“At the same time, we're always trying to get back to our roots as well. … I think we come from similar beginnings.”

Beilein said while the rivalry means a lot to the fans and its importance is "ingrained" in his players, he approaches it like it’s just another game. For Beilein, the meeting isn't a “life or death situation” and it isn’t “how we measure our success” like football, where teams play once and the outcome could determine who goes on to play for the conference championship.

But unlike some rival college football coaches, there are never any veiled shots or verbal barbs lobbed back and forth between Izzo and Beilein.

“Everybody wants to make it a love affair,” Izzo said. “I have great respect for John and I’m sure he does for me. What I’m proudest about is I think both programs have done it the right way.

“That might seem corny, but it’s very important to me and I’m sure it’s very important to him. We have a good mutual relationship that’s built on respect and knowing that both teams are good, and I think both coaches are good.”

Beilein agrees both Michigan and Michigan State have been representative of the top teams in the Big Ten. And rather than pump up his own program’s merits, Beilein opts to celebrate both.

In the last 10 seasons, Michigan and Michigan State have combined for five Big Ten regular-season championships, five Big Ten tournament titles and five trips to the Final Four, including three appearances in the national championship game.

“For both of these programs to be where they have been — a whole bunch of championships and Final Fours in the last decade between the two of us — who's doing that?” Beilein said. “What other state is doing that with two schools in the same state? Duke and North Carolina. That's the only one you can compare.

“Is Virginia and Virginia Tech doing that? Is UCLA and Stanford doing that? It's not happening.”

That success hasn’t slowed down this season. The Wolverines and Spartans are a combined 46-8 and are tied for first place in the Big Ten at 13-3 with four conference games to go. They're also projected to be No. 2 seeds in the NCAA Tournament.

The job Beilein and Izzo have done heading into Sunday's showdown? One can only respect it.

“It really says a lot about what two great programs we have, along with those other ones that have been in the NCAA Tournament this past decade,” Beilein said. “We've got some great programs in this state."

Twitter: @jamesbhawkins

Michigan State at Michigan

Tip-off: 3:45 p.m. Sunday, Crisler Center, Ann Arbor

TV/radio: CBS/950, 760

Records: No. 7 Michigan 24-3, 13-3 Big Ten; No. 10 Michigan State 22-5, 13-3

Outlook: Michigan leads the conference in scoring defense (57.7 points) and Michigan State ranks No. 2 in scoring offense (80.2 points). ... The Spartans and Wolverines are the top two teams in the Big Ten in assist-turnover ratio and scoring margin. ... Michigan has won each of the last three meetings by double digits. ...The Wolverines will honor the 30th anniversary of the 1989 national title team during the game, which will be a "Maize Out."