The team bus sat outside the Metrodome waiting for its principal occupant Sunday night, while coach Tom Izzo leaned against a wall near the Michigan State locker room. He couldn’t let go of the moment.
Considering the man consumes misery as though it were oxygen, a minute of seeing the sunshine through the rain clouds was a welcome relief. Izzo beamed like a proud father after the Spartans’ 74-69 second-round win over Southern Cal. His kids were growing up.
Coaching is like parenting in that, after the sweat and swearing, there comes a time when you must cut the cord and trust that the youngsters have learned their lessons well.
“I’ve been seeing little things over the past week that’s telling me that maybe they’re starting to get it,” Izzo said as he finally headed down the ramp toward the bus.
But a minute later he was charging up the ramp.
“What did you forget?” he was asked.
“I forgot my son,” he said, embarrassed.
Steven Mateen, 8, was still in the locker room.
Coach of the year? No question.
Father of the year? The balloting is open.
Izzo is enjoying this season more than his worrisome demeanor lets on. It’s fun having his son shadowing him through the locker room, horsing around with the players. And nothing pleases a coach more than his team “taking ownership” of their tournament destiny.
“I’ve always maintained that you must have players coach themselves,” Izzo said. “That was what stood out about the great teams we had here in the past. They didn’t have to worry about me yelling at them, because it got to a point where Mateen (Cleaves) or Antonio (Smith) would do it. They have to police themselves, keep themselves in check.”
During practice last Tuesday, Izzo was unusually quiet. The players knew he was upset with their poor performance days earlier in the Big Ten tournament. They expected the customary chorus from the four-letter aria. But Izzo merely observed. And that made the players angry.
Had he given up on them? Did he figure what’s the use?
But that was Izzo’s plan: to see how the players would respond.
He got the reaction he sought. The players were the vocal ones, calling out one another for a blown defensive assignment. The normally soft-spoken Kalin Lucas upbraided senior captain Travis Walton for not being in the right spot in an offensive set.
“I can’t get a break,” Izzo laughed. “They get mad when I yell at them. Then they get mad when I’m quiet.”
The players were more vocal in the huddle during time-outs against the Trojans. They didn’t wait to be asked for input. Lucas told teammates that he would get them the ball where they needed it — and they had better stick the shot!
“It was fun to see Kalin,” Izzo said. “He really went at some people. He kept saying, ’Let me have the ball, and I’ll get people a basket.’ That was the first real time he’s kind of talked like that. He wanted it. That was a big plus.”
There is no Cinderella in this Sweet 16, with an unprecedented 14 of the top 16 seeds participating. The toughest and most talented will persevere, requiring a mental sturdiness from the players themselves as much as their coach.