‘Hard to focus’: Tom Izzo emotional as he faces heat

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News
Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo answers a question during Sunday's postgame press conference at Maryland.

College Park, Md. —  As Tom Izzo stood in the media room at the Xfinity Center on Sunday and faced continued questions about how his program has handled complaints of sexual assault, it was hard to pin down what was going through the mind of the Michigan State coach.

His team had just erased a 13-point deficit to beat Maryland, 74-68, one that forced the emotions to flow from the Hall of Fame coach as he walked off the court. It followed him to the locker room, where his players say, the tears welled up.

As he took questions Izzo battled many emotions. The one he thought of the most was how he’s felt the last few days when he’s tried to think about basketball.

“It’s been hard to focus in on basketball because then I feel guilty,” Izzo said. “There’s so many things you don’t know and I just feel guilty talking about anything else and those women that we watched and that’s about … Sure it was draining at the end for me and I was also emotional because I’m an emotional guy and I was proud of the job (the team) did and I hope that, I hope people will rally around them and I hope we’ll rally around people that need us.”

The game and the press conference that followed capped a remarkable week at Michigan State. It began with the sentencing of former doctor Larry Nassar, who was convicted of sexually assaulting more than 150 young women, some of them Michigan State students.

By Wednesday, university president Lou Anna K. Simon had resigned and Friday morning, athletic director Mark Hollis stepped down. Less than an hour after that announcement, Izzo’s program, along with Mark Dantonio and the football program, came under fire after an ESPN report said both have a history of putting the programs ahead of properly handling sexual assault complaints against their players.

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On Sunday, ESPN reporter Tisha Thompson hit Izzo hard with questions about former player Travis Walton, who was a student assistant in 2010. According to the ESPN report, Walton was charged with misdemeanor assault and battery in February of that year, a case that was pleaded down to littering in public.

He was allowed to keep coaching and, according to the report, later in April after the Spartans lost to Butler in the Final Four, Walton was accused along with two players of raping a woman. The report alleges Hollis handled the investigation and that Walton was fired. Walton told ESPN he didn’t keep coaching because he went to play in Europe.

Izzo was asked Sunday why Walton left.

“To be honest with you, I don’t know why he left,” Izzo said. “I know he went to Europe to play. As you know, I’ll still say I’ll cooperate with any investigation that’s made. I did it then, I did it before.”

That was Izzo’s overriding message Sunday to questions about past incidents – he cooperated with investigations then and has vowed to do so moving forward.

“We have a lot of work ahead of us to hopefully the day comes where we can be a real, real, real part of the healing process, face to face and helping,” Izzo said.

He was hardly at ease, however. Typically, an Izzo press conference lasts longer than with most coaches and is a lively exchange between the coach and the media. Sunday’s was not that, and it lasted just eight minutes.

It was clear the last week had taken a toll on Izzo – though he was quick to point out he and his players haven’t dealt with anything resembling the victims in the Nassar case.

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His players say the past few days have been tough on the coach.

“He probably has got the weight of the world on his shoulders and it’s our job as a team to help him out,” sophomore Cassius Winston said. “We got his back. As much as he does for us, that’s the least we can do for him.”

Izzo did open up a bit more when asked how he talks to his team about how they interact with women.

“There’s a good question, and I tell them every day,” Izzo said. “At the end of every practice, in the huddle, I go over an academic thing, a couple social things and a basketball thing. That takes place every single day and it takes place after every single game and every single trip.”

That, too, was echoed by Winston.

“That’s part of the program,” Winston said. “They’re building men first. Basketball is definitely big, but building men, building character – how you carry yourself and interact with people. That’s huge in this program.”

And that program, for better or worse, will be representing Michigan State in many ways over the next couple of months. The Spartans are a Big Ten and national title contending team, which means they’re in the spotlight.

There were no obvious signs they were treated any differently by the Maryland crowd Sunday. Its student section is one of the more vocal in the Big Ten, but there were no chants or signs about the off-court issues.

That might change, and the players understand that.

“There’s a lot of attention on us, a lot of eyes on us,” Winston said. “That’s just that way it is. We’re representing the school right now and that’s how we’re putting it. We got to carry ourselves correctly off the court, and on the court we have to show what Michigan State is about.”