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:
BUSH GORE IZZO
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?!
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.