East Lansing – When Tom Izzo has needed someone to talk to during the bulk of his 23 seasons as Michigan State’s head coach, there was one phone call he almost always made.
That, of course, was to his former boss – Jud Heathcote.
It was Heathcote that gave Izzo his shot as an assistant and it was Heathcote that hand-picked Izzo as his successor. And while Heathcote retired and moved to Spokane, Wash., he was always on top of what was happening with the program, talking regularly his is successor.
Heathcote died in August at the age of 90, and Saturday’s game with Purdue will also serve as a chance to pay tribute to the coach that brought Michigan State its first national title back in 1979.
And as much as Izzo is looking forward to it, he still wishes he had those talks with his old boss.
“The last two weeks I’ve been calling but nobody’s answering,” Izzo said this week.
Things have been a bit different lately for Izzo. The pressures of the season have always been there, but a recent report from ESPN questioning Izzo’s handling of sexual assault cases involving his players have brought added negative attention he and the program are not used to.
It’s during these times Izzo truly misses Heathcote.
“I don’t know if he would have told me to keep my mouth shut, because that’s not what he would have done,” Izzo said. “Jud on things like this, might have flown out here, might have spent some time. I’ve got to admit, I do miss that. Because there are only a few people that know you well enough and then have had some experience (in dealing with this). I’ve got a lot of friends who know me but have no idea what my job contains. I do miss that. I really do. Once in a while, I look up, maybe he’s giving me some advice that I just don’t hear, but I’m feeling.”
The tribute to Heathcote happens to come as Michigan State takes on Purdue, and it was former Purdue coach Gene Keady that Heathcote was close to. Keady will be on hand for the tribute, which will take place during halftime and include Heathcote’s wife, Beverly.
“Gene was the first guy that called,” Izzo said. “Jud would want Gene here and it happened to be the Purdue game and that’s not why he’s coming. He’s coming for Jud and will get to enjoy the Purdue game, too.”
While it’s a big day for Izzo and those who remember Heathcote, Izzo said he’s doing what he can to make his current team aware of what Heathcote meant to the program. He plans to show them a video before Saturday’s game and remind them what Heathcote meant to the program.
But most hear about him all the time. As Izzo said, there is rarely a day that goes by he doesn’t use a “Jud-ism.” Just this week, he ribbed assistant Dane Fife, who said MSU has to keep Purdue’s Isaac Haas off the block.
“I said, ‘As Jude would say looking down, you have a wonderful sense for the obvious,’” Izzo said with a laugh.
So, Heathcote is never far from Izzo’s thoughts. His assistants know it. His players do, too.
“I know it means everything to him,” senior Lourawls Nairn Jr. said. “We’re playing this year with his name on our jersey and that is something you can’t take for granted.”
It is also reunion weekend for the program, so plenty of Heathcote’s players will be on hand.
It will all be weighing on Izzo — honoring his mentor, bringing the program together, playing for a Big Ten title.
“How much do I miss Jud right now?” Izzo said. “Jud was the kind of guy that would give me a lot of crap. If we lost and it was a game we maybe should have won, he’d be on me about it. But then the minute, if it was (media), if it was fans, if it was my wife, then he’s writing me a long letter, he’s making a phone call that meant the world to me. That I do miss right now.”
Above all else, Izzo hopes he makes his old boss proud.
“This game means a lot to me for a lot of reasons,” Izzo said. “It means a lot to me because it is a way to honor him. Win, lose or draw I hope we play the way he would want us to play.”