Izzo continues MSU’s basketball legacy

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Chris Warren

MSU's basketball arena the Breslin Center and the statue of Magic Johnson.

Michigan State University has always been a huge center for sports but it was first known primarily as a football school, winning six national titles between 1951 and 1966. It wasn’t until Magic Johnson led the Spartans to their first basketball national championship in 1979 that they began getting recognition for their basketball program. Once Tom Izzo became head coach of the basketball program in 1995 and led the Spartans to their second national championship in 2000, the Spartans would be put on the map as a basketball school. 

Former sports columnist at the Lansing State Journal and current radio host Jack Ebling has been around Michigan State Basketball since the 1960s when he was a freshman at the school. He fully witnessed the transition the school had from being a football school to being a basketball school. 

“I have seen every Michigan vs Michigan State basketball game in the last 55 years, 105 in a row,” Ebling said. “Over those 55 seasons Michigan State Basketball has only had 3 coaches, the football team has had 13 in that span. So there has been tremendous continuity, longevity, and consistency in the program.” 

One of those three basketball coaches Ebling had a chance to witness was arguably the most important to the success of the program and that is Tom Izzo. Coach Izzo has been at the helm of the MSU basketball program since he became head coach of the program in 1995. During his 29 years with the program he had tremendous success, taking the team to eight Final Fours. What Izzo may be known for most is his 26 consecutive tournament appearances as a head coach, the second longest active streak. 

Ebling worked very close to Tom Izzo during the start of Izzo’s time as head coach, recalling a story he witnessed from Izzo’s first game. 

“His first Big Ten game was against Indiana at home and he had this pregame ritual where he would sit on the bench and watch the opposing team warm up,” Ebling said. “He then looked up into the stands and saw around 5,000 Indiana fans in the stands all wearing red and he got so mad and said how that would never happen again. That is when he decided he was gonna help grow the student support group that would become known as The Izzone.” 

Coach Izzo kept his word as he grew the student section from around 200 students to around 5,000 today, with the use of the upper deck needing to be used for students as well. Soon after the team was able to win 53 straight home games over the next few seasons. Today, there is hardly an open seat in the student section, even in the upper deck of the Izzone. 

“Before Tom Izzo showed up, the head coach was Jud Heathcote, he always did a pretty good job, but I don’t think he was getting big enough talent,” Michigan State alumnus Mike McDowell said. “It was really Izzo who really helped turn them into a powerhouse program that players wanted to come to.”

During Izzo’s 29 seasons, he has a record of 706-294, has led them to the tournament 26 times and has helped them win 10 Big Ten Conference championships. His Big Ten coach record of 56 NCAA tournament wins puts him in elite company as one of the best Big Ten coaches of all time and the best in Michigan State’s history. 

“Tom Izzo really brought the whole program to a new level,” MLive basketball reporter Kyle Austin said. “There’s programs like Duke, North Carolina, and Kansas that have always kind of been there, the blue bloods, and had that kind of history. Michigan State really didn’t have that level of history before Tom Izzo, he really kind of made it, and very few coaches and very few programs do that.”

Tom Izzo made the Michigan State program his own and helped them play a physical brand of basketball with the team’s identity focused on rebounding and defense. He helped make them a contender in the Big Ten almost every season in one of the most physical and competitive conferences in college basketball. 

“Having the same coach for 29 years has really helped instill that sense of pride in the city of Lansing and I think Tom Izzo takes his role as the public face of Michigan State Basketball, and really the public face of Michigan State, very seriously,” Austin said. “Between the public appearances he makes and the charity things that he does, he carries himself very well publicly and that has helped people connect to the program and take a lot of pride in it.” 

Tom Izzo’s leadership has played a pivotal role in not only the program’s success, but also as a leader in the Lansing community. The Izzo Legacy Family Fund was started to help give back to the community by raising money for different organizations such as MSU Safe Place, the Greater Lansing Food Bank, Holy Cross Services and many others. The Izzo Legacy Fund also does the Izzo Legacy 5k Race to help bring alumni and the East Lansing Community together as well as earn money to donate to organizations in the community. 

During this year’s tournament Tom Izzo once again proved that he is one the best coaches in March as he led the Spartans to a 69-51 opening round win against eight seed Mississippi State. They put on an impressive defensive performance and never trailed throughout the game. 

McDowell said, “Good shooting got them off to a strong start, then they played solid in the second half for a convincing win.”

Tom Izzo looks to keep adding to his March Madness win total when they play in the Round of 32 on Saturday in Charlotte, North Carolina. They will face the winner of the North Carolina vs. Wagner game and look to make the Sweet 16 for a second year in a row. 

Inside look at the Breslin Center (Chris Warren)
MSU’s 2000 National Championship Trophy (Chris Warren)
Outside look at the Breslin Center (Chris Warren)

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