- The Washington Times - Friday, December 3, 2004

Tom Izzo began his athletic education as a tailback taking handoffs from future NFL coach Steve Mariucci at Iron Mountain High School on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Now, as basketball coach at Michigan State, he has built one of the NCAA’s best programs and won a national championship.

Izzo, whose 11th-ranked Spartans meet George Washington in the BB&T; Classic tomorrow at MCI Center, credits much of his success to his football upbringing. He created the “War Drill” — a 10-player scrum for a rebound with no rules other than to get the ball by any means necessary. The session usually ends with bloodletting, bruises and a renewed aggressive mentality.

It is all part of Izzo’s trademarks of physical defense and relentless rebounding — the hoops equivalent of smash-mouth football.

“The one thing I always liked about football that is critical in both sports is, usually the team that wins is the toughest both mentally and physically,” said Izzo, who led Michigan State to the 2000 national title with point guard Mateen Cleaves in the midst of three consecutive Final Four appearances. “My background was more in football almost more than it was in basketball.”

And sometimes practice looks like it should be staged between goal posts instead of baskets. After a loss to Ohio State a few seasons ago, Izzo implemented his own version of arena football.

“I put pads and helmets on them so they wouldn’t get hurt,” he said. “Because I thought I had a bunch of sissies at the time. It turned out to be pretty good.”

Izzo, 49, has an ongoing streak of seven NCAA tournament bids. The Spartans trounced Maryland in the Sweet 16 in 2003 and have won four Big Ten regular-season titles under Izzo.

Now Michigan State is preparing for another deep run into March. Junior Paul Davis, a 6-foot-11, 255-pound junior, is the inside muscle. A talented backcourt includes senior Chris Hill and freshman Drew Neitzel. Neitzel, last season’s Mr. Basketball in Michigan, is considered the program’s first true point guard since Cleaves.

“He always talks in football terms,” senior forward Kevin Torbert said of Izzo. “He always talks about defensive backs getting breaks on the ball on defense and how good rebounders are like linebackers with a nose for the ball.”

Izzo’s football mentality stems from his relationship with Mariucci, now the coach of the Detroit Lions. After high school, they spent seven years together at Northern Michigan University. Izzo walked on to the Division II basketball team and became a third-team All-American as a 5-foot-9 defense-oriented guard. Meanwhile, Mariucci starred as a quarterback. The two also roomed together as graduate assistants.

“We lived in the same house,” said Izzo, who would attend minicamps when Mariucci coached the San Francisco 49ers. “I went to a lot of the football team’s meetings. I think I picked up a lot from them.”

Each was best man at the other’s wedding, and Izzo’s son, 4-year old Steven Mateen, is named after his best friend and his former guard.

The coach’s football approach goes beyond drills and extensive film study to recruiting. One of his first signees was Antonio Smith, a 6-8 rebounding maverick who had two brothers — including Houston Texas defensive end Robaire — reach the NFL. Cleaves stayed in state, and the McDonald’s All-American chose Izzo over big-time football.

“We had just came off the Fab Five era [at Michigan], so it wasn’t necessarily cool to go to Michigan State,” said Izzo, who spent 12 seasons as an assistant to Jud Heathcote before taking over the Spartans in 1995. “We got Mateen Cleaves, who was recruited hard by Florida State and Notre Dame for football. Every basketball school recruited him. He was the big catch. He made it OK to come here.”

Former Izzo assistant Tom Crean, who left in 1999 to take over at Marquette, recalls one day when Izzo instituted the War Drill right before a home game against Penn State. The Spartans were coming off a loss to Northwestern when they were summoned to their practice gym.

“It was no holds barred. A couple guys had to change their jerseys because there was blood on them,” said Crean, who led Marquette to the 2003 Final Four. “We went on to win the game convincingly. Tom’s cutting edge is, ‘How can I make my team tougher? And what unique way can I find to do it?’”

The drill was born out of necessity in Izzo’s first season of 1995-96 after Shawn Respert and Eric Snow went to the NBA. The Spartans point guard was sick before a game with Arkansas, and Izzo was desperate for scoring.

“That night I said, ‘We have to offensive rebound because we have no scoring,’” Izzo said. “I think we had 25 rebounds against Arkansas. And then it started. Unfortunately, we started saying, ‘Hey, the missed shot has to be our best offense.’ The rebounding and the physical part came by accident maybe because how poor we were offensively that first year.”

Scoring has caught up to the defense this season as the Spartans have topped the 100-point mark three times against soft competition. Six players average in double figures, led by Torbert at 16.3. Michigan State has four seniors and two juniors in its nine-man rotation.

The Spartans seem to have finally recovered from the early NBA defections of Zach Randolph, Jason Richardson and Marcus Taylor that left the program’s future in jeopardy. And Izzo, the tailback turned basketball coach, feels the talent and experience could lead to another peak year in East Lansing.

“When the day is over, it’s not the X’s and O’s that win for you,” Izzo said. “It is how you get to people, how you drive people, how you spent time getting them to believe in you. That’s the same in both sports.

“That’s what has been fun about having Mariucci back here. He is in a different sport but in the same profession. We are both trying to do the same thing. The object of the game ends up the same in the end — and that’s how do you get the most out of somebody to achieve something they don’t think they can achieve.”

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