Despite NBA rumors, Tom Izzo finds peace through transparency
Michigan State's coach has been involved in plenty of job offers over the past two decades. He's almost always up front about the process. Why does he choose to be that way?
NEW YORK -- There's a flattering but awkward backdrop to the regional semis here in Manhattan. There's also an apt stage. Playing in an NBA arena -- the World's Most Famous -- three of the four coaches who've taken their teams to the Sweet 16 in the East Regional either have strong connections to the pros or have been linked to possible gigs as coach of an NBA team.
You have UConn's Kevin Ollie, whose reputation was tremendous during his NBA playing days. He's probably still a couple more successful years away from really being lured out of college, but the potential exists there, nonetheless. There's Iowa State's Fred Hoiberg, who worked in the Minnesota Timberwolves' front office after a 10-year NBA career. There is zero doubt now he was the right choice for ISU in 2010 after the Cyclones' third straight NCAA Tournament appearance, their second back-to-back-to-back NCAAs in program history.
And then you have Michigan State's Tom Izzo. His six Final Fours, .715 career winning percentage and tremendous standing within college and pro circles make him an annual obvious candidate for consideration at the next level.
But unlike Hoiberg, who's a bit new to this scuttlebutt and respectfully let out a "no comment" Thursday about anything regarding the NBA, Izzo's more than willing to discuss where he's at practically by the minute. You don't see many coaches, in any sport, speak as freely on the record about their current job status or possible future situations the way Izzo does. It almost makes you halt with how frank he can be.
Izzo told CBSSports.com that he has always felt much more comfortable not hiding things. He can't fight everything off now anyway. He said even when he's forthcoming, people still doubt him.
"When there is a situation, I've been lucky enough to have an AD and a president that, if I want to explore it, they let me," Izzo said. "I just get tired of people telling me -- I don't mind if somebody speculates; that's OK, that's your job -- but when you tell me, 'I know this guy's talked to you.' I haven't talked to anybody. I want to make sure people know that."
The latest speculation circles around the Detroit Pistons job. It's not the first time Detroit and Izzo have been linked. But Izzo said he has also had advanced conversations in the past with Toronto, Atlanta and of course Cleveland, a job he came so close to taking in 2010. This time with Detroit, it has become a nag more than a honeyed situation. Pistons owner Tom Gores is an MSU grad, which has accelerated some belief that Izzo could be a natural target or that Izzo has been in contact with the franchise.
"I've never met Tom Gores, never talked to him," Izzo said. "People give me the, 'I know you've talked to him. You're just not telling me.' No I didn't. And I've been pretty honest all the way about all these jobs. Except Cleveland, I shut my mouth because we had it with the media that year and they said, 'You shouldn't be so honest,' so I didn't. I didn't deny, I just didn't answer."
This time around, Izzo's answering and answering often. Earlier this week on The Dan Patrick Show, Izzo told a national radio audience that "150 percent no" he hadn't talked to anybody about the Pistons job. Why does he continue to do this? In part because he wants a little more ease in the locker room for his players, but he also knows it's about reputation. Izzo doesn't want to ever be seen as hypocritical. Unintentionally, Nick Saban gave him a lesson back in 2006.
"No comment always means you're hiding something," Izzo said. "A comment, like my buddy, Nick Saban, 'I will not be the Alabama coach.' They play that on radio stations until the end -- OK, tell me what you want me to say if I was really interested in the Detroit job right now. What is fair to my team, my school? So if I was really interested, I probably wouldn't say I'm not interested. I've even gone to the point now where I say, 'I can never say never,' because I don't want to be in Nick's thing. I love Nick, he's a good friend, and I understand that happens because the timing of everything."
It has not just been the pros, either. Izzo revealed he was actually pressed for a major job within college in the past half-decade. The pressure was on him privately to make a decision -- as his team was still playing in the tournament.
"There was a job a couple a years ago, we were playing to go to the Final Four, it was a college job," he said. "I was kind of being forced to make a decision that night, and it was one of the big jobs, I'll just say that to you. I mean, I just, you know, there's no way I was going to do that. Even if I wanted to I wasn't going to jeopardize my team. This is part of my family. I haven't been a five-year guy. I've been a 30-year guy. Because of that I have the ability to tell them things, and I think I've earned the right to look at things. I mean five, six million dollars, that's kind of a lot of money, right?"
Few could handle frequent gossip and still sell the right story to the media the way Izzo has. He notes that every coaching search in the NBA lumps in every possible genre of candidate, so his inclusion is part of a rote cycle. There are a lot of boxes to check: assistant coach, black coach, white coach, college coach, pro coach. He's one of the de facto college guys, and rightfully so.
The factors that have prevented Izzo from ever leaving MSU are fairly obvious: Immense ties to a school after working there so long; a family that has only known one place; trust and belief from within the athletic department. And Izzo's friendship with his athletic director is unlike any in major college sports. That's an undersold factor in what has kept him around in recent years. Izzo was the best man at Mark Hollis' wedding, after all, and the two split rent as roommates three decades ago. Hollis said on Thursday that "ADs always want to have their coaches pursued."
He added: "I have a very high confidence that Tom will finish his career at Michigan State."
Hollis was in Izzo's office at the climax of the Cleveland decision, a three-day experience where Izzo was waffling by the minute. Izzo loves telling the story now, because it was melodrama at the time.
"It's really comforting because I don't have to lie about anything," Izzo said. "And to be honest with you, a couple times, as the money started to go up in Cleveland, Mark's sitting there, 'If you don't take it maybe I will!' I just have that relationship with him. ... I tell you what, what made it so good is, I don't have any regrets with Cleveland. I got a fair chance to look at it, and it pissed a lot of people off, but it really helped me. I think it made my thing here stronger, and then I have never have to go back and say, 'Wow, why didn't I look at it?'"
When you've got that close and turned back, do you ever feel the need to scratch the itch again? If Izzo would allow himself to be intrigued, he hasn't let on yet. The process still works, because he's back here again. In another Sweet 16, with another team talented enough to make a Final Four. He'll gladly take your questions about that, too.
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