EAST LANSING, Mich. – Tom Izzo stepped up to a lectern with a microphone, as he has more than 1,000 times over the last three decades, and delivered a timely message when Michigan State University needed it most.
The Basketball Hall of Fame coach was asked to address a huge, crestfallen crowd that gathered in the middle of campus two days after shootings less than a mile away killed three students and hospitalized five others.
“Emotions are different for each and every person,” Izzo said. “I cry in front of my team. I cry on national TV. Don't be afraid to show your emotions. We all process trauma in a very different way. I’m just glad we’re all here together.”
Izzo had visited the victims in the hospital before practice earlier that day and had prepared what he wanted to say. He went off the script, though, when asking everyone in attendance to meet the 10 people around them before departing.
Nearly a month later, Michigan State interim President Teresa K. Woodruff got emotional while reflecting on what the coach meant to the community in that moment.
“I couldn't be more grateful for the way he lifted me and this community up that night,” Woodruff, choking back tears, said in an interview with The Associated Press on Monday. “He is the heart and soul, the face and voice of our university and his words brought us together in those dark hours."
This time of year, for many years, Izzo has been a bright spot at Michigan State.
He became the first coach to earn 25 straight bids to the NCAA men’s basketball tournament on Sunday when the Spartans were seeded No. 7 and matched up with No. 10 Southern California in the East Region.
Izzo's streak broke a record he shared with retired Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski.
The remarkable run started shortly after his job appeared to be in jeopardy, following a pair of .500 Big Ten seasons and an average of 16.5 wins over his first two years on the job.
“There's no doubt we were fearful for our jobs back then,” recalled former assistant coach Mike Garland, who has been one of Izzo's closest friends since they played basketball together at Northern Michigan in the mid-1970s. “Even though his job is safe now, he still coaches with fear.”
Izzo went into this season with an unranked team and bracing for the worst as the first college basketball coach since at least 2009 to have two scheduled games in November against teams ranked among the top four and two more against teams in the AP Top 25 in the same month.
The Spartans lost to then-No. 2 Gonzaga by a point and beat then-No. 4 Kentucky in a preview of what was to come in an uneven season, looking like a team that might put Izzo in the Final Four for the ninth time one day and appearing like it belonged in the NIT on another night.
Michigan State, as it often has under Izzo, appeared to be peaking at the right time going into the Big Ten Tournament, averaging 88 points and winning three of four games. The Spartans, however, were flat defensively and awful offensively in a 10-point loss to 13th-seeded Ohio State.
Izzo, a former point guard, acknowledges he is always tough on point guards and A.J. Hoggard knows that in particular this season.
Hoggard, who is perhaps the team's most pivotal player, did not play well against the Buckeyes at either end of the court and his dour body language drew the wrath of his coach during a tense exchange as they sat next to each other on the bench.
Three days later, Hoggard simply shrugged if off and said people don't see the other side of his hard-driving coach.
“They don't know how much he cares,” Hoggard said. "He cares a lot for his players, guys here or former players. He'll do anything for his players. They don't understand that. That's why he's so emotional and animated when he's coaching a guy up because he cares and he wants that guy to be successful.”
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AP March Madness coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/march-madness and bracket: https://apnews.com/hub/ncaa-mens-bracket and https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-college-basketball-poll and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25