Michigan State mum on Tom Izzo's outburst as peers rush to coach's defense

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

Michigan State University officials were mum Friday after men's basketball coach Tom Izzo drew criticism on social media and in media circles following a halftime confrontation with junior Gabe Brown in Thursday's NCAA Tournament loss to UCLA.

A spokesman for athletic director Bill Beekman said there would be no comment. Messages left with the office of President Samuel L. Stanley went unreturned.

But as school officials stayed quiet, college basketball peers continued to support Izzo, one of the game's most successful coaches.

Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo has an exchange with Gabe Brown during Thursday night's First Four game.

Following a defensive lapse by Brown just before halftime of the 86-80 overtime loss in West Lafayette, Indiana, Izzo and Brown had a heated exchange. The incident included reciprocal shouting, Brown putting his finger in Izzo's face, Izzo grabbing Brown by the arm and then by the jersey as Brown tried to walk away, up the tunnel. Izzo chased Brown down, and grabbed him by the waist, before the two disappeared from view of the television cameras.

Brown hasn't been made available to the media. Izzo, unhappy about being asked about it despite the flap's national exposure, shrugged off the exchange following the loss. He called it a "normal nothing," adding "this day and age, everything is something."

The incident was reminiscent of another exchange during the NCAA Tournament two years ago, between Izzo and Aaron Henry, when Izzo had to be restrained by other players during a fiery discussion. Both shrugged it off afterward.

"Come on, it's part of coaching," Dick Vitale, the longtime ESPN analyst, told The News on Friday afternoon. "He has great love for those kids, and they know it.

"Anybody that knows basketball knows his love is in the right place.

"He loves those kids, and they love him."

The debate has been split on social media, as it was among TBS analysts Thursday night and Friday morning. TBS's Kenny Smith said on air that the incident was "extreme, that's not normal," while Charles Barkley, sitting just to Smith's left, shot down that opinion, saying the exchange is "part of the game."

The takes on social media were just as varied.

Twenty years ago, it wouldn't have been a story, coaches and analysts agree, but it's a different era. Izzo is a university employee — the school's second-highest-paid one, at $4.4 million a year, plus bonuses, behind football coach's Mel Tucker's $5.5 million — and what if a professor had a similar exchange with a student?

Messages were sent to all 12 voting members of Michigan State's faculty senate. Ten didn't respond, and the two who did said they were unaware of the incident and, thus, couldn't comment.

"Anybody that has followed Michigan State basketball, and I've been to their practices, here's what it comes down to for me," said Steve Hawkins, the former head coach at Western Michigan. "If you love your kids hard, you can coach them hard.

"And Coach Izzo loves his kids to death. ... That trust has been established, and once trust has been established, then it becomes easier to have those open conversations."

There have been a number of complaints of verbal abuse by college basketball coaches this year, the most extreme leading to the resignation of Greg Marshall at Wichita State. He also was accused of punching multiple athletes, and putting his hands around another player's neck.

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At Detroit Mercy, the university shut down the women's basketball season in January amid allegations of verbal abuse by first-year head coach AnnMarie Gilbert. The university continues to review the allegations, made by the parents of every player on the roster in a letter to administration, and has no timetable on a resolution, athletic director Robert Vowels told The News on Friday. Eight Detroit Mercy players are either in the transfer portal or already have left.

A slew of Izzo's former players, including Draymond Green and Mateen Cleaves, expressed their support for the coach on social media, as you'd expect.

"You never want it to happen," Detroit Mercy's Mike Davis said. "But sometimes it will."

And it always has, said Vitale, who coached at Detroit and with the Detroit Pistons.

"You know when you go to Michigan State, schools like Kentucky and places like Duke, those coaches are on top because they demand excellence, they demand discipline," Vitale said. "If you don't, they're going to let you know about it.

"But they're not going to hold any grudge. It's part of the process.

"He understands what it takes to win."

Matt Charboneau contributed


Twitter: @tonypaul1984