Michigan State basketball coach Tom Izzo got his 341st win last night, passing his mentor Jud Heathcote for most wins all-time at MSU. He’s being characteristically modest about it, saying all the things you should say about never being as great as the man who taught him, but the reality is that Izzo is a far more accomplished coach than Heathcote ever was. And it’s not close.
I remember when Heathcote retired, I had a talk with my sister, who ran the MSU basketball program for years and still runs the Breslin Center where they play. I said I wasn’t happy that they named Izzo the coach, that they should have gone out and hired a big name coach with experience. And she told me in no uncertain terms that Izzo would be a great coach for the team. Clearly she was right.
341 wins in 15 years. Five final fours in the last 11 years and one national championship. That far surpasses anything Heathcote did. Truth be told, Heathcote was a great guy but a fairly mediocre coach. His one great team was coached as much by Magic Johnson as it was by him. I was at many of those games and it was not unusual to see Magic doing all the talking during timeouts, or telling Jud ‘no’ when it was time to come out of the game.
Jud is a great guy, one of the most popular coaches ever among his peers. He’s funny as hell and still as charming as can be. But aside from 1979, he never had another great team. He had a few good ones, whenever he could find a really good point guard to run things (Scott Skiles, Eric Snow). But his record was just average.
Izzo, on the other hand, has made MSU a perennial contender. He has MSU in that second tier of programs just below the truly elite (Duke, Carolina, Kansas, Kentucky, UCLA) and competing for a final four year in and year out. And there’s no sign of an end to that. Next year he brings in one of his best recruiting classes and should return all but one starter from this year’s team to go along with them.
Not bad for a guy who is too short to play college basketball himself (he’s barely 5’7 in shoes). Unfortunately, those 341 wins aren’t going to help him much on Tuesday when the Spartans go into North Carolina, or when they play at Texas three weeks later.