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Sullivan: Why We Love Tom Izzo

By Crowley Sullivan
Michigan State, Class of 1993

Once the band had wrapped up a raucous rendition of the fight song, once the thousands of fans had stopped their joyous shows of praise, and once the man himself had been given the microphone to address this special crowd that had gathered late on a Sunday night to welcome home their basketball program from its latest conquest, Izzo – like Bono, just a single moniker is necessary – asked his football counterpart to join him at center court.

Mark Dantonio has led an astonishing revival of a proud football program that now finds itself in a position few imagined possible a decade ago. And Izzo – true to form – wanted Dantonio there with him during this unique moment for the Spartan family.

“We’re building a Michigan State empire!” roared Izzo, referencing the efforts to win national championships in basketball and football, his voice so hoarse he sounded like a senior after a standard Saturday night in Beast Lansing.

“We haven’t gotten it done yet – but we’re getting close!”

The crowd roared some more.

Dantonio, also true to form, didn’t do anything to steal the spotlight from the man who has come to embody the spirit, grit, and pride of a university proud of its roots, its identity, and its future. The man with the microphone represents his university the way Uncle Sam represents the good, ole US of A.

Seven Final Fours in twenty years is an accomplishment that speaks for itself, and even if the memories of the national championship in 2000 have started to grow a bit hazy, the banner hanging from the Breslin Center rafters will count forever.

The Big Ten championships, the March Magic, the NBA draft picks, the wins, the wins, the wins. These are all data points. They’re tangible, undeniable elements of a powerhouse that Izzo has built with a hammer and some nails, from the ground up, even if there was a foundation and tradition to build off of.

Make no mistake, Izzo wouldn’t even be here if it wasn’t for the Godfather of Spartan Basketball, another one-name legend, Jud.

Jud had built a proud program that was molded in his own way, and it was Jud who eschewed the conventional wisdom at the time and made damn sure that his choice for head coach was given the job, despite no prior head coaching experience.

Jud saw what nobody else did. Jud saw all of this. And what Jud saw wasn’t necessarily the tangible, empirical evidence that so many overvalue. Jud saw all of the things that have come to be the reasons why we love him.

Grit. Underestimated skill. A tireless work ethic. Raw emotion. Larger-than-life personality. An ability to push people while earning their respect. A genuine dedication to his community. Respect for the traditions that have come before him and a commitment to add to them. Competitiveness. Heart. Spirit. Authenticity.

Go ahead and call all of that schmaltzy.

At Michigan State, these are the words that make up the DNA of a large state university that defies the stereotypes of its kind. It’s a school that has been scratching and clawing, battling for its rightful place in the pecking order, even fighting its own in-state brethren who have tried again and again to squelch the school’s progress. It’s a place that puts a premium on figuring out how to get through the walls and over the hurdles. And nobody has ever embodied the school’s DNA the way Izzo has.

If any college basketball fan out there says that they wouldn’t want Izzo leading their basketball program and representing their university, hook them up to the lie detector.

Each of Izzo’s Final Four pals is a sensational coach, and each represents his university in fine fashion. But which one of them really, truly embodies the DNA of their school as perfectly as Izzo? Before the folks on the Upper West Side, on Long Island, out in New Jersey, and in Washington, DC try to claim that Coach K is Duke through and through, here’s a friendly reminder: Coach K is as Chicago as Al Capone or Mike Ditka.

John Calipari belongs to Kentucky in the way Hillary Clinton belongs to Chappaqua. And speaking of Hillary Clinton, before the Madison folks claim Bo Ryan as a true son of their university, I think I read somewhere that he’s a Republican.

Izzo has been in East Lansing since 1983. He has gone from being a dirt-poor gofer to being among the most influential and respected people in his profession, proudly raising his family in the idyllic college town that long ago became his home. Despite all of his successes, he remains the exact same guy who grew up in Iron Mountain, Michigan, population 7,500.

The rafters in the Breslin Center are running out of room for all of the banners he’s raised, but it’s not the banners that make him so beloved. It’s what inside of the man. It’s the fact that he’s a Spartan.

We love the Final Fours and the national championship and the March Magic and all of the wins, but, above and beyond everything, Izzo represents all that State stands for.

And that’s why we love him.

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