Recently, at a Coach’s press conference for the Final Four matchup of Duke and Michigan State, head coaches and friends Mike Krzyzewski and Tom Izzo showed how much respect each had for the other. That respect hit a peak when Izzo claimed Coach K was “a modern-day Wooden”, referring to probably the greatest college basketball coach of all-time, UCLA’s late John Wooden. This is the highest form of praise for any men’s college basketball coach in Division I NCAA, but that got me thinking, if Coach K is Wooden, who is a rightful comparison for Izzo?
After picking the Spartans to lose in the first round, somewhat foolishly, to the Georgia Bulldogs, a friend of mine reminded me that you can never bet against Tom Izzo. The great coach has been a king of March Madness since 1998, when his Spartans started their current streak of making 18 tournament appearances in a row, fourth all-time. And once there, Izzo has never lost on the opening weekend and is an impressive 13-1 in the round of 32, the best win percentage at that stage in NCAA history. How did he get here?
Izzo was born and raised in Iron Mountain, Michigan, and attended Iron Mountain High, participating on the football, basketball, and track team. He then attended Northern Michigan University, where Izzo played guard for four years on the basketball team. In his senior year, Izzo set the school record for minutes played and was named a Division II All-American. Izzo became the head coach at Ishperming High School after graduating, but left after one season to take an assisting coaching job at his alma mater and stayed there from 1979 until 1983. In September of 1983, Izzo was named a part-time assistant at Michigan State. He left for a two month stint at the University in Tulsa in 1986, becoming an assisting coach there, only to return to Michigan State when an assistant spot opened up. Before the 1990 season, Izzo was promoted to associate head coach by the current head coach Jud Heathcote. When Heathcote retired after the 94-95 season, under his recommendation Izzo succeeded him and has remained there since, becoming the longest-tenured basketball coach in the Big Ten Conference.
And since 1995, Izzo has racked up a very impressive list of accomplishments, including an 8-time National Coach of the Year, seven Big Ten and three Big Ten Tournament Championships, seven Final Four appearances, 18 straight NCAA tournament appearances including one 2000 National Championship. On top of all that, Izzo boasts 494 wins with a .714 win percentage. Since making his first in 1999, Izzo’s seven Final Four appearances is the most in the NCAA in that time. By comparison, Coach K has only 4.
Coach K is the winningest Coach in men’s Division I College Basketball, but Izzo can holds his own next to the other great. The matchup of Duke versus Michigan State will be one of the most interesting games of chess in which two surefire Hall-of-Fame coaches and all-time greats try to outwit the other in their quest for glory. And if Coach K is a Wooden like, I can confidently label Izzo as a modern day Jerry Tarkanian, a coach endeared by his players, who demands nothing short of excellence from his players and someone who knows how to win when the chips are down.