Izzo: Frank has Right Stuff

MSU, Pistons coaches share ability to push players, win their trust
Tom Izzo sees a little Bobby Knight in Lawrence Frank. He sees a little Jeff Van Gundy, a little Doc Rivers and a little Larry Brown, too. And, probably, he sees a little bit of himself – a coach who throws himself completely into his job, totally immersed in basketball, and yet a coach who understands that he has to know as much about his players as he does about the game in order to put a team together and have a chance at great success.

They’ve known each other nearly 20 years now. One of Izzo’s closest coaching buddies is Kevin O’Neill, who gave Frank his entrée into coaching by hiring him – on the strong recommendation of Knight, on whose Indiana student manager staff Frank served from 1988-92 – as a staff assistant, making $5,000 a year, when O’Neill was head coach at Marquette in 1992.

Frank spent two years with O’Neill at Marquette and moved on with him for three more at Tennessee, rising to full-fledged assistant coach, before O’Neill left for Northwestern and Frank landed an NBA job with the Vancouver Grizzlies under Brian Hill, now Frank’s assistant coach with the Pistons.

It was November 1993 when Frank and Izzo first met, Frank as O’Neill’s staff assistant and Izzo as Jud Heathcoate’s top assistant at Michigan State, when Marquette and MSU were both participants in the San Juan Shootout.

“I looked at him like I looked at myself – started as a manager, but the guy worked his tail off,” Izzo said. “Kevin used to always talk about him – Lawrence would do this, Lawrence would do that. The guy was just a workaholic. He reminds me of Jeff Van Gundy like that, just immersed himself in things. He’s been around Knight, he’s been around O’Neill – he’s been around some really good people.”

One of the traits Izzo has become renowned for since succeeding Heathcote in 1995 is his relentless refusal to accept less than a player’s best yet developing a fierce loyalty among those same players. While the nature of college and pro basketball makes the relationship between coach and player significantly different at the two levels, at its most fundamental, Izzo says the same principles hold: If a player grasps the level of commitment you’ve made to not just your job but to putting him in the best position to succeed, then all honest criticism and evaluation is acceptable.

“You get people saying this guy is a players’ coach, this guy is not a players’ coach,” Izzo said. “He’s both. And that’s hard. It’s hard to be tough when you have to be tough and deal with things. People ask me, ‘How can you be so hard on guys?’ It’s because I spend time with them. They know. They know that I know what’s best for them. I picture Lawrence exactly like that. I don’t know if you can be like that exactly in pro ball, but people have to respect that at any level. I can’t imagine him saying anything off the cuff; it’s all been well thought out.”

Frank spent last season under Doc Rivers at Boston, and Izzo and Rivers have maintained a strong relationship since they served on the same coaching staff in the late ’90s for USA Basketball in the World University Games. Izzo considers Rivers one of the best at striking that balance – demanding, yet caring to a degree that trust is granted unconditionally.

“That’s the way Lawrence has been brought up,” Izzo said. “Kevin was crazy. Bob (Knight) might have been crazy” – a word Izzo uses endearingly – “and that’s why I think Doc Rivers is so good. He’s a player’s coach and yet when we were on those trips, Doc was a no-nonsense guy. And Lawrence, in his own way, has figured out that you have to be a little bit of both. Plus, I think he’s got a little Larry Brown in him in the respect that he would come up here and speak at a clinic, he went to Michigan, he’ll go to a high school.

“It’s not like he’s a pro guy – he’s a basketball guy. It’s not like he’s defined at one level. I could see Lawrence coaching at the high school level. He loves the game. He loves to coach. There aren’t a lot of guys like that.”

Frank and Izzo have talked a handful of times since Frank became Pistons coach in August. Frank had planned to get up to East Lansing to observe Izzo conduct practice, but the hectic pace Frank maintained trying to prepare for the NBA season didn’t allow it. He did send two of his assistant coaches, Michigan State graduates Charles Klask and Steve Hetzel, though, and Izzo said he plans to come to a Pistons practice as his schedule allows. One of the first things Frank says about Izzo is the balance he’s able to strike between pushing players and getting the best out of them.

“I’ve always had the utmost respect for him,” Frank said of Izzo. “His success is unbelievable. His passion, his ability to teach – to challenge and yet connect with his guys. Guys that have been through his program, when I’ve had them in training camp or coached them, they’re tough-minded, hard-nosed, team-first guys.”

Izzo, who has flirted with pro jobs on a few occasions, most recently the Cleveland opening in the summer of 2010, understands that an NBA coach’s success or failure hinges to a significant degree on a roster over which he has limited control. But he feels strongly that Frank will be part of the solution as the Pistons emerge from a reconstruction after an era in which they went to six straight conference finals.

“I think the guy’s going to be really good down there,” he said. “He’s a good coach and does it the right way. And I think he embodies what Detroit is all about – a blue-collar place.”