Big Ten Meetings: Izzo Verbatim

After 28 years as a coach in the rugged Big Ten conference, Michigan State Coach Tom Izzo has his team atop the conference and atop the nation as one of the NCAA's elite programs. Still, the desire for respect, admiration and the drive to keep MSU at the top keeps the coach up nights. Read what he had to say at today's Big Ten meetings.

An interview with: MICHIGAN STATE COACH TOM IZZO THE MODERATOR: Up next is Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo. The dean of the Big Ten's coaches, Izzo enters his 15th season with the Spartans and returns three starters from last year's team that went 31-7 and finished as the national runner-up.

Coach, we'll start with an opening statement and then open the floor for questions. COACH IZZO: I wish last year were still here. But it's not. It's time to move on. And you know hopefully we learned something from last year. We went through a lot of adversity. Had three major illness or injuries during the year that kind of set us back and yet if a team ever learned how to persevere and kind of hang with it, with a lot of pressure on them to get to Detroit, I think this team did.

My biggest fears are two-fold. Number one, we lost more than I think people give us credit for.

When you lose the best defensive player in the year in Travis Walton, who was also your best leader since maybe Mateen Cleaves, that's a big loss. We had a walk-on defender who could guard anybody from six foot to six-six.

And two, Suton was a loss because of his play, but he averaged nine points, or ten points, nine rebounds, whatever, but he was a glue guy, he was a chemistry guy.

Maybe the third factor on that would be we lose Idong and Gray and in big games when you needed a lot of bodies against big guys, they were great backup guys that all of a sudden Idong plays 17 minutes against Pittman or Texas or plays against the beat. Nothing else we had 10 follows to give, that was worthwhile.

So we lost 15 years of experience with those three guys, because all three of those centers were fifth-year seniors. But I like what we have back, too. The other issue would be I think the league's gotten three times better.

I've been in the league now 26, 27th year as a GA on up. And I definitely thought early it was great when I first got in with all those great coaches, and then maybe we had a little bit of a lull. And then in '99, 2000, we had two teams in the Final Four and I thought it was really good but I think this is the best it's been since maybe that date. And because of that, I honestly see nine or 10, eight, nine teams that realistically could win the league. And, yeah, some are better than others right now. When you look at Purdue, Ohio State. I think Michigan is going to be much improved. I think Illinois will be much improved. And Purdue, with everybody back, we won it by four games last year, but understand Robbie Hummel made a lot of that possible. And he's back healthy and Matt's done an incredible job with that program. And you just start looking around. Bo's teams are always going to be good. Northwestern, I mean, Bill's -- I told him I was going to put pressure on him. This is his year to get there. And I think it is. I really honestly do.

So top to bottom, the league is the best it's been in a long time and that's going to leave a lot of great games and a lot of pressure on everybody night in, night out.


Q. How is it going with finding a way to replace Suton and the guys that backed him up?

COACH IZZO: It continues to go. I'm just not sure if it's in a good way or bad way. We have 100 minutes. Tom Herzog has played 100 minutes in two years. So our experience went from the 15 years to 100 minutes. And yet he's improved. He's up to 250, seven-foot frame that doesn't look great but it looks a lot better than it was when he was at 220 and 225. He's made some progress. He's athletic and can shoot the ball.

Derrick Nix, 340-pounder a year and a half ago; he's down to 277 and has made incredible sides, especially since summer.

And Garrick Sherman is a kid who you'd think you'd redshirt him most years, we don't have that luxury, and yet every practice he's a very smart kid, he's gotten better and better.

So I think adequate, maybe. Find out a little bit more. But do have the ability to go small some. But we'll have to go big, especially with some of the teams we play early in the non conference. I think that's one of our negatives. We've always had the versatility to go big or small.

And now our bigs are completely unproven. And only time will tell. I can't even answer it yet because we haven't played against anybody or scrimmaged even much ourselves.

Q. You've always had the attitude play anybody, anywhere, anytime, and it's hurt you from time to time that you only play some teams twice and others do once. Would you just be in favor if everyone just played each other twice and settle it on the court?

COACH IZZO: You know, I do -- I look in this crowd and I see Steve Bartle back there and I saw Jimmy Jackson. Back then when it was a true champion, I think we all liked it better, to be honest with you. I just don't know if you could play 22 conference games and get it done or 20, whatever it is. And 20 I guess, and get it done and still be able to schedule some great non conference. It's a problem.

I mean, it's an issue. I think we're better off now than we were from the standpoint of only two games' difference, when it was four games difference somebody could get a huge advantage. And so I think we're better off in that way but it's hard playing 18 games. I thought the last year or so when you play 18 from 16, those two games seem like 10 sometimes, especially late in the year. These conference games are just more grinding. There's more you do.

I'd like to see a true champion, but I don't know if I could even vote for it because I think we'd be beating ourselves up and I still think when you play in a league like this, wins are important, too, at the end of the year, because you're going to play so many good teams and it's so hard to win on the road in this conference.

Q. You said that you started as a GA 26 years ago. And now you're at the top of your profession. Was the goal to get to this point in your career, or when you got into it, did you say: Let me see where this takes me? What were your thinking back then?

COACH IZZO: Survival. I was thinking of getting through the first year or two. Survival. I worked for Jud for 12 years. That's survival in itself (laughter). And I was with Bruce Weber last night, and the Jud and Gene days, you know, us two became great friends just out of survival there, too.

But that taught me a lot because I had no dreams of getting it where it was at right now or where we've gotten to. I just dreamed of trying to get it to be a better program. And then as we had some success, I mean, now the goal is what everybody's goal that had success, can you sustain it.

And I've had 50 coaches tell me it's harder to get there than it is to stay there. And I would have to -- I mean harder to stay there than get there, excuse me. And I would have to agree with that. It is harder. And yet it's a challenge that it's fun to meet and now our deal is try to grow a program, not just a team. And I kind of like that. As evident by the 200-some guys we had come back for the Final Four last year, former players.

I look at the great programs and you see it even more in football. That's what I love about it. When you've got people coming back and you realize that it's not for one team, but it's for your program. That's the next goal. That's the next step. And still somewhere in there I'd like to win another championship for our university.

Q. You yourself just talked up the Big Ten and on paper we have all these teams that are ranked. We've got all these players coming back. Good season or bad season to be picked No. 1 in the league?

COACH IZZO: (Chuckling) You know, I like being picked high, because that's where I'd like to end up. So I probably would complain about you guys orphans picking us high. I look at it, I love Purdue right now. They've got everybody back. I think Matt's done a great job. I think some of those other teams have more back than we have. But I like the fact that maybe some of it is respect for the program. Maybe some of it is somebody's got to be picked 1.

I could see somebody picked 1 or 5 and not be much different.

But I kind of like it. I kind of like it because it means that our program's in the right spot. And the pressure, even though I complain about all you or all our fans, you don't put as much on as I do. So it's good. It's good and I think it's good for our league that we've got five, six teams ranked in the top 25, maybe seven or even eight in the top 35, 40.

One thing I learned from the guys, I mean, it was Knight and Keady and Heathcote and Henson and Davis and Clem Haskins. Those guys were all 15-year-plus guys when I first got in the league and they believed in the Big Ten. And it's hard when you have a lot of transitions. I think the coaches we have right now in this league, I'm prejudiced, but I think are the best any league can put together anywhere. If you look to the top to bottom. And so being a Big Ten guy, too, I think it's good, and I think it's good for Michigan State.

I'm probably going to have after five losses somewhere just when we get to the non conference, I'll probably say it's awful. But just take that for a grain of salt.

Q. You raised your eyebrows when the moderator said you were the dean of Big Ten coaches. Does that surprise you sometimes when you think of it that way? It doesn't seem like it's been that long?

COACH IZZO: I think what's amazing is to me. I've had some incredible things happen since I've been a head coach here. At our own university, we've had a lot of ADs and football coaches and in the league there's been more teams that have had three new coaches.

Not two, three. And there's 13, 14 years I've been a head coach. So I guess I appreciate surviving. But I don't look at it as I'm definitely not any more experienced than some, and I don't really -- I've just been in the same league.

There's some guys in this league now when you bring Tubby in and John Beilein in that have done it in the other leagues that have had experience more than I do as a head coach.

I've just got more years in the Big Ten, and I have to say I'm proud of that and excited about it. But it doesn't put me in any different place. Bruce Weber, like I said, we've been friends for 20-some years, and he knows more about the league than I do. He was in it a couple years longer.

Q. Pick your brain as a coach and historian. Five juniors are on the Pre-Season All-Big Ten team. Where does this junior class rate from not just Michigan State but in the Big Ten as a class?

COACH IZZO: I think it rates high. But I think we always look to the present. As I look back at some of the teams and look at some of the guys in this room that were on some of those teams, you know, there were times, Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, seemed like they had five on their own team that were that good. There were just incredible teams and we have a tendency to look at what we have now. I mean, I definitely feel good about it as far as for a league. I feel bad about it as far as a coach because they've got to play against four of those other guys. But I think it's great for the league and yet it's hard for me to put it in perspective because I feel like I've been here and, man, I could name some great players back 20 years ago, 25 years ago when I first was a GA, there were some incredible teams.

But to keep five sophomores and now have five juniors that all stayed, that was getting to be a problem, too, everybody was leaving. I think it speaks volumes for what guys want to accomplish. I think guys are starting to look at -- one thing I loved about Cleaves and Peterson when I had them, we had the big run last year and we had the big cause of Detroit in the state of Michigan.

But if I was a fan, North Carolina had the best cause. Guys stayed in school to win a basketball championship. Cleaves and Peterson stayed in school to win a championship. They want to be like Magic, win one in college, win one in the NBA, win one in the Olympics.

We don't have a lot of that anymore. So right now I hope our fans enjoy these guys because a lot of them are doing that and that's being here for the right reason, winning a championship, getting closer to your degree and I'm proud of all five of those guys, even the ones I don't like much which are the other four.

THE MODERATOR: Thank you, Coach.

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