Michigan State coach Tom Izzo says he was impressed by the focus his players maintained last season. Matt Charboneau, The Detroit News
Rosemont, Ill. — In late January, in the wake of the Larry Nassar sexual assault scandal at Michigan State that led to the resignation of university president Lou Anna K. Simon, ESPN published a report that said there was a history of the school and its athletic department of essentially covering up incidents of sexual assault in football and men’s basketball, its two biggest programs.
The night the report was first published, on Jan. 26, football coach Mark Dantonio met with the media just minutes before the basketball team was set to play Wisconsin and emphatically defended his program.
“Any accusations of my handling of any complaints of sexual assault individually are completely false,” Dantonio said. “We have always had high standards in this program and that will never change.”
After the game, Izzo was less forceful, instead limiting his answers because of ongoing investigations. It was the beginning of weeks of being dogged by questions pertaining to the report, even getting chased to the locker room by an ESPN reporter at Maryland.
Many Spartans fans wondered why Izzo didn’t respond as Dantonio did, giving a forceful denial that might have ended some of the questions.
Well, that moment came Thursday at Big Ten basketball media day.
“The thought that I was gonna hide something like what happened makes me sick,” Izzo said. “The thought of that makes me sick. It’s never been hidden. It never was. That was the big complaint on me and Dantonio and (former athletic director Mark) Hollis and it never was hidden. Never will be hidden.
“I did everything I was asked to do. I followed every procedure and policy that was in place. … If there was a time a player was found guilty of something, I promise you he will not be on this team. He will not be on this team.”
Just days after the original report was published by ESPN, “Outside the Lines” presented a graphic that included Izzo and Dantonio with Nassar and the title “Hidden Secrets.”
That image still had Izzo seething Thursday.
“I don’t regret anything except that I couldn’t talk,” Izzo said. “It’s easy to say I could have talked, but I wasn’t winning that battle. … But (reaction) wasn’t about what happened, it was about what Izzo and Dantonio hid. It wasn’t about what happened it was about a picture that will go down the rest of my life as the lowest part of my life to be on there with a pedophile like I was on there with. … That picture, which was completely uncalled for, had nothing to do with anything. Didn’t know the guy. Didn’t deal with the guy
“I guarantee you I’m trying to do the right thing. I’ve always tried to do the right thing and I was appalled when that picture dragged in everything. There were no hidden secrets.”
No criminal charges were filed in any of the sexual assault cases surrounding the basketball program, and a misdemeanor assault charge against former player Travis Walton, who was serving as a student assistant in early 2010, was reduced to littering.
As for the report that Walton lived Izzo at the time, he said that was not true.
MSU's Cassius Winston, Nick Ward and Joshua Langford talk at Big Ten media day Matt Charboneau, The Detroit News
When asked about a federal lawsuit filed in April against Michigan State claiming three basketball players raped a woman in 2015, Izzo said he also had no knowledge of that incident at the time.
How much the off-the-court problems affected the Spartans last season is debatable. One of the most talented teams in the nation, Michigan State won 30 games and the Big Ten regular-season championship. But the postseason went south as the Spartans lost in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
Izzo on Thursday credited his team for remaining as focused as they did.
“Maybe in a way (it affected us),” guard Cassius Winston said. “You just felt it and you felt it on campus. You felt something was different. It wasn’t about us, but it felt like we were always the center of attention. Our name was always somewhere. You definitely felt it.”
Izzo said Thursday he fears any serious allegation against a player will now result in immediate suspension, a decision he said has been made by the “court of public opinion.”
He also defended his record for handling player punishment over his 23 years as head coach.
“I've kicked kids off for drugs, I've kicked kids off for bad academics,” he said. “I'm not going to kick somebody off for sexual assault? That's insulting. That's insulting to me.”
Since the report came out, the NCAA has cleared Michigan State’s athletic department of any wrongdoing in the Nassar case while Izzo’s program also was cleared of any issues in the ongoing federal case into corruption in college basketball recruiting.
It’s capped a long offseason that Izzo hopes leads to a much better year on the court.
“I have a great appreciation for what all kinds of different people went through,” Izzo said. “I don’t feel exonerated, so that didn’t have any play in it.
“I’m trying to do the best job I can do helping the survivors heal, helping the students do better, helping our university do better. I work at an incredible place and my goal is to make it the safest, greatest place it can be.”