Tom Izzo and the Balrog

>> 6.09.2010

Please forgive the wildly off-topic post.

Those of you who’ve been reading for a while, or follow @lionsinwinter on Twitter, likely know that I’m a Spartan fan.  Not just a fan, I attended Michigan State—as did my wife, my in-laws (father-, mother-, sister-, her husband, and other sister-, plus grad school for two of those five), my mother, my stepmother, and my grandfather.  That’s right, I’m a third-generation Spartan, and fiercely proud of it.

One of the things that comes with being a rabid sports fan is getting asked “What’s up with” local sports happenings, especially in a city so profoundly intertwined with its major university.  So with all the reports of the face of said university, Tom Izzo, talking to the Cavaliers about their open coaching gig, I’ve been fielding quite a bit of these.

One must understand how deep Izzo’s roots in the community are.  He’s been head coach since 1995, yes—but he started at MSU part-time in 1983, and was named associate head coach in 1991.  He’s been a fixture in the community for decades, deeply involved in charity work and fundraising, and highly visible as a university advocate and spokesperson.

Were Izzo merely wildly successful, he'd be popular; such is the nature of the beast.  But since he’s not only built Michigan State into one of the most powerful programs in America, but done so with almost entirely local talent, espousing a philosophy of relentless effort and physical play . . . well, he’s become a minor diety in this Rust Belt town.  There are cars in Lansing still rocking this bumper sticker:


Cavs owner, MSU alum Dan Gilbert, is pitching his coach's gig to Izzo--and drawing comparisions to Art Modell in the process.  Is it really all that dramatic?  Is it really all that sinister?  Does Izzo really mean so much to Michigan State that if he leaves, they might as well close the town down?  Besides, it’s immaterial, right?  Izzo wouldn’t go, would he?  Would he?

. . . WOULD HE?!

Former Spartan guard Tim Bograkos, himself very active in the community and university, writes a cool blog, The Sixth Option.  His most recent post delves into Izzo's temptation to leave for the NBA:

I’ve often said that Coach has a competitive streak unlike anyone I’ve ever seen. I know he has the desire to test himself at the next level with the greatest players in the world. The chance to coach Lebron James is a very tempting offer and to get paid A LOT of money to do so makes the deal even sweeter. But will King James embrace him like our Spartan Nation reveres him? Does the chance to impact a young man’s life compare to over-paid players who don’t always play hard?

Over the years, I've heard rumblings along these lines.  Let me be clear: I’m not connected to the university, or the hoops program, in any way.  But add up the way Izzo talks in interviews, the way his name always seems to pop up in these rumors, and his apparent mastery of the college game, and it’s not hard to reach the same total: Tom Izzo wants to coach in the NBA . . . or at least, he thinks he does.

from Wikipedia Commons, copyright New Line Cinema

Tom Izzo is Gandalf, and the NBA his Balrog.  Izzo is one of the greatest, if not the greatest, college basketball coaches alive.  He’s been to nine of the last thirteen Sweet Sixteens, seven of the last twelve Elite Eights, and six of the last eleven Final Fours.  Of course, he also won a national title in 2000, and was the national runner-up at Ford Field in 2008.  Outside of winning a second national title, he’s accomplished all there is to accomplish at the college level.

The wizard Gandalf the Gray from J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic trilogy, The Lord of the Rings, is similar; he is a being of incredible supernatural power.  He is more wise, and more powerful, than nearly anything on Earth.  Like Tom Izzo, he walks almost without peer in the world of Middle Earth (this opens up a line of Mike Krzyzewski/Saruman reasoning that I find infinitely funny, but won’t bore you with).

Balrogs, as dramatically portrayed in the film adapation of the books, are enormous, powerful beings of “shadow and flame,” incredibly powerful, and nigh-on immortal.  What the movies don’t say is that in the world of Lord of the Rings, Balrogs are archdemons.  Serving as the most powerful lieutenants of Morgoth—essentially, the Devil—Balrogs slew countless elves before being driven deep underground.

In the story of the first book of the Trilogy, The Fellowship of the Ring, Gandalf avoids leading the party through the mines of Moria at all costs, for he knows a Balrog dwells there.  Yet, you get the sense that Gandalf knows a confrontation is inevitable—and to a degree, he has to have the challenge.  He has to know: as powerful as he is, is he powerful enough?  Can he go mano-a-mano with the most powerful adversary imaginable and win? 

Very few college coaches have made gone to the NBA and succeeded.  The players are better in the NBA, and the margin for error much smaller.  With massive, guaranteed player contracts, the inmates run the asylum; if a star player quits on his coach, the coach is shown the door.  The skill sets that make college coaches excellent, like recruiting, program-building, and fundraising, are mostly irrelevant in the NBA—and the primary talent an NBA coach must possess, motivating pampered millionaires, is rarely found in the college ranks.

In the story, Gandalf avoids the Balrog until there is no choice.  In order to save the future of Middle Earth, Gandalf fights the Balrog, and time he buys the Fellowship allows them to flee.  The battle rages, from the bridge of  Khazad-Dûm, to an underground lake, to the top of a mountain, where Gandalf finally slays the Balrog—but dies in the effort.  Gandalf is sent back from the afterlife “until his task is complete,” and assumes his true form: Gandalf the White, more wise and powerful than he’d ever been before.

Izzo faces no similar pressure.  He can, and may well, happily stay at Michigan State until the end of his working days, going to Final Fours, winning national titles, and overthrowing Saruman—er, I mean, eclipsing Mike Krzyzewski, as the greatest college coach in the land.  I fully believe that’s possible, even probable, and Michigan State’s AD Mark Hollis is “very confident” that Izzo will be coaching Michigan State’s basketball team in the fall.

But no matter what he does here at Michigan State, Tom Izzo will always wonder if he could have taken on the NBA and won.  He’ll never know if he could have slayed that demon.  He’ll never know if he could have become the second member of basketball’s most selective coaching fraternity: those who’ve won a title in both college and the pros.  No, until he’s tested his strength against that evil, Tom Izzo will always be Gandalf the Gray, and never Gandalf the White.

Technorati Tags: tom izzo,michigan state,cleveland cavaliers


Anonymous,  June 9, 2010 at 8:00 PM  


witless chum,  June 10, 2010 at 10:18 AM  

If Krzyzewski is Saruman, then Roy Williams in Sauron, no? Yeah, that works.

This is great fun, Ty. Thanks for it.

I'm surprised at how little I'm freaking out. I figure Izzo has given MSU and its fans all we can expect and more. I was at MSU (only second-generation, myself) for the national title and I'll probably always remember going crazy in Cedar Village with several thousand of my closest friends.

If Izzo wants to go deal with the Orcs and Goblins, who am I to complain? It's not even crazy to think that whoever replaces him will have an excellent chance to make a title run, presuming there aren't major defections.

Ty,  June 10, 2010 at 10:35 AM  


Yeah, I could buy Roy as Sauron. You could make a strong case for Calipari, too.

I feel exactly the same way: we got more from Izzo than anyone has a right to expect. If he leaves after the greatest decade-and-a-half any MSU sport has ever had, and maybe ever will have--and having been a pillar of the community the entire time? Well . . . good luck, and God bless, Tom Izzo.

By the way, you can safely count me amongst your several thousand closest friends; I was going crazy in Cedar Village, too. Great, great memory.


Anonymous,  June 10, 2010 at 11:28 AM  

Hey Ty! Over at Bleacher report (Lions tag) we have been having a very cool discussion on the secondary. I have cited your statistical analysis from an earlier piece and have sent quite a few folks over to TLIW for a look.

Would you kindly join us and offer some insight?

I would very much appreciate it. Oh, and BTW, sorry for the wildly off topic comment.

Thanks again.



Ty,  June 10, 2010 at 11:39 AM  


Yeah, another commenter brought that to my attention, very cool. I'm working on the follow-up to my original, but I'm checking that out. Will join the discussion over there shortly.


popeww,  June 10, 2010 at 2:52 PM  

hey, i've had the good fortune to meet coach izzo on several occasions, doing carpentry work in his home (computer desks and nativity displays) and for the basketball locker room (yes, i personally built every one of those incredible lockers, which you can view online at MSU's website or at my company's (i work there, don't own it!)website,

anyway, coach izzo is an incredible guy. i love working for him, he's very generous, very thoughtful, and his players and assistant coaches love him for it, and that's why he's so successful. i'd root for him no matter what job he takes, and if he takes this one i hope he's the one to reverse the curse of college/pro transitioning coaches. plus maybe then i could build the cavaliers new lockers as well!

paigito,  June 10, 2010 at 9:43 PM  

Ah Ty...

I'm a Michigan kind of guy. So one would think that a Michigan fan should delight thinking of a crack in the foundation of MSU Basketball.

But I don't. A part of me is irritated that a deep pocketed owner feels the need to attempt to pry Izzo away from Michigan State, even if that owner came from MSU himself.

Perhaps he knows the program will move along without Tom, but there is nothing that says it will and Izzo means so much more to the community than a few dozen wins in hoops each year.

I do hope Beilein gets Michigan on a more respectable track. I think he's one cut more from a similar cloth to Izzo unlike Tommy or some of the previous coaches who didn't relish challenges in schedules or integrity (and I honestly do not believe John was tampering to pull an assistant away from WMU) .. we'll see.

Just something about MSU and Izzo that I don't want to see change. If Michigan is going to challenge and maybe even beat them occasionally I want it to be against the best.

On that note, I don't suppose you're feeling too bad for U-M football and the family rift that is causing so much grief in the football program now are you? :-)

Here is to Izzo realizing that what he has here has so much more meaning than it would to jump to a league where ego's and money rule. If he chooses to leave the I wish him luck and I hope that it doesn't take away from anything he's done.

Matt,  June 11, 2010 at 10:06 AM  

A couple commenters hinted at my biggest concern with Izzo leaving and that is "Who takes his place?" I don't follow MSU hoops close enough to know who might be waiting in the wings, but I'm assuming that we DON'T have a repeat of Jud/Izzo lined up.

If Izzo takes the job in Cleveland, which seems increasingly likely, it will be a very bittersweet day in East Lansing (at least for me). I will echo the sentiment of "Thanks for the memories, Tom. It's sad to see you go, but good luck in your future endeavors." And who knows? Maybe he'll kick butt in Cleveland for awhile, get LeBron his ring(s), then come back to MSU some day as the AD (one can only hope :-).

Jim,  June 11, 2010 at 1:52 PM  


As an MSU football fan, I've frequently said the same thing about UM football. I want to beat them, but only because MSU is THAT good and not because UM football is THAT bad.

The first season of Rich Rod, I really enjoyed watching the program struggle, because it was just a relief after all the years of MSU football screwing itself over. This year, I'd like to see Rich Rod start to turn it around. If he can't, I'd like to see them snag a new coach who can bring UM football back.

Just not at the expense of MSU.

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