Tom Izzo Discusses His Incredible Ability to Connect to Today’s Modern Athlete

Tom Izzo 2014 at IU.  Photo courtesy of Mark Boomgaard
Tom Izzo 2014 at IU. Photo courtesy of Mark Boomgaard

Breslin Center

East Lansing, MI

As Tom Izzo once again sits with a top five team (currently ranked #4) and freshly off a signing day that gave him his best recruiting classthat I believe will get better with what I expect to be the addition of the nation’s best player in Josh Jackson, he is ducking a national trend. Perhaps not ducking it, but he is swimming upstream against it.

Now in the interest of full disclosure I am over 40 (Well north) and as I look at my life more through the eyeglasses of experience rather than blind ambition, there is no doubt this generation of young people is changing our culture. To their defense it is the adults who are doing it, but it doesn’t make it right or in some cases wrong.

Whether it is the everyone gets a trophy crowd in youth sports to parents and leaders fearful of a child every confronting failure, we have a generation of kids where schools are banning dodgeball and now when two kids in elementary school have a fist fight it ends in lawsuits rather than parents simply disciplining their own child. Regardless of color or socio economic background we see this growing trend. A sense of entitlement that makes some young people vulnerable that moment when they realize life does have winners and losers. While certainly not all young people, we are seeing a generation of young people who have been told how great they are for so long, that coaches are having issues coaching kids who don’t know how to deal with being told something they are doing isn’t great.

Recently the owner of the Phoenix Suns (Robert Sarver) whose team is struggling gravely said this to the Arizona Republicof the so called, “Millennials generation” and the impact they are having on sports in general and of course his team. “My whole view of the millennial culture is that they have a tough time dealing with setbacks.” Those comments went viral around the nation echoing a chorus of agreement.

MSU head coach Tom Izzo has talked often about today’s player (both praising and bemoaning the change) and having to be able to reach them. While we see it from politics, advertising and even as far as religion to adjust to this generation, Izzo hasn’t changed his hard core tough style. So in an era of hearing to reach today’s young person you have to change, how has Izzo thrived while remaining driven and true to his UP roots? I asked him how.

“I listen to some of the talking heads and I make my guys watch the national championship game in football all the time. I think the hype and the build up to it; I think a lot of media people are talking about a lot of things that make a lot of sense. I said you should listen and watch the human interest stories and really get a feel. There was a lot of talk with Saban being who Nick is, there is a lot of talk about how do the new age guys handle it. How much harder it is today to push guys compared to when the other guys with the hounds tooth hat was there. Some goes to the culture that you are in. I think that how I have handled it is the great guys that have played before. They still talk that way. If Draymond would have been at that game (Spartans lone loss at Iowa) or Travis Walton or Mateen Cleaves would have been at that game in Iowa I wouldn’t have had to say a word. I would have just sat back and let them rip people.”

Izzo says it is more than him, it is the Spartan way. “There is a standard here that you have to play by. I think that in great programs even though you have to deal with kids a little differently and maybe spend a little time here and there the standards to winning championships doesn’t change. It doesn’t change! Players play and tough players win was good 15 years ago and will be good 15 years from now. I don’t care what sport it is in. We watched two of the best defensive teams play last night. It just doesn’t change. How have I dealt with it? I’ve asked for more help from the players that played before. I’ve asked from Denzel to do a little bit more and Tum, the guys I know that are kind of cut from the same cloth.”

Izzo went on to explain some of his keys to leading this generation, “I use analogies. I take guys to the football games. I have them watch NBA games and games and NFL games and I just keep talking about it. Who’s winning still? It’s the guys that stay to the same standards that there were 20 years ago. One of the talking heads said it, ‘Players still go where they can win.’ I got a nice letter from Buck Nystrom. I hadn’t talked to him in a while and he kind of kept it to the same standard when I played a little spring ball back at Northern Michigan.”

But Izzo doesn’t think it is just this generation, he thinks there are some keys that transcend time, and “Discipline is something that everyone is looking for. Everybody wants to be loved; everybody wants to be cared about. It doesn’t matter if you were born 5,000 years ago or if you are going to be born 500 years from now. There are certain things that are going to withstand the test of time. I think that the minute we give in to that stuff you won’t see me speaking at this podium. I can promise you that. Because I believe in things I saw last night. I believe in things we’ve done here. I believe in great coaches I have seen before me. We have to adjust to them. We have to handle them a little bit differently; we have to massage them a little bit differently. I saw two teams last night. I thought that quarterback from Clemson; I mean you talk about a guy with guts and heart. I was impressed by him. I didn’t get to see him much.”

All you had to do was watch the out of control Bengals vs. Steelers gameto see what many think is a lack of discipline among sports today.  Izzo thinks that game was a teaching point, “It just reaffirms my belief that you’ve still got to be a good guy, you’ve still got to be a driven guy, you’ve still got to be a disciplined guy, as we learned from the Bengals game the other way. Those things are the same, man. They don’t change if you’re going to win championships. Games, yes. Championships, no. And then I get lucky. I probably recruit guys that, Denzel Valentine is the perfect guy for me. He can take my stuff, he can give a little bit, he can really spread the good word, and I’ve been unfortunate in that.”

So while others are struggling, just as every generation going back to the Garden of Eden has done to adjusting to a new age, Izzo stands tall. Not only as a winner, but a doer. If the nation’s #1 player Josh Jackson commits as I expect, Izzo will have his best class ever grow to legendary status. It will also give him the nation’s best class.

It was just a few years ago that other teams, nationally and in the Big Ten recruited against Izzo with his fiery style, he stayed true to himself. He doubled down on the values he learned growing up in Michigan’s UP from his father Carl, and it’s paying off.