East Lansing

Watching Tom Izzo up close for as long as I have has at times been painful a lot of time. Never void of talent, there has been times that Izzo’s teams were void of character. I don’t care if you are a media beat reporter like me, a player or a coach on those teams no one enjoyed their job. It was like pulling teeth.

That is why the last three years have been, “Refreshing,” for the Spartans future Hall of Fame Coach. I reported last year that the last two Izzo teams had brought a new perspective to Izzo and this year’s team has done the same.

No longer having to bark and scream to get players attention, Izzo has often found himself comforting players whose own voice of frustration with a bad play is stronger and louder than his own. Simply put, while Izzo was accumulating talent, he also had SOME men on his team that thought because of their accolades and God given talent that they were smarter than him. They weren’t and they aren’t.

These past three teams have reinvigorated the Spartans head man and it shows from his countenance, attitude and even his in game demeanor. Twice versus Florida Izzo stood to go after a player for a mistake only to play comforter when the player approached him. He watches with the pride of a new father when a player barks at anther for a mistake.

Spartan practices have gone from frustrating exercises in a battle of the master and the student to teaching sessions with hungry learners and eager teachers. It has become heartfelt and fun.

While certainly not every team that Izzo coached had those issues, it started creeping in after the program got vaulted to national attention. Of course it wasn’t every player, but the adage that one bad apple can destroy the bunch turned out to be true in some cases.

Those days are long gone. Players run to the bench knowing that teaching is coming and rather than bristle at the instruction they embrace it, they covet it. Tum Tum Nairn said it best to me, “I look at that man (Izzo) and can’t believe I am playing for someone like him. I am so blessed. I love it when I get called over, that is a chance to get better from the best coach in the country.” Trust me, Nairn speaks for the team, not just himself.

I asked Izzo about the two incidents in the Florida game and the refreshed atmosphere for a coach who is having a ball, not because they are undefeated and #1, but because he is back to being a teacher and coach and not a frustrated parent.

Izzo said, “There is a little truth to that. There is a little truth to that. What a coach wants to see is the same thing that a parent wants to see. It is no different than what you wall want to see with your own kids. You want to see someone with the understanding that they didn’t do what was right. If they understand that and show some understanding in that you don’t have to say as much. This is really not that difficult. Over the years different kinds of guys do different kinds of things. This team has been so solid in practice and in their summer workouts and their trip to Italy. They’ve earned the right to do some things. Like Bryn. How many times have you seen a guy go one for seven or eight and I give them the hockey number one star? Because I thought he was doing all of the other things and I don’t remember saying a word to him about his shot during the game. I also know that he is in everyday working on his shot. I know what is important. I know he is improving on his defense and I know he is improving on his communication a lot. It’s been…refreshing is a good word. I think our seniors deserve some credit for that in the leadership they have showed. Someday I think DD (Deyonta Davis) is going to be playing at another level and hopefully he is sending Colby (Wollenman) something. Because Colby does a lot for him too. Remember my theory that a player coached team is much much better than a coach coached team especially when I am coaching them. These players have helped one another and they do confront one another and they do encourage or hold them accountable. Something a coach doesn’t have to do as much and it is awesome.”

I said it at the end of last year and I will reiterate it again now. Spartan Nation owes the last three teams of Spartans a big thank you. They have rejuvenated their coach, and most of all do it the right way on and off the field.

Being #1 and undefeated is great, but championships are won in April, NOT in December. What this team has is an amazing head coach and a great team of unselfish young men who do it right on and off the field. And like Izzo said things at MSU basketball right now are, “Awesome.”

Credit Izzo. He could have been stubborn, but he changed. He still wants the best players, but I personally believe he is recruiting a different kind of player now. Still talented, but he is looking for character.

When Tom Izzo got to MSU he wasn’t getting the top tier players. He won with guys that had a chip on their shoulder. When he started winning big and those guys came he found himself with a lap full of prima donnas that wanted to be coddled. Not all of them, but more than his share.

Not anymore. Now he is getting the stars, but the right ones. Guys that mirror the guts and work ethic of teams that built his program and the character of young people that would make any father proud. And oh by the way, great basketball players.

So the next time you see Izzo with a big smile, remember he loves being #1 and undefeated, but more importantly he loves coaching again.