Izzo: SVG's 'the guy that can turn this thing – I believe that'

Tom Izzo
Michigan State's Tom Izzo is a kindred spirit of Stan Van Gundy's and believes he's the man to restore the Pistons to NBA elite status.
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images
by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

CHICAGO – You'd expect Tom Izzo and Stan Van Gundy to be kindred spirits based on their sideline manner and shared roots as small-college point guards who rose to the top of their profession on the merits of smarts and work ethic.

You would be dead-on right.

"I really do think he's the guy that can turn this thing," Izzo said of Van Gundy while attending the NBA draft combine, where one of his Spartans, Branden Dawson, was a participant. "It's going to take a little bit, but I really, really, honestly believe that. I don't just say that. I think it, I believe it, I live it. I just think he's going to be the guy because I don't think he's going to take a lot of crap. And I think he has enough power to change some things."

Izzo has been tempted by the NBA a few times over the past 15 years, turning down the chance to coach Atlanta in 2000 and passing on the opportunity in Cleveland in 2010 – weeks before LeBron James left for Miami. But he's never believed that his manner of coaching wouldn't work as well in the NBA as it has at Michigan State, which he's transformed into a nationally elite program.

When he looks at Van Gundy's coaching style, his beliefs are reinforced.

"Stan makes me look like a choirboy," Izzo laughed. "He's crazy. But he's passionate about what he does and I love that about him."

Van Gundy – who first came to know Izzo when they were Big Ten assistant coaches, Van Gundy under Stu Jackson at Wisconsin, Izzo under Jud Heathcote – laughed just as loudly when he talked about Izzo's style.

"I am easygoing compared to Tom – everybody's easygoing compared to Tom."

But he also coached a few ex-Spartans in the NBA and through that alone – even if he hadn't already been familiar with Izzo's work – admires the qualities he instills in players.

"I had Jason Richardson in Orlando and they love him. I mean, love him. He's one of those guys who is really, really hard on you but he also lets you know very clearly how much he cares about his guys. To a man, those guys absolutely love him and would run through a wall for him – and that's basically what he asks them to do. I've got great respect for him. He's a Hall of Famer."

One of the things Izzo learned early about Heathcote, admired and adopted for himself was his mentor's passion for his profession – available to and supportive of fellow coaches no matter their rank. When I mentioned that Van Gundy radiates that same quality, Izzo's eyes lit up.

"You couldn't have said it better. He cares about every level – he cares about the high school, the college, the pro. His dad was a coach, his brother's in it. And he cares about the profession almost more than his own team – don't take that wrong, but you know what I mean. That's refreshing. There's not a lot of those guys left."

Izzo, like Van Gundy, knows that without benefit of an NBA career he might have wound up coaching at a Northern Michigan, his alma mater, or a Brockport State, Van Gundy's, if his path had taken a slightly different turn.

"That's what makes him unique. That's what makes him egoless," Izzo said. "When you come from those small schools, you don't have the same things you have at bigger schools and that's the way he was brought up. His dad, his brother, they're all from the same cloth. That's going to be an advantage for him. I don't think he thinks he's bigger than anybody else."

Izzo saw it firsthand last summer, when he attended a small coaching clinic Van Gundy organized at The Palace.

"I swear to God, the (graduate assistants) in the clinic, he was as interested in learning something from them as he was (from) Mike D'Antoni or anybody else. It's just amazing. That humbleness, I think that helps you with the players."

Because Izzo has sent so many players to the NBA, worked shoulder to shoulder with NBA coaches at summer camps and clinics and been approached so frequently about making the jump, he has a working knowledge of and theories on what makes for a successful organization. He thinks the structure Pistons owner Tom Gores put in place by making Van Gundy both president of basketball operations and head coach gives the Pistons their best chance to succeed.

"The biggest problem I see with pro sports, in general – I saw it a little bit at Detroit with the Lions (when lifelong best friend Steve Mariucci was their coach) – you have to look at the programs where the owner, the president, the GM and the coach get along. Whether it's the Patriots or the Spurs or Miami. Look at the Packers, the Pittsburgh Steelers. The consistency of those teams. I do not understand that thing about the GM does this and the coach does this. You've got to hire some pretty good people, because of the job, but I think being on the same page is incredible."

Izzo talked to Van Gundy over the course of his first season with the Pistons, calling him one time to commend him for a job well done.

"He ripped himself. Forget ripping players – he rips himself. I thought he was doing a hell of a job and he was telling me how bad a job he was doing. Not his team – him. That's a great way to look at things. I don't see that a lot. I can't wait, this off-season, I'm going to get down there and spend some time. We had a lot of fun doing that with him last summer at the clinic. I do have an appreciation for him."

Izzo also thinks Van Gundy would have an appreciation for – and fit right in –his native Upper Peninsula.

"He'd be a good Yooper," Izzo laughed. "A beer, a burger and a pasty. You kidding me? He'd be the happiest guy around."

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