Former Detroit Lions quarterback Jon Kitna said not to pay attention to sideline blow ups during athletic events. Coaches and players get riled up enough to cause national stinks five or six times a game.
I will apply that logic to the Tom Izzo-Gabe Brown explosion during halftime of Michigan State’s 86-80 overtime loss to UCLA in the first round of the NCAA tournament. It is not a sign that Izzo has lost his team and lost his program. It is not evidence that the game has passed him by.
It is a clear sign that Izzo holds his players to a high standard and when they fail he is going to let them know about it. It’s why Michigan State has been to eight Final Fours under Izzo and has won 10 regular season Big Ten championships and six Big Ten tournaments.
Unfortunately, if you want to win in competitive athletics there must be some unpleasant moments or feelings hurt.
Let’s examine what really happened. Near the end of the first half Brown froze and blew a defensive assignment which allowed the Bruins to score at the buzzer. Izzo got in his face. Brown wanted to storm away. Izzo grabbed his arm and tugged at his jersey. He did not punch him or grab him by the throat.
Izzo was irate. Brown knew the tongue lashing was coming because it is a culture Izzo created decades ago and a culture players accepted. Two years ago Izzo went off on Aaron Henry and I had to listen to people say that Henry was leaving the program and Izzo was too old school and is out of touch with today’s players.
Instead Henry stayed and became State’s best player and leader.
Now folks are saying Izzo is too old school for today’s modern player. No, he is too old school for many in today’s soft society. I was told 10 years ago that he was too old school and the game passed him by. He continued to make Final Four runs and win Big Ten titles.
Izzo might not have been as passionate if he had stronger leadership in his dressing room. There were times Izzo went off on players. But he didn’t have to go Hercules strong because by the time he walked to the dressing room the issue had already been handled by players who were not afraid to get in the faces of fellow teammates.
Mateen Cleaves, Draymond Green and others saved Izzo from being the bad guy. They took on the responsibility.
College basketball is run by the strong arm of coaches. The NBA is run by players. It is why Izzo stayed at Michigan State when the Cleveland Cavaliers called a few years ago. He knew his way would not work with professional athletes. And he could not get through to them if he were forced to change.
There were times Izzo attempted to back down and let things that irked him slide. And when he did he saw slippage in his program. Then he became Poppa Bear again because it is what he knows best.
Where I disagree with Izzo is he became indignant when the media asked him about the incident. We all saw it. There would be people that disagreed with it. Your job is to explain it.
“I get a kick out of you guys, get after somebody because you are trying to hold them accountable,” he said. “I don’t know what kind of business you’re in, but I tell ya what, if I was a head of a newspaper, and you didn’t do your job, you’d be held accountable. It’s the way it is.”
Also if something plays out on national television and everybody is talking about it Izzo should expect a few questions on the subject. That is the way it is.
What if your boss screamed in your face and tugged at your shirt after a heated meeting? You would not like it and might go to human resources to complain. So what’s different here?
Easy. Athletics is not the real world. During games players and coaches enter a different mental stratosphere. They are revved up, swollen up and geeked up. They become different human beings because they are competitors and the competition changes us.
They have an opponent trying to prevent them from doing their job in front of the world.
That’s why fights happen on the big stage. Often the cameras do not catch them. But they still happen.