Tom Izzo isn't leaving now, but Michigan State will have a hard time replacing him when he does
Who's Next: A look at the five realistic names to monitor as potential replacements for Hall of Famer Tom Izzo
Tom Izzo's career -- a tenure that includes a 2016 Hall of Fame induction, an NCAA Tournament championship, seven Final Four appearances and nearly double digit conference titles -- is as impressive in feats as it is in longevity.
A Spartan through-and-through, Izzo, who enters his 24th season as Michigan State's head men's basketball coach -- after 11 as an assistant under Jud Heathcote -- embodies the aura of one of the most consistent programs in America. He's prosperous, boasting a 574-225 record as a head coach at Michigan State; he's reliably consistent, as he's the seventh-longest tenured coach in America; and he hardly seems to be slowing down.
Being a lifer at Michigan State has its fair share of perks, not the least of which includes his transformation into the unofficial face of Michigan State and the brand of one of the more powerful programs in the sport. He has the adoration of his fan base, even inas a whole. Izzo's reputation helped him , even as and .
Izzo declared last season that he was not retiring. And while the university-wide shakeup surely affected the coach, his job appears to be safe. The question, then, turns to how long he wants it. Izzo is 63 years old but also coming off a 30-5 season, the second-best record of his career. How long will he continue coaching until he decides to hang up the neatly pressed suit and hand the reins over to a successor? It could be a decade or a tenth of one. What we know, though, is that the time will come. Fans in the "Izzone" will have to paint their chests with the name of a new coach.
CBS Sports is running a six-part series on the half-dozen men's college basketball teams that have active Hall of Fame coaches leading their respective programs. We're examining each coach and school's situation, how and when they might leave their posts, and reasonable candidates who could succeed them. This is more than a guessing game on who's next; the series is taking a big-picture look at the unique challenge facing each of the six schools. Next up is an exploration of what awaits at Michigan State.
Timeline for Izzo leaving Michigan State
Izzo simply walking away doesn't seem likely in the near future. His Spartans are chugging along at a frenetic pace. Michigan State has made the NCAA Tournament every year since 1998 (!), the third-longest active streak behind only Kansas and Duke. During that span, Michigan State's average seeding is 4.9. That includes eight top-3 seedings and four No. 1-seed placements, seven times leading to Final Four appearances. Sure, you could argue a few way-too-early flameouts during that span as top seeds, but the NCAA Tournament is full of way-too-early flameouts and bracket-busters.
And after 15-or-so years of NBA interest, Izzo has turned down every opportunity. Those calls come fewer and further between now. There's almost no chance he takes another job, in the pros or college, at this point.
Which brings me back to my point: Why would Izzo leave now?
It would be acceptable, heck, maybe expected, if Izzo walked away from the game in the next half-decade. He's not strapped for money, I'm sure, so retiring and living the good life isn't a bad alternative to recruiting year-round and grinding through a Big Ten schedule. But barring a total burnout -- or a simple decision to walk away on top -- it doesn't seem to be in his immediate plans.
Entering 24th season at Michigan State, overall
Hall of Fame induction
Top candidates to replace Tom Izzo
The fact that Izzo remains near the top of his game despite his age suggests it may not happen anytime soon.
When he does step away, though, the succession plan may be a unique one as compared to other perennial powers. Unlike other big-time programs like Kentucky and Kansas, that simply hire the best available coach when needed, Michigan State seems most likely to pluck Izzo's successor from within. After all, when it hired from within in 1995 and elevated Izzo to head coach to succeed the legendary Heathcote, the move turned out to be a stroke of genius. They simply replaced one Hall of Famer with another. So that track record could leave Michigan State in a unique position to be more comfortable than other programs when considering internal candidates.
So without further ado, let's get to the five on the radar.
1. Dane Fife
Currently: Assistant coach at Michigan State
Résumé: Fife played at Indiana from 1998 to 2002 where he was a key role player in leading the Hoosiers to the 2002 national championship game. Following his playing career, he coached at IU as an assistant for two seasons before taking the head coaching job at IPFW, where he served from 2005 to 2011. He's been an assistant at Michigan State since 2011.
Why it could be him: Fife's only stint as a head coach, with the Mastadons, went well. He guided IPFW to an 82-97 overall record, which isn't success that jumps at you, but it's hard to understate what a difficult job that is. And he improved IPFW's winning percentage each season with the team. Since joining the MSU staff in 2011, Fife's had a number of opportunities to take a head coaching position elsewhere and chosen to stay. So the fact that he's remained loyal to Izzo and served as an understudy to him gives him a big bump should there be a search internally. He'd be the most likely successor if Izzo were to step away next week.
Why it wouldn't be him: Fife's experience at Michigan State and loyalty to Izzo be damned, it's impossible to deny he simply doesn't have a extensive résumé. His stint at IPFW was fine, and by all accounts, he did well given the program's expectations. But it was just a six-year stint. He has no other head coaching experience. The lack of proven success building and sustaining a program could hurt him when he's up against other more qualified candidates.
2. Tom Crean
Currently: Coach at Georgia
Résumé: Crean enters 2018-19 as the coach of just his third school since the turn of the millennium. He coached at Marquette from 1999-2008, where he led the program to a 286-190 overall record and five NCAA Tournament appearances. From Marquette, he left to coach Indiana from 2008 to 2017. He led the Hoosiers to a 301-166 record and four appearances in March Madness. He also was an assistant under Izzo in the late-1990s, helping build the 2000 NCAA championship team.
Why it could be him: First of all, replacing a Tom with another Tom would make marketing the hire a PR guru's dream. More importantly, though, Crean and Izzo are tight from those days as an assistant. Izzo was a groomsman in Crean's wedding way back when. Crean also was born and raised in Mount Pleasant, Mich., and went to Central Michigan. Who better to succeed Izzo, who probably will have say in the hire, than a former top assistant with a strong track record and Michigan ties?
Why it wouldn't be him: Rewind a decade ago, and this is a no-brainer. Crean had Marquette rolling, his coaching star was as bright as the Big Dipper, and team's were eyeing him like a hawk in hopes he'd be willing to run their program. But Crean's stock is in flux now. His Indiana career was nothing if not consistent, but it didn't meet the standards Hoosiers fans expected. So now after a year-long hiatus, he's back coaching at Georgia. He'll need to prove once again that he's, at the very least, a capable successor if the day ever came for Izzo to step away. But winning at Georgia in basketball is a lot different than winning at Georgia in football -- all while the expectations for both remain roughly the same.
3. Brian Gregory
Currently: Coach at South Florida
Résumé: Gregory's basketball career began at Navy in 1985 before transferring to Oakland, where he finished off his collegiate career from 1987 to 1990. Upon graduation, he joined Jud Heathcote's staff as an assistant alongside Izzo, where he served from 1990 to 1996. He had stints at Toledo, Northwestern and Michigan State as assistant coach from 1996 to 2003 before serving as the Dayton head coach from 2003 to 2011. As head coach for the Flyers, he finished with a 172-94 record and parlayed his success to a head coaching job at Georgia Tech, where he lasted only five seasons. He returned to Michigan State following his termination as a consultant, then took over at USF.
Why it could be him: To say Gregory is familiar with Michigan State would be an understatement. Three of his eight coaching jobs since college have been with the Spartans, and Gregory is familiar not only with Izzo, but also with how Michigan State handles its business. He wouldn't be an internal candidate if a search were launched tomorrow, which I believe would be a premium qualification, but he's darn close to one after serving on staff with Izzo for more than a decade in total throughout his coaching career.
Why it wouldn't be him: Gregory's stock was high when he took over the Georgia Tech gig in 2011, but the Yellow Jackets put a wet blanket on it. At Georgia Tech, he finished above .500 only twice, and never finished above ninth place in the ACC in his five seasons. He didn't once make the NCAA Tournament during that stint, and early returns on his USF stint aren't particularly appealing. He went 10-22 with the Bulls last season.
4. Maurice Joseph
Currently: Coach at George Washington
Résumé: Joseph, 33, played at Michigan State from 2005 to 2007 before finishing his playing career at Vermont. After graduating, he took an assistant position at George Washington where he served from 2011 to 2016 before being elevated to head coach. He's 35-33 for the Colonials.
Why it could be him: Joseph has clear ties with Izzo, having played for him for 52 games. He wasn't a major contributor, which in part led to his eventual transfer to Vermont, but he did establish a rapport with Izzo and learned of the Michigan State culture during that stint. The fact that he's ventured out and gained head coaching experience elsewhere bodes well for a potential future candidacy -- should he be successful, that is. He's a guy to watch if Izzo were to stick it out another five-plus years.
Why it wouldn't be him: Joseph would have to establish himself as an up-and-comer in the coaching ranks before being deemed a worthy successor, and it's hard to see a path for him to accomplish that at George Washington, where he went 15-18 last season. Also something to consider: That he's never served on Michigan State's staff as an assistant, never learned under Izzo, may be a factor.
5. Mark Montgomery
Currently: Coach at Northern Illinois
Résumé: Montgomery, like others on this list, both played at Michigan State and later returned to his alma mater as an assistant. He played for the Spartans from 1988 to 1992, and coached at Central Michigan from 1997 to 2002 before a nearly decade-long run at Michigan State as assistant on Izzo's staff from 2002 to 2011. He was elevated to associate head coach under Izzo midway through that run, and in 2011, left to be the head coach at Northern Illinois. He's 88-133 during his head coaching tenure.
Why it could be him: Montgomery, unlike others on this list, not only served on staff under Izzo, but also was promoted to associate head coach. His deep ties to Michigan are undeniably a bonus that would help him recruit the state, should he ever return to East Lansing.
Why it wouldn't be him: It's hard to dock Montgomery's 88-133 coaching record as the head man at Northern Illinois, because NIU is far from a traditional MAC power program. You have to go all the way back to Jim Molinari in the early 90s to find the last coach that left the program with a winning record at NIU, in fact. Still yet: Montgomery would need to show himself capable of running a program, recruiting talent, and winning games at a consistent level to be seriously considered. That's an uphill battle at NIU, but he's shown signs of being a builder that could help his case down the road.
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