Magic: Jud Heathcote 'pushed me to be great'

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News
Jud Heathcote coached the Spartans for 19 seasons from 1976 through 1995.

Former Michigan State basketball coach Jud Heathcote, who led the Spartans to the program’s first national championship in 1979, died on Monday at the age of 90 in Spokane, Wash.

The university made the announcement late Monday night.

“Michigan State has lost one of its icons today,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. “And yet, nothing can erase the impact on the program, the players he coached and the coaches he mentored. Spartan basketball is what it is today because of Jud Heathcote.”

Heathcote coached the Spartans for 19 seasons from 1976 through 1995. Before that, he was the head coach at Montana from 1971-1976. Heathcote, an alum of Washington State, finished his career with a 419-274 record, including a 339-221 mark at Michigan State.

Magic Johnson, the star of the 1979 title team, recalled impact Heathcote had on his life in a series of tweets early Tuesday morning.

“My college Coach Jud Heathcote will be missed so much,” Johnson wrote. “He was a great man & basketball coach who truly cared about me on & off the court. At MSU he pushed me in the classroom & coached me hard on the basketball court. I love him so much because he pushed me to be great.

“As a defensive coach known for perfecting the match up zone, we were always prepared for our opponent. He made us NCAA champions in 1979! Coach Heathcote made me a better person, player, and champion. He turned a young kid into a man. Thank you so much for all you did for me.”

Heathcote was named NABC Coach of the Year in 1990 and was twice named Big Ten Coach of the Year (1978, 1986). He led the Spartans to the NCAA Tournament nine times, getting to at least the Sweet 16 four times while winning three Big Ten titles (1978, ‘79, ‘90) and coaching seven All-Americans. Those All-Americans included Johnson, Gregory Kelser, Jay Vincent, Sam Vincent, Scott Skiles, Steve Smith and Shawn Respert.

“We are all very saddened over the loss of Coach Jud Heathcote,” Kelser posted on Twitter. “His impact on so many lives is completely immeasurable. #totallythankful”

Heathcote hand-picked Izzo to be his successor upon his retirement following the 1994-95 season. It wasn’t the most popular decision at the time.

“Without a doubt, he was one of the most influential people in my life, giving a chance when no one else would,” Izzo said. “Any coaching success I’ve had is because of him. Long after he left Michigan State, he was still one of the first people I would call when I had a tough decision in coaching or life.”

Michigan State athletic director Mark Hollis served as a student manager under Heathcote in the early 1980s.

“Coach Heathcote had an impact on so many people,” Hollis said in a statement. “For me, he was among the best teachers I had the opportunity to be around. Reflecting on my career and life, Jud was among the most influential people in regards to my preparation for both. He will be missed, yet his memory will be seen through the many different people he impacted. Our thoughts and prayers are with his wife Bev and the entire Heathcote family.”

Jud Heathcote was inducted into Michigan Sports Hall of Fame in May 2000 and into the Michigan State Athletics Hall of Fame in September 2001.

A native of Harvey, North Dakota, Heathcote replaced Gus Ganakas in 1976. A season later, Johnson arrived and by the end of the 1978-79 season, the Spartans had won their first national title.

“The basketball world is a sadder place today with the passing of Jud Heathcote,” Izzo said. “No one cared more about the welfare of the game than Jud.

He was a coach’s coach and a mentor to many. Our hearts are filled with sadness and deepest sympathy for his wife Beverly and the Heathcote family.”

Heathcote not only pushed hard for Izzo to take over after he retired, but he was always supportive of other coaches. In retirement, he became a big supporter of Gonzaga and coach Mark Few and kept tabs on coaches around the country.

“He was bigger than life. A man's man and a player's coach. He was honest and if it was on his mind, he'd say it,” Western Michigan coach Steve Hawkins told The News. “I'll never forget, 2003-04 was my first year as head coach here at WMU. The first game we played was against USC here in Kalamazoo. We won. The next day Coach Izzo called to congratulate me and we chatted for a bit. It meant the world to me. I idolized Coach Izzo and still do.

"A little later that afternoon Coach Heathcote called to congratulate me. I couldn't believe he'd take the time to even notice the score, let alone call. I was in awe. He told me stories of some of his first games as a coach and how he remembered them. He told me to cherish that game because the business gets more complicated from that day on.”

Before coming to Michigan State, Heathcote led Montana to two Big Sky championships and was named Inland Empire Coach of the Year and Big Sky Coach of the Year in 1975. The two conference titles were the first in school history. Heathcote was also an assistant at Washington State from 1964-71 after coaching 14 seasons at West Valley High in Spokane, Wash.

He served as an assistant coach of the United States Pan American team in 1975 and 1987.

Heathcote played varsity basketball and baseball for Washington State and was inducted into the school's Hall of Fame in September of 1990. Heathcote was also inducted in May 2000 to the Michigan Sports Hall of Fame and in September 2001 was inducted into the Michigan State Athletics Hall of Fame.

Heathcote received the 2001 Golden Anniversary Award for 50 years of service to basketball by the NABC at the 2001 Final Four in Minneapolis.