Niyo: Izzo, Garland share 'brotherhood' on MSU bench

John Niyo
The Detroit News

Syracuse, N.Y. — It's the same-old story with these two.

But that's part of the secret to Tom Izzo's successful 20-year run as Michigan State's coach. He's had assistant Mike Garland with him for 15 of them, a man who's as comfortable telling tales — "Nobody tells stories like he does," Izzo says — as he is telling his boss when he's wrong. And it's no stretch to suggest that familiar bond helps form the backbone for the Spartans strength in so many unseen ways.

"I guess the best way to describe it would be it's more than a friendship, it's a brotherhood," said Garland, whose shared history with Izzo — both of them are 60 — goes back more than four decades. "It's a covenant between two guys in a relationship that's a little uncommon."

They came from different places — Garland's from Ypsilanti, Izzo's a Yooper — but both ended up on the bench together at Northern Michigan in the mid-1970s. Garland was sidelined by an injury, Izzo was a walk-on for the Wildcats, and the two grew close enough that the latter always insisted he'd hire the former if, or when, he became a collegiate head coach.

Even now, fellow Michigan State assistant Dane Fife says, "I think Coach genuinely looks at Mike like an older brother."

They certainly act like siblings, at times.

"They go back and forth," said Fife, who is 25 years their junior and in his fourth year on staff. "And while most assistants will stand down, Mike doesn't stand down a lot. … They're two pretty strong-willed individuals. You get them in the same room and you expect a fight to happen. But it never does."

A matter of trust

What happens, though, is a matter of trust, with Izzo confiding in Garland, and vice versa. ("I've shared more with him than probably I have with my family," Garland said.) And then the two of them together, along with Fife and Dwayne Stephens, figure out a way to get Izzo's message across.

It's been that way for Garland since his first season in East Lansing — Izzo's second after succeeding Jud Heathcote — and both men know that'll never change.

It's not the good-cop, bad-cop routine you might expect.

"No," junior Matt Costello agreed. "It's bad-cop, bad-cop a lot, to be honest with you."

But whether it's trying to coax more out of a senior like Branden Dawson, or nurturing a freshman like Marvin Clark, "It's still the same deal," said Garland, a high school coach at Detroit Cody and Belleville before joining the Michigan State staff in 1996.

"Watch the barn when I'm away, be the sergeant in the barracks, take care of the guys," he said.

And be honest with me, Izzo often reminds him, "even though I might not like it."

"That's been my job here," Garland said. "And you know what? I enjoy doing it."

He left for a brief time, spending three years as the head coach at Cleveland State a decade ago. After he was let go there in 2003, following three losing seasons, Garland spent a year at SMU on Matt Doherty's staff before returning to East Lansing when Jim Boylen left for Utah.

Izzo didn't "need" another African-American assistant on his staff — he already had Mark Montgomery and Stephens — "but it didn't matter to him," Garland said, "and that spoke volumes to me."

Garland's "story time," full of tales of Garland's youth — about "Googy Whitfield" and the gang — keeps the locker room in stitches. (Costello's favorite, though, is the time Garland went into a panic on a road trip after forgetting his wife's birthday.)

More than a coach

But it's his ability to listen — and teach — that keeps the players coming back for more. Players like Dawson, the enigmatic NBA talent Garland affectionately calls "a different cat." And like Clark, "a kid who has been through more than all of us combined," Izzo says. It was Garland who recruited him. And Garland, Clark said, "who saw some things in me that other people didn't. And I love him for that."

"At the same time, he gets on me," added Clark, a 6-foot-6 forward who has emerged as a key role player for the Spartans late in the season. "He's tough on me. But it's almost like he's a — I don't want to say grandpa, because I don't want to make him feel old — but he's somewhat like a grandpa. He cares for you, and he wants the best for you. He's just somebody that you can trust."

And he "has a way of letting you know that, too," Dawson said.

Ask Garland to explain it, though, and he'll tell you, "I don't know what it is."

But he remembers when he first joined Izzo's staff, and then-assistant Tom Crean told him he had a "unique ability" to walk that fine line between coach and confidante.

"I'm 60 years old now, and for the last 30 I've been trying to figure that out — I really have," said Garland, who does have three grandchildren, by the way. "People will say things to me sometimes that they won't say to anybody else."

Izzo included, of course. Because that's really how this whole thing started, isn't it?

"And when it's all said and done," Garland said, "there'll be a lot of great memories between two guys that are very close."

Probably a few stories, too.