Houston – A couple of months ago, the folks at the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame told Tom Izzo he was a finalist to be inducted as part of the 2016 class.
Izzo never dreamed he’d be at that point. Not when he was a part-time assistant. Not when he struggled through is first two seasons leading Michigan State.
And as it turned out, he didn’t believe it to be a possibility when he got that initial call.
“I thought it was an honor,” Izzo said, “but I thought my chances on the first time were one in a million. I really did.”
Izzo, of course, was saying those things Monday, just moments after he had been named as an inductee to the Hall of Fame. He was joined by the likes of NBA greats Shaquille O’Neal, Allen Iverson and Yao Ming, as well as WNBA superstar Sheryl Swoopes.
And even with a national championship on his resume, Izzo admitted making it into the Hall of Fame was as good as it gets.
“As a coach it ranks No. 1,” Izzo said. “The national championship would rank higher but that is only a group of three or four classes that got to be a part of that. To me, this is an award that was won by all 21 classes and won by all the assistant coaches. Jud Heathcote should take a big part of this honor and so I think should our president, AD … so many people have to help you to get to this point.
“A championship you have the core of the team. On something like this it’s over an entire career and more people are a part of it.”
MSU coach Tom Izzo, new member of the Basketball Hall of Fame, talks about the people who have helped him over the years. Matt Charboneau, Detroit News
There were plenty of points in the past 21 years where the Hall of Fame career could have gone off track. Izzo flirted with the NBA a couple of times – with Atlanta after winning the national title in 2000 and with Cleveland after the 2010 season.
But it was back in late 1993, when Heathcote made sure Izzo would be his successor, things started on the right track for Izzo. Some wondered why Michigan State didn’t do a national search, and two years in, with Izzo going to two straight NITs, the grumbles grew louder.
Michigan State stuck with Izzo, though, and by the end of that third season the Spartans were in the Sweet 16 after winning the Big Ten and Izzo was coach of the year. He went to three straight Final Fours after that, winning it all in 2000.
“I think Jud will be proud,” Izzo said. “If it wasn’t for Jud I wouldn’t be here at all. That was the start of it.”
The Final Fours have piled up since with last year being the seventh. Izzo has a 524-203 record and seven conference championships as well as five Big Ten tournament titles. He’s coached 10 All-Americans and 16 players have been drafted by the NBA.
The Spartans have been to 19 straight NCAA Tournaments and only Bob Knight of Indiana has won more games at a Big Ten school than Izzo.
But even with that resume, Izzo is still trying to digest the idea he’s in the Hall of Fame. He says he looks around and sees so many coaches he thinks should be in – Heathcote and former Purdue coach Gene Keady included.
And he’s still struggling with Michigan State’s loss to Middle Tennessee in the first round of this season’s tournament. It was the end to an up-and-down season. His father, Carl, died in late December, making it an even tougher year emotionally.
Through it all, Izzo believes he’s better equipped for an honor like he received Monday.
“It’s the way the world is and you’ve got to somehow adjust and bounce back,” Izzo said. “I guess what I’ve got to do a better job of is, you can be upset about a loss of a family member, you can be upset about the loss of a game, but somehow you better enjoy this moment because this one comes once in a lifetime.
“(My dad) would be so proud. I don’t think he could wrap his arms around what it means. It’s been hard for me sometimes and it hasn’t hardly sunk in yet. (The Hall of Fame) is an incredible family and fraternity like no other and, wow, to think I can rub shoulders with some of the people I get to rub shoulders with is more than incredible.”
The enshrinement ceremony will be Sept. 9 at the Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass., and Izzo looks forward to meeting more of basketball’s greats then.
In the meantime, he’ll keep recruiting, keep working toward that next championship. Doing it as a Hall of Famer will be different, but Izzo is determined not to let it change who he is and how he goes about coaching the Spartans.
“I hope not,” he said. “I just want to be Tom Izzo. I’m proud to be a member of the Hall of Fame. I’m ecstatic to be in it … but I’ve got work to do now to live up to the standard of being in the Hall of Fame, and going out in first round is not one of those things.”
HALL OF FAME INDUCTEES
Zelmo Beaty (inducted posthumously)
Cumberland Posey (inducted posthumously)
Tom Izzo, coach
John McLendon, coach
Jerry Reinsdorf, owner
Darrell Garretson, referee