Michigan State coach Tom Izzo churned his legs on a treadmill inside his coaches office and basketball empire built off Breslin Center, seeking to stay in shape during another busy Big Ten basketball race. He’d just been named one of The Detroit News’ Persons of the Year and I was tasked with interviewing him and bringing his story to light.
The great thing about Izzo is nobody walks into his office and simply talks about the task at hand. The man’s mind skips. He rambles and dreams bigger although he has accomplished big dreams.
He wants his program to be great. But guess what? He wants the program down the road in Ann Arbor to be almost as great. He talked about the importance of winning a second national title that day. But he wants basketball notoriety to shine a light on the state of Michigan.
Izzo is a Michigan State man and a state of Michigan man.
He wants the state of Michigan to become Tobacco Road North and hopes some day that fans and the media views the annual Michigan-Michigan State clashes in the same vein as Duke-North Carolina — viewed by many to be the most intense and important college basketball rivalry in the land.
A few years earlier Warde Manuel bombed golf balls at the University of Michigan golf course. He is a former football player at Michigan, but basketball was also on his mind that day. Manuel wanted what Izzo has in his back pocket. Big Ten titles. Final Four appearances. A national title. But he did not want it at the expense of the Spartans disappearing from the national scope.
He believed that Michigan basketball could have a further reaching scoop than MSU. When you look at the Spartans roster over the years, the vast majority of players are midwestern men. Manual believed UM could be a world wide program made up of players from Michigan to California. Illinois to Italy. Indiana to Germany.
He never used the term Tobacco Road North, but it was obvious that the man wanted Michigan to become the center of the basketball universe. That may happen on the court, but watching a blitzkrieg of enthusiasm from our state’s fan base may never happen.
Basketball drips from the veins of people in places like North Carolina, Indiana, Kansas and Kentucky. It does not here. When you watch games in those states it just seems different. Games seem more important and the passion rumbles on the court and into the streets.
We are seeing signs of Michigan becoming a mini Tobacco Road North on the basketball floors of Crisler Center and Breslin. Michigan clinched the Big Ten regular season title with a convincing victory over MSU in Ann Arbor, which means state teams have had a share in the last four conference championships.
MSU rebounded Sunday to beat Michigan and keep alive its NCAA tournament hopes. That likely means the Spartans will play in their 23rd consecutive tournament beginning next week.
Now if you are a diehard Wolverine or Spartan who hates the other school with a passion you might want to stop reading. Although the Spartans and Wolverines are heated rivals on the court the hatred off the court is not as intense.
When Michigan decided to modernize its program and not make coaches walk a quarter mile from their offices to practice in the driving snow and wind, Izzo offered coaches and administrators a walking tour of his palatial digs to give them ideas on how to spruce up their facilities, which is a key recruiting tool.
Manuel said if there was anything he could do to help Izzo — within reason — he would.
Tobacco Road North? That would be nice.Find Terry Foster Podcast here: