Wojo: Before stirring the Izzo debate, listen to Aaron Henry

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News
“To me, it was ridiculous the way it blew up,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said Friday.

Des Moines, Iowa — By the next day, many were still screaming. The Spartans caught in the unexpected swirl? They were easily moving on.

“It was just coaching,” Aaron Henry said, shaking his head. “And people are blowing it up more than what it is.”

It was the rant that reverberated across college basketball, as the image of a red-faced Tom Izzo berating Henry popped up in every NCAA Tournament highlight show. Everybody had something to say, which led to the inevitable backlash outrage to the initial outrage. And please, as Michigan State returns to the court against Minnesota, and Michigan faces Florida Saturday for spots in the Sweet 16, can everyone stop raging? I mean, there’s basketball to be played and officiating to rage about.

This was a snapshot in time, not a seminar on society and the lost art of discipline. This is not to minimize the unpleasant optics, as Izzo yelled and finger-jabbed at Henry during a timeout in the Spartans’ opening victory against Bradley, and continued until a couple players stepped in and calmed him down.

This is to point out the people most affected, the players Izzo coaches, seem the least affected. And really, if they’re not crying, I’m not sure why anyone else is. I know, I know, you’ll argue a current player would never defy a legendary coach. But years later, former players remain fiercely loyal, and parents eagerly send their sons to play for Izzo, knowing exactly how the program operates.

It’s not for everyone, true enough. Izzo doesn’t claim it is. But to pretend a 10-second clip defines his relationship with his players is preposterous.

“To me, it was ridiculous the way it blew up,” Izzo said Friday. “I would publicly thank the many, many people that saw it as ridiculous.”

Much ado ...

Izzo heard from lots of them by phone and text, national commentators and former players. His team was joking about it in the locker room, as the hand-wringing filled social media. Is it a debate worth having, the treatment of college athletes in a public setting? I suppose. But it hasn’t warranted harsh debate in Izzo’s 24 years at Michigan State, and just because an incident was a little more animated, and occurred during the Tournament, doesn’t change the dynamic here.

Just ask Henry, the 6-6 freshman thrust into a starting role because of injuries to Josh Langford and Kyle Ahrens. He patiently sat at his locker for 20 minutes Friday, trying to explain why the confrontation needs no further explanation. He spoke in a sincere tone, not robotic or rehearsed. He’s a guy who wants to get better, and needs to get better for the Spartans to advance.

“No worries from our end,” said Henry, whose mistake was a series of defensive lapses. “I signed up to be part of this, and I’m loving this so far. I hope to get yelled at more, not that I’m messing up, but just to keep going.”

Henry didn’t lash back, acknowledging the benchmark of Izzo’s program – pointed accountability. He knows the best player on the team, Cassius Winston, has been through the same thing, forged by fire. Before anyone laments how it affects the youngsters, spend a few minutes listening to Henry.

“My parents loved my response,” Henry said. “They’re proud I didn’t show any disrespect or fight back, not that I wanted to. Most people would have in this generation. … The relationship we have is bigger than just coach and player, way deeper than that. I don’t want to compare it to father and son, but it’s that level of care, that level of love he has for you, that level of trust. I signed to his program for the next four years to make my dreams come true, and he’s definitely helping me toward that.”

That’s a thoughtful, mature response from a 19-year-old who apparently doesn’t need the protection many are eager to offer. The firestorm began shortly after the game ended, and featured the expected outrage from commentators such as Skip Bayless.

“Watching (Izzo) just completely lose it at his players and have to be restrained is a bad look for Michigan State and college basketball and beneath a coach with Izzo’s credentials,” Bayless tweeted. “Maybe he needs some anger management.”

Sometimes you wonder if Izzo could use a little emotional restraint, but this is who he is, and how he’s successful. And I’ll reiterate — it’s only a real issue if he goes too far and gets physical with a player. Instead of fearing he’ll duplicate Bobby Knight’s worst transgressions, Izzo deserves credit for knowing how to build lasting relationships.

Panel of defenders

One after another, former players — from Draymond Green to Miles Bridges to Jaren Jackson Jr. to Gary Harris — jumped on Twitter to passionately defend him. A biased constituency? Sure. But also the constituency that lived it, and by most accounts, loved it.

It’s also worth noting that players felt comfortable enough to put their hands on Izzo during the diatribe, not necessarily to restrain him, but to refocus him. He’s far from an untouchable, imperious leader. If anything, he wants his players to say more and react more. It’s also worth noting Henry stayed in the game, and made clutch shots late.

“I guess it’s hard on the outside looking in, but we know how much he loves us, how much he cares for us, how much he wants the best for us,” Winston said. “We giggled about it taking such a negative turn (nationally). … I don’t even think he’s misunderstood. I just think people are quick to forget. Think about last week, when he was the first one on the floor crying when Kyle (Ahrens) went down. The same way he yells at us, he cries for us.”

Oddly, this has stirred the debate of how to raise kids in a millennial world. For those who rail against a generation gone soft, Izzo is their icon. For those who fear the overuse of power, this is their argument on vivid display.

Standing up for the old school in a way only he can was Charles Barkley, who loudly defended Izzo on Friday’s CBS pregame show.

“I was so disappointed to hear all these jackasses on other networks complaining about a coach actually coaching his team,” Barkley said. “Coach Izzo, you keep doing your thing. It’s all right for a coach to yell at a player. When did we get to the point where every time a coach yells at a player it becomes a national emergency?”

Again, this is not to condone all instances of volatile behavior. It’s to suggest not all instances are alike, and some are formed by years of relationship-building, and trust that Izzo knows how to mold a winning team.

Around mid-season, Izzo sat Henry down for a heart-to-heart talk, wanting to gauge if the freshman was ready for a larger role. Even now, Izzo isn’t sure, but he’ll keep trying to find out.

 “I was thinking of benching him, but I decided I’m going to start him anyway and we’re going to move on,” Izzo said. “He’s a great kid that has improved so much. But for us to be a championship team, he’s got to improve even more. He understands that. I understand that. My players understand that. I hate to say it, that’s all that really matters to me.”

Those who expect or want Izzo to change, as the world changes around him, can make their arguments. But Henry — and many before him — would politely disagree.


Twitter: @bobwojnowski

East Region


Tip-off: 7:45 p.m. Saturday, Wells Fargo Arena, Des Moines, Iowa

TV/radio: CBS/760

Records: Michigan State 29-6, Minnesota 22-13

Next up: Winner faces No. 6 Maryland or No. 3 LSU in the Sweet 16 

West Region


Tip-off: 5:15 p.m. Saturday, Wells Fargo Arena, Des Moines, Iowa

TV/radio: CBS/950

Records: Michigan 29-6; Florida 20-15

Next up: Winner faces No. 6 Buffalo or No. 3 Texas Tech in the Sweet 16