Greg Eno

Archive for the ‘College Basketball’ Category

Never short on candor, OU’s Kampe again has team set up for some March Madness

In College Basketball on March 4, 2016 at 7:50 pm

If coaches’ words were food, most of them would be processed chicken nuggets—filled with preservatives and churned out of a machine in the same size and shape. Each nugget looks and tastes like its predecessor, and will look and taste like the next one.

If Greg Kampe’s words were food, they’d be Thai stir-fry: spicy, eclectic and bursting with flavor. And all natural ingredients.

If you like your interviews to be antiseptic and predictable—where you can pretty much fill in the answer even before you ask the question—then don’t bother talking to Greg Kampe.

Kampe, Oakland University’s brutally honest men’s basketball coach, speaks without a filter. His words don’t come pre-processed. He takes being candid to the next level. With Kampe, the bare minimum you’ll get is candor. Often, you’ll get a little more.

Kampe is like the lyric from that song, “Oh Well.”

“Don’t ask me what I think of you; I might not give the answer that you want me to.”

I long knew about Kampe’s reputation for telling it like it is, but I experienced it firsthand last summer, when Kampe appeared as a guest on “The Knee Jerks” podcast with Al Beaton and me.

Al and I found out how Kampe ended up at the OU campus thanks to Notre Dame coach Digger Phelps’ white lie; that Kampe once turned down an NBA assistant’s opportunity; his second thoughts on upgrading the Golden Grizzlies program from Division II to Division I; and his thoughts on Oakland’s bitter rivalry with Detroit Mercy.

Ah, that last one.

For years, Oakland played in the Summit League. So despite the University of Detroit-Mercy being a mere 40-minute drive down I-75 from the OU campus, Kampe could never get the Titans to play his kids in a non-conference tilt. UDM played in the Horizon League—and still does.

But a few years ago, OU left the Summit League and entered the Horizon League, and now UDM can’t avoid Oakland anymore.

I asked Kampe last summer, “Do you think that [UDM] was avoiding you?”

He chuckled and said, incredulously, “Do I THINK?”

Of course!

But the Titans can’t avoid the Golden Grizzlies any longer, no matter how much the good fathers at UDM would like to do so.

Last Friday, Kampe’s kids blasted the Titans, 108-97, notching their sixth victory over UDM in the last seven meetings.

The win was more than just for rivalry purposes; it vaulted OU into a double-bye in the Horizon League Tournament, which gets underway tomorrow.

This means that OU can sit back and watch eight other teams duke it out this weekend for two rounds, before returning to action on Monday, automatically in the tournament’s semi-final.

But about that rivalry with UDM: Kampe makes no bones about it—he loves beating the tar out of the Titans. And who can blame him? He has a lot of catching up to do, after all those years when UDM would refuse to put Oakland on its schedule.

Speaking on the radio in the week leading up to last Friday’s game against Detroit, Kampe freely admitted that he makes a big deal out of the UDM game with his players.

He said that even though Oakland has dominated the series lately, he wants his kids to remember that one game that OU lost.

“I don’t want them to forget what that felt like,” Kampe said.

And what would he be like if OU lost last Friday?

“I’m already not a very nice guy, but I’d be even less nice,” Kampe said.

Well, not to worry, because Oakland again dispatched of UDM, thus paving a much easier path to the league tournament championship.

This year’s Golden Grizzlies squad is led by guard Kay Felder, who was named Horizon League Player of the Year. Felder scored 26 points in Oakland’s latest win over UDM.

felder-kampe

Kampe unabashedly calls Felder the best player he’s coached at OU.

Last summer, Kampe told us on the podcast that, what the hell—he’ll say it: Kay Felder is the best player he’s ever coached.

And Kampe has been prowling the sidelines in Rochester for 31 years.

Oakland, which has made several appearances in the NCAA’s “big dance” in March in years past, hasn’t slowed down one iota since the 2013 switch from the Summit League to the Horizon League—whose teams have had their share of March Madness success in the past.

This year’s OU team finished the regular season 21-10 (13-5 conference) and you’d be a fool to bet against them in the tournament, even though they’re the no. 2 seed, behind Valparaiso, which did indeed beat OU twice this season.

Two years ago, Kampe had Travis Bader, who broke the all-time NCAA record for career three-pointers made, a record formerly held by Duke star—and current NBA player—J.J. Redick.

But Felder, a 5’9″ dynamo from, ironically, Detroit, blows Bader and every other player that Kampe has coached, out of the water.

Felder averaged nearly a double-double this season—24.4 points and 9.4 assists per game. He also chipped in with 2.0 steals per game, all while limiting his turnovers to just 3.4 per game, in about 36 minutes of action every night.

Felder’s FG percentage has risen steadily, as well—from 40.2 to 42.2 to 44.5 over the past three seasons.

And he’s a junior. The odds are he’ll stay at OU for his senior year, but several NBA observers look at Felder as a second round pick, at least, should he declare.

As for Kampe, he’ll be at Joe Louis Arena this weekend, watching the lower seeds battle, taking inventory as to what awaits his team on Monday night.

And if you see the coach there, don’t ask him anything if you can’t handle the truth.

Kampe’s “Stay at Home” Approach at OU Has Worked for 30 Years—and Counting

In College Basketball on December 28, 2013 at 9:44 pm

The third-longest currently tenured college basketball coach in Division I runs his program off exit 79 on I-75, about 40 minutes north of Detroit. It’s not the tony campus of upstate New York, or the basketball beltway that is Durham, but only Jimmy Boeheim at Syracuse and Mike Krzyzewski at Duke, respectively, have presided over their basketball teams longer than Greg Kampe has at Oakland University.

Kampe is in year 30 coaching his kids in Rochester Hills, and in a business where the coach is always looking, it seems, for his next ticket to be punched, to be at one institution of higher learning for as long as Kampe has been, is nothing short of remarkable.

Especially when the coach could have flown the coop years ago, and many times over since.

Kampe doesn’t project the typical image of a basketball coach. First, he is shaped more like a basketball itself—kind of like a Rick Majerus or Frank Layden type, when most of Kampe’s brethren are lean, mean and tall. Kampe is none of those—especially the mean part.

Last winter, Kampe scored his 500th career win at OU. It came, fittingly, at home. Kampe himself said so.

“The thing I’m most proud of,” Kampe said, fighting back tears during a post-game, on-court interview by Fox Sports Detroit, “is that all 500 came (at OU). That means a lot to me.”

Indeed.

Coaches who begin to achieve milestones in victories at the college level usually do so in piecemeal fashion—75 at this school here, 125 at that school over there, another 100 on yet another campus.

But Kampe chose to keep true to his roots at OU.

The administrators at Oakland have done well to keep Kampe as their coach, because all he seems to do there is win.

In 20 of the 29 seasons prior to this one, Kampe’s OU teams have finished with winning records. On 10 occasions, the win total was 20 or better. In 2005, Kampe led the Golden Grizzlies to their first and only—to date—win in the NCAA Tournament.

It all adds up to a career winning percentage of .580, and it’s not like Kampe has blue chip players pulling up to his campus in Rolls Royces.

Not that OU is a dog when it comes to the college experience. I ought to know; my daughter is a sophomore there.

The campus itself is sprawling enough to remind you that you’re in college, but homey enough to not be intimidating. The O-Rena, where the Golden Grizzlies play hoops, is a relatively new facility that can be used as a recruiting tool shamelessly, and with great pride.

Still, it wouldn’t be a knock on OU to say that Kampe isn’t exactly getting the pick of the litter when he recruits. Kampe has to work and scrap for every kid he gets, especially considering the competition he’s up against are all a day’s drive, or less, from his campus—and which carry names like U-M, MSU and all the “directional” state schools (EMU, CMU, WMU).

Then there’s the University of Detroit Mercy.

The Titans can’t duck Kampe’s teams anymore.

UDM is a short bus ride away from OU. The kids can’t even get through more than a few songs on their iPod before it’s time to get off and unload.

Yet the Titans have hardly made it a priority to schedule OU over the years.

“They won’t play us,” Kampe muttered several years ago about the Titans program.

Well, UDM can’t duck the Golden Grizzlies any longer, because this season, OU moved to the Horizon League after playing in the Summit League for 15 years.

The Horizon League is the same conference that UDM has played in for over three decades.

Finally, we will be treated to annual Golden Grizzlies-Titans match-ups—whether the good fathers at UDM want them or not.

Kampe wins, and has been winning, by coaching up kids that the so-called “bigger” schools didn’t want—to the tune of 506 career victories, and counting.

He calls Waterford Township home, and that doesn’t look like it’s going to change anytime soon. Kampe is 21st among active D-I coaches in victories, and the fact that he takes so much pride in that all 506—so far—have come at one place, shows you where his heart lies.

Part of the impetus for OU shifting to the Horizon League, where such basketball-rich schools as Butler, Marquette, and Loyola once played for many years, was that there was, frankly, nothing left to prove in the Summit League.

Kampe’s kids have owned the Summit. He was the conference’s Coach of the Year four times. From 2009-2011, the Golden Grizzlies went 34-2 in conference play—easily the best in the nation during that three-year period.

In Oakland’s last 88 games in the Summit League, the Golden Grizzlies won 70 of them, including a winning streak of 20 games.

Now it’s on to another challenge, playing in the Horizon.

While all that winning has garnered little in terms of national recognition, Kampe has tried to put OU on the map by being fearless in his scheduling.

Every year, Oakland shows up on the schedules of some of the best basketball schools in the country. Goliath always wins, but sometimes David gives them a scare. And no one thinks of a game against Oakland as a joke.

Just ask Tom Izzo, a good friend of Kampe’s. A couple weeks ago, Izzo’s MSU Spartans escaped Oakland by a few points at the Palace.

Coming up a tad shy to the Spartans (67-63), though, was little consolation to Coach Kampe.

“There are no moral victories here at Oakland,” Kampe told the Associated Press after the MSU loss. “We passed that point of being close long ago. We were close again and just couldn’t beat them.”

Still, the faring against MSU was impressive, considering that OU had gotten off to a rotten—and very un-Oakland-like—1-8 start this season.

Greg Kampe was won over 500 games at Oakland and, at 58 years old, there are possibly a couple hundred more wins in the tank—and likely all will be in Rochester Hills.

“We have a quality program that turns out talented student-athletes,” Kampe says on OU’s website for basketball. “We try to do things the right way with good people who receive a good education and then go out into the world and have success after basketball.

“That’s what our mission is.”

Mission accomplished, and will continue to be so, as long as Kampe sticks around. If he hasn’t left by now, he likely never will—until Father Time says otherwise.

Coaches Izzo, Petrino On Opposite Sides of Moral Spectrum

In College Basketball, college football on April 16, 2012 at 2:06 am

Two college coaches stood at their respective podiums recently. I don’t need a program listing to tell me which is taller.

The images couldn’t have been starker in comparison.

First, there was Bobby Petrino, the morally bankrupt coach of the Arkansas Razorbacks football program, looking every bit the pathetic fool that he is, addressing the media with his scratched, cut-up face and wearing a neck brace.

Had Petrino been in that condition because a group of Alabama or Auburn fans set upon him and beaten him to smithereens, then that’s a different kind of pathetic.

Instead, Petrino was the kind of pathetic that makes you feel embarrassed for him and even more so for his family, particularly his humiliated wife.

Petrino was, as it turns out, spewing lies as he spoke of the motorcycle accident that (fittingly) occurred on April Fool’s Day.

Petrino was lying to the press, to the university, to his boss, to the police, to Arkansas football fans and—again, worse—to his family when he said that he was alone on his bike when he careened off a highway.

Thankfully, Petrino said, a Good Samaritan in the form of a 25-year-old woman named Jessica Dorrell happened along and offered a ride to the hospital.

It didn’t take very long for that version of what actually transpired to be folded, spindled and mutilated.

Petrino was actually in the company of Dorrell—she was his passenger—when Bobby wiped out. And she wasn’t a hitchhiker.

Turns out Dorrell, an Arkansas football staffer, had been carrying on with Petrino, 26 years her senior, in the form of what Petrino finally admitted was an “inappropriate” relationship. Basically, she was his mistress.

Anyone surprised that Petrino’s tale unraveled faster than a cheap wool sweater maybe played football—or rode a motorcycle—without a helmet.

Let’s wind the clocks back to the fall of 2007, shall we?

Petrino was in his first year as coach of the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons, having been hired away from the University of Louisville by owner Arthur Blank. The Falcons had played 13 games and were having a rough go of it under the rookie pro coach with a 3-10 record.

One day in December, the Falcons players arrived to their lockers to find a brief, typed out letter in their respective stalls. It contained all of four sentences.

It was a notice, put out by Petrino, informing his players that he had quit the Falcons and was about to take the job at Arkansas.

Signed, Bobby.

It was a dash into the night, one coach’s impersonation of the Baltimore Colts skipping out to Indianapolis back in 1984.

Petrino didn’t have the guts—hell, the common courtesy—to speak to his football team in person. And this after he promised owner Blank that despite the rumors to the contrary, Bobby wasn’t about to abscond to Arkansas.

Shortly after giving Blank that assurance, Bobby banged out his four-sentence letter, made photocopies and hopped onto a plane for Arkansas.

His players, after finding out that their coach had the integrity of a marked deck of cards, flew into a rage. They let Petrino have it, to the media. The Falcons’ season was spiraling out of control and the coach had fled.

Petrino sacked his team with a blindside hit, but he had the temerity to sing the Razorbacks fight song mere hours after his photocopies cooled.

Blank was seething, like the Falcons players. The man who Blank showed confidence in by giving him his first pro coaching job turned out to be a gutless liar and a phony.

So I wasn’t surprised at all when details of Petrino’s lies and the subsequent facts about the voluminous number of text messages and cell phone calls that pocked his relationship with Dorrell, were made public.

Not at all.

The second coach to take the podium this week was MSU basketball wizard Tom Izzo.

Izzo was the antithesis of Petrino: He was dressed casually, but looking very professional, and serious as a heart attack, as he talked to the press about senior player Derrick Nix’s arrest on suspicion of DUI, which occurred April 3 and resulted in Izzo kicking Nix off the team, albeit temporarily, as it turned out.

It was temporary because after Nix pleaded guilty to a reduced charge, Izzo rescinded the suspension. But that’s far from the end of the story.

Nix spoke before his coach and sobbed as he apologized to those who he disappointed and let down. Tears rolled down his very sincere face.

Then Izzo spoke.

The coach said that it was still too early to determine Nix’s ultimate fate as a Spartan hoopster. Izzo said he had met with his coaching staff—and presumably Athletic Director Mark Hollis and university President Lou Anna K. Simon—and kicked Nix’s future around, so to speak.

What kind of challenges does Nix face now, both academically and as a person? Does the kid have it within him to recover from this and be a productive member of society, let alone of the basketball team?

Those were the kinds of questions, Izzo said, that he discussed with his inner circle.

And, last but not least, what kind of further discipline will Izzo mete out?

“There is gonna be issues that I’m gonna have to determine yet,” said Izzo to the media on Thursday, “depending what he does this summer, depending on how he acts.”

And through it all, one couldn’t look at Tom Izzo, standing mere feet away from the repenting Nix, and not see a coach in total, complete control of his program—and with the integrity and credibility that goes with that.

Compare that to the image of the fool Petrino, looking like Wile E. Coyote after another go-round with the Roadrunner. How can Petrino ever guide young men again?

It’s been a rough year for the institution of the college coach—pro coaches, too, for that matter.

It’s been a year of shrinking leaders and emperors wearing no clothes.

But watching Tom Izzo discuss Derrick Nix, in front of Derrick Nix, was a silver lining to a cloud.

At least somewhere, there’s a college coach who won’t embarrass his school, his AD, his president, his players or his alumni supporters. Ever.

So take some heart in that.

Isiah’s Obsession with the Knicks Almost Disturbing

In Basketball, College Basketball on November 14, 2010 at 3:34 pm

Ladies, how long would you stay married to a spouse who continues to pine for his ex? How much would you put up with it, if said spouse was so bold as to go public about his desire to get back together with the one who jilted him?

What would you do if hubby said, when asked if he ever thinks about returning to his ex-wife, “Every single day of the week”?

Jack would be hitting the road, would he not?

Florida International University is the abused, neglected wife of schools. FIU must have the self-esteem of a bullied adolescent. And it’s taking its abuse lying down.

Isiah Thomas is the school’s basketball coach. For now. Until the New York Knicks call; after that, it’s sayonara.

Thomas says so—plainly, boldly.

There was a time when Isiah Thomas was beloved in Detroit. He was a runt, but he was our runt. He came to town as a 20-year-old kid drafted by the Pistons from Indiana University, off the streets of Chicago. He had a smile that lit up a room, but that smile hid the heart of an assassin.

Isiah bounded into Detroit and there didn’t seem to be any B.S. about him, except what was on the degree he would one day receive, having left college after his sophomore year.

Isiah spoke honestly and with an edge. He smiled a lot but you wanted him to be smiling with you, not at you. There was a big difference, as we would come to find out.

He arrived in the summer of 1981 and it didn’t take him long before his honesty made us squirm a little.

After looking at the Pistons’ roster—the team finished 21-61 the year before Isiah joined them—Thomas had a question.

“Who,” he wondered without any hint of sarcasm, “will I pass the ball to?”

He was serious. And he should have been. The Pistons were devoid of talent, as thin as onion skin in the depth department. Isiah’s creativity was at its apex when he led Bobby Knight’s Hoosiers to the 1981 NCAA Championship.

Pistons GM Jack McCloskey drooled when he thought of what a player of Isiah Thomas’s personality and basketball magnitude could do for his squad.

But Isiah was right; the Pistons didn’t really have anyone worthy of his whirling dervish style or his pinpoint passes.

Once he got Isiah signed, McCloskey went to work assembling a roster more befitting his new point guard’s skill set.

Within a year, McCloskey acquired Bill Laimbeer and Vinnie Johnson to complement Isiah and fellow rookie Kelly Tripucka.

The Pistons jumped from 21 wins to 39 in Isiah’s first season.

You know the rest. Isiah—some around town called him Zeke—passed and scored his way into the NBA’s elite, slowly but surely. And he took the Pistons along with him. Thomas’s Pistons won two straight championships, and could have won a third.

Thomas was cold and calculating on the basketball floor. He didn’t want to beat you, he wanted to humiliate you. He had the Napoleonic Complex to the nth degree.

Isiah was as tough as an undercooked flank steak and as competitive as a hungry stray dog.

Isiah Thomas was, quite simply, the single greatest player to ever play for the Pistons. Still is, truth be told. He’s been retired for 17 years and no one has come close to him as an all-time Pistons great.

You could make a case that Isiah was the greatest small guard to play in the NBA. Ever.

That was then.

I don’t have much use for Isiah nowadays. I haven’t really for many years. His life and career post-playing have left too much to be desired. My opinion.

Now Isiah’s at it again, giving us way too much information about his obsession with the Knicks, which borders on disturbing.

Thomas was fired by the Knicks as team president in 2008 after nearly five years at the helm, on the heels of poor performance on the court and in the courts.

The Knicks team that Thomas constructed was a disaster, with its revolving door that ushered in both players and coaches—and he was one of the coaches. Isiah had a chance to bring the hallowed Knicks name back into relevance, something the NBA to this day would kill to make happen.

But he blew it. Isiah helped make the Knicks a cartoon, an embarrassment to the world’s greatest city and to the league.

Isiah was a bully in a china shop, running the Knicks. Yes, I said bully.

There’s a dark side to Isiah Thomas, you see. Ask anyone who hasn’t been the recipient of his famous smile. Ask anyone who’s dared to disagree with him on matters of relative importance.

One such bully victim was Anucha Browne Sanders, a bright female marketing executive with the Knicks before being fired, who sued the franchise and Thomas and who won, claiming sexual harassment that took place with the alleged complicity of Thomas.

The Knicks were losers in Madison Square Garden and in the courthouse. All that losing got Thomas fired.

Yet Isiah still pines for the Knicks.

Earlier this year, the Knicks tried to hire Thomas as a consultant, until the league stepped in, waggled its finger, and said “Nuh-uh—not while you’re under the employ of a university as its basketball coach.”

That should have put an end to Thomas’s fixation with the Knicks but it didn’t—not even close.

In a recent interview with ESPN New York, Thomas admits that he thinks about returning to the Knicks as team president “every single day of the week.”

There’s more.

Thomas says that if he was left in charge of the Knicks, LeBron James would have come to New York, and James would be bringing Dwyane Wade with him.

It was hardly the first time that Isiah has publicly admitted to still being smitten with the Knicks, a franchise with which he has fallen into irreversible lust.

All this, and FIU—his employer, by the way—doesn’t say a word.

It’s a classic case of the abused wife who everyone says should leave her husband, yet she doesn’t for whatever warped and pathetic reasons.

Thomas has been the coach at FIU for one season, a year in which his team went 7-25. He says he’s committed to bringing a winner to the Miami-based campus, but how can that be when he thinks about the Knicks “every single day of the week”?

If Florida International University had one ounce of self-respect for itself and for the kids on the basketball team, they’d fire Isiah yesterday. They should have canned him when Thomas tried to take that consultant’s job with the Knicks.

FIU should say, “You think about the Knicks every day, Isiah? Now you can have as much time as you want to think about them.”

FIU deserves better. Those kids playing basketball deserve better. They need a coach interested in them, not the New York Knicks.

Oh, Isiah!

 

Finally, Izzo Closes the Door to the NBA

In College Basketball on June 16, 2010 at 7:17 pm

Tom Izzo finally did it.

He finally uttered those three little words.

No, not those three little words—but these were even better.

“I’m a lifer.”

And with that, they ought to start building a fence around the Michigan State University campus.

On top of the fence should be a sign, in huge green letters on a white background: “NBA: KEEP OUT.”

Izzo, the MSU basketball coach who flirted with the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers last week, not only told them no, he essentially told the entire NBA the same thing.

“I’m a lifer,” Izzo said at a press conference yesterday, “And damn proud of it.”

I wrote about the Izzo Watch last week and I was criticized for being mean spirited. Others—including MSU people—said that as much as it pained them to admit it, they agreed in principle with what I had to say.

Namely, that Tom Izzo had—to that point—failed to give the NBA any reason to keep his name off their phones’ speed dials. Until he did so, I wrote, we were likely to go through this kind of thing every couple of years, ad nauseam.

And who needs that?

Yesterday, Izzo officially barred the NBA from his coaching life.

“I’m a lifer.”

If his word has any merit—and we have no reason to believe that it doesn’t—then this confession of being a lifer at MSU should finally take Izzo’s name out of the rumor mill when future NBA coaching jobs open up.

If it doesn’t, then I’m back to where I was last week: shame on Tom Izzo.

Izzo is remaining at Michigan State because he’s happy there. Better than that—he’s content. There’s a difference, though it’s subtle.

Happy means it’s fun to go to work. Content means that you’ll never be in want of anything as long as you keep your butt firmly planted where it currently rests.

Izzo made the right decision and everyone knows it. Probably even Dan Gilbert, the hotshot, high-spending owner of the Cavs, knows it, in his heart.

Izzo’s trip to Cleveland last Thursday can now be described thusly: He came, he saw, he vacillated.

Typically, when a guy makes a trip to a city that’s courting him—when he visits that team’s facilities, meets its head honchos and takes a look at the roster—there’s a presser called forthwith to announce that guy’s hiring.

Typically.

Izzo came back from Cleveland and clearly he wasn’t able to pull the trigger. He likely spent the weekend asking himself why.

The answer was wonderfully simple but maddeningly elusive.

Izzo couldn’t say yes to Cleveland because he couldn’t say no to Michigan State.

The Detroit News’ Lynn Henning got it all wrong. It wasn’t the first time.

Henning wrote the other day that Izzo’s taking so long to decide meant that his heart simply wasn’t all with MSU anymore. Henning went one step further: Izzo had taken so long, that he had gone beyond the point of no return; he couldn’t any longer stay at MSU and retain any sort of credibility.

Balderdash!

Henning was 180 degrees wrong. Izzo took so long because his heart was at MSU. If it wasn’t, he’d have signed a deal with the Cavs last weekend, shortly after returning from his trip to Cleveland.

The decision was a double-edged sword—yes to Cleveland, no to East Lansing.

It was a whole lot easier to say yes than it was to say no.

Just after Izzo took the podium yesterday—before he really started talking in earnest—a couple players rushed the stage. They embraced him, individually.

The line of players kept coming. So did the hugs.

Izzo endearingly referred to a couple of the recent graduates as “has beens” as they took their turn paying homage to their coach with silent, heartfelt hugs.

It was a wonderful 30 seconds, give or take.

You think you’d ever see anything like that in the NBA if a coach announced he just signed a contract extension to stay?

Now reverse it for a moment.

If the presser was to announce Izzo was leaving, and then his players—EX-players—did the hugging procession, you might have had the first in-presser reversal in sports history.

For the look on Izzo’s face as his players spontaneously showed PDAs spoke a thousand words.

Contentment.

Izzo sparred with Henning for several delectable minutes yesterday, the coach’s face at times barely able to conceal his annoyance and disdain for Henning’s “you can’t stay NOW” column.

“Now THIS is more like the UP!” Izzo said to cheers, referring to his native Upper Peninsula’s way of duking it out, verbally, in public.

So Izzo stays, where he belongs. He fancies himself a Bobby Bowden, a Bo Schembechler, a Coach K, a Jim Boeheim. Izzo’s words. Guys who kept their rear ends in one place, despite other temptations.

“I have no desire to be a Paterno,” he said, referring to the octogenarian football coach at Penn State. “But I’m right there with those other guys.”

Izzo said those three little words. He finally said them. There should be no more NBA overtures.

I hear Phil Jackson might retire from the Lakers.

That makes me think of two little words.

Who cares?

One More National Title Would Lift Izzo into Rarified Coaching Air

In College Basketball on March 29, 2010 at 4:33 pm

Here Tom Izzo is again.

Izzo is in another Final Four. He must have a VIP Card by now.

Izzo, the legend-blazing basketball coach at MSU, is maybe the best college coach to have won only one National Championship. If he doesn’t win another, Izzo’s is going to be a legacy where folks scratch their heads when asked how many titles he’s won. It’ll be a trick question.

“Gosh, Tom Izzo? What did he win, two or three? At least?”

Trick question!! One!

I hope that’s not the case. If Izzo, who’s bringing his kids back to another FF in Indianapolis this weekend, wins just one more national title, his place is secured as one of the all-time greats. And I’m talking Wooden, Knight, Meyer, Krzyzewski—guys like that.

Izzo shows up to these things—six in 12 years—but has only come away with the grand prize once, and that was 10 years ago.

But I’m about to give you a tidbit that is both amazing and validation of his stature.

Since Izzo’s been coach at MSU (he started in 1995), NO player who’s spent four years with him has ever NOT made a Final Four.

Think about that for a moment.

This is, arguably, Izzo’s finest coaching job. It’s been a higher maintenance group than he’d like, and he’s ridden point guard Kalin Lucas so relentlessly that if you look up “tough love,” there’d be the coach and Lucas, splattered on the page.

Now Lucas isn’t even available thanks to his popped Achilles, but the Spartans keep winning anyway.

Prior to all the Madness, there was another implosion in the Big Ten tournament, but no one cares about that, really—especially if you dance like Izzo does in the 64-team soiree.

Izzo’s teams, in the NCAA tournament, typically win small and lose big, when they do lose. They’ll do great in the nail-biters, but then sometimes they prove to be no match in the games they lose. It’s a fascinating trend.

Izzo’s back in the Final Four. If the FF was a restaurant, the staff would yell his name cheerfully, guide him to his favorite table, and he’d order the usual.

But if he could just manage one more National Championship, that would be groovy. Final Four appearances are lovely, but rings are even better.

Don’t get me wrong. Izzo will go down as a great coach (Hall of Fame material for sure), regardless if his resume lists only “2000″ under the heading “National Championships Won.”

But one more would lift him to that truly elite level.

This 2010 run has already included two last-second wins. Izzo always wins those types of games.

Next up is a date with Butler, a fellow No. 5 seed. Butler, who plays in the league of the University of Detroit-Mercy. A couple of bratty teams, these No. 5 seeds are.

Izzo is in another Final Four. Every year you kind of shrug, shake your head and make a face if someone asks you how the Spartans will do in the tournament. Because the regular season—and the Big Ten tourney—is always pockmarked with curious losses.

And so often, you turn around and there Izzo is, in the Final Four.

He’s great at getting there. I’d love for him to be better at winning it.

What have you done for me lately, Tommy?

Such a thankless profession this guy’s in, eh?

March Madness Not Limited to Hardwood as Red Wings, Spartans Both Beat Buzzers

In College Basketball, Hockey on March 22, 2010 at 7:27 pm

It was Yogi Berra Weekend when it came to our teams over the past few days.

The venerable Yankee, who famously extolled that it’s “never over till it’s over,” would be smiling that moon-faced smile if he was plugged into the scene here.

The Red Wings and the Michigan State Spartans both squeezed the clock dry in thrilling fashion. The Red Wings got one-and-a-half victories engaging in such drama, and the Spartans scored a big-time win the NCAA Basketball Tournament.

First, it was Brian Rafalski burying the puck with 0.2 seconds left in the third period in Edmonton on Friday night, tying the game and giving the Red Wings a much-needed point. They went ahead and lost the “third point” in a shootout (ugh!) but Raffi’s goal avoided an embarrassing (and costly) goose egg against the Oilers.

The next night, it was Henrik Zetterberg flipping a backhand past Vancouver goalie Roberto Luongo to give the Red Wings an overtime win. Zetterberg wasn’t quite as efficient as Rafalski; there were 0.3 seconds left when Hank struck.

As if that wasn’t enough, MSU escaped the second round and a furious Maryland rally late in the game to win, 85-83, on Korie Lucious’s three-point dagger as the clock expired.

Whew!!

Between those three games, there was half-a-second remaining on the clock, combined, when the heroics happened.

The Red Wings’ late-game fun was no less important, or clutch, than the Spartans’ survival into the Sweet 16. Those three points the Wings gathered over the weekend will loom large when the final tally is counted at the end of the season.

Tonight, it’s the Penguins at Joe Louis Arena, and the last time the Pens skated the JLA ice surface, it was with the Stanley Cup above their heads and champagne in their eyes.

This is as good as it gets for any regular season game that the Red Wings have played in March over the past 20 years or so.

The defending Cup champs, in town for the only time this season. The Red Wings with the memories of the Penguins celebrating the winning of hockey’s Holy Grail in the Wings’ own building. A playoff spot squarely on the line for the Winged Wheel.

This is one night when the adage is a lie: that “the regular season don’t matter in the NHL!”

Like hell it doesn’t.

There are no throwaway games left now. No more mulligans. Every point is precious. A two-game losing skid can kill you. A three-game winning streak might lift you a few spots in the standings, just like that.

As for Sparty, they live to fight another day—specifically this Friday against Northern Iowa, who just happen to be the belles of this year’s ball.

Ice ran in the veins of “Luscious Lucious” as he took a pass, glanced at the hoop, decided against firing, then calmly dribbled and took a couple steps to his left before lining up his game-winning triple.

Sweet!

It would have been a horrible loss; the Spartans had the Terrapins by 15 points with less than ten minutes to go in the game. A late 80-71 lead evaporated like spilled water on a Phoenix sidewalk.

Three key games over the weekend for the Red Wings and Spartans. Three heart-stopping buzzer beaters. Three happy (mostly) endings.

It’s mad, I tell you!

Tom Izzo: Still Crazy After All These Years

In College Basketball on March 7, 2010 at 7:01 pm

Nothing’s ever good enough for Tom Izzo.

You can read that two ways, and that’s by design.

Izzo has coached basketball with utter brilliance for 15 years at Michigan State University, and every year you watch him and listen to him, you wonder why he puts himself through the pain.

Izzo dies a little inside with every turnover, every missed defensive assignment, every ill-chosen jump shot. He’s been at it in East Lansing since 1995, which I suppose means he must be a walking dead man by now.

Well, not exactly.

Izzo dies inside, but he regenerates himself. He’ll on the one hand wonder how the heck MSU can win another basketball game, then on the other he’ll promise the fans and the media that his team will be back with a vengeance.

He puts himself through these rigors every winter, and you’d like to say he does it because he loves coaching. But does the guy who walks on hot coals love heat, or is he a little bent in the head?

I think Tom Izzo is a little nuts, and that’s OK, because you can’t be a coach in any high-profile setting, college or pro, and not have a little part of you that’s demented.

Izzo might be having fun, in his crazy mixed up way, but he sure as hell doesn’t look like it. His Spartans were 9-0 with a three-game lead in the Big Ten a few weeks ago, and Izzo sounded like Chicken Little, as usual.

“I keep telling you guys (the media are always “you guys” to Izzo) that the back end of our schedule is as tough as it gets. This thing isn’t over yet,” he warned through his grimace in his hoarse voice. Izzo always looks like a hostage when he talks to the media, and his raspy voice makes him sound like he’s been screaming at his captors all night.

No one wanted to listen to Chicken Little, because we’ve all heard it before. Izzo can make former Pistons coach Chuck Daly, the self-proclaimed Prince of Pessimism, look like the president of the local chamber of commerce.

Izzo warned us guys, and damned if he wasn’t right.

The Spartans indeed have stumbled since that 9-0 start in the conference. They’re 4-4 in their last eight games, including three straight losses to fall back to the pack. Chicken Little’s team now can do no better than tie for the Big Ten title, with Ohio State and possibly Purdue.

The other night with the media in his post-game chat, Izzo shifted in his chair and bit off his words, trying like mad to control his anger. The voice was even hoarser this time. He had the demeanor of someone who’d just been cut off in traffic.

And that was after a victory.

The Spartans had just squeaked by Penn State, and no one squeaks by Penn State, unless they’ve played the game with one hand tied behind their back. Penn State is awful. They’re lucky the Big Ten can’t count, because they sure play like the 11th team in a ten-team conference.

Izzo’s post-game discussion eventually turned downright ominous and diabolical.

“This is gonna be a fun couple of days,” he said. “I’m looking forward to it. It’s gonna be fun. I’m gonna have some fun like I used to have some fun. At the end of it, there will be some people standing and playing their tail off, and there will be some people not playing.”

It’s never a good thing to tick off a crazy person.

The Spartans finish their regular season with a home tilt against Michigan on Sunday.

The players were rightfully shaking in their sneakers, because they knew that Coach Izzo had something rotten up his sweaty sleeve.

Sure enough, he had them back at the Breslin Center at 7 a.m. Friday morning for a walk-through, then Izzo planned on putting them through a full practice that evening.

“We never do that,” one of the players said, of having a walk-through and a practice on the same day, just two days before a game.

“This program is bigger than me, and some players are going to find out that it’s a whole lot bigger than them, too,” Izzo added. “We’ll play better on Sunday.”

Or else.

This is what Tom Izzo lives for. It’s almost as if he’s not happy unless he’s miserable, or worried, or mad. He coaches basketball like he’s passing a kidney stone.

Izzo succeeded Jud Heathcote, who wasn’t exactly Prince Charming either, but Jud was never as cynical and pessimistic and as much of a worry wart as his former assistant Izzo, who never met a favorable situation he didn’t like—to tear down.

Izzo not only doesn’t count his chickens before they hatch, he’ll wring his hands that the hens will lay any eggs at all.

It’s been that way since he took over for Heathcote in 1995, and it’s getting worse. Time hasn’t mellowed him. Tom Izzo is aging like fine vinegar.

Yet it works. It must, because there haven’t been too many college basketball programs as successful since ’95 as Izzo’s MSU, which has been to so many Final Fours over the years that the NCAA should owe the university frequent flier miles.

This season, Izzo has picked on guard Kalin Lucas. Relentlessly. Lucas has been the hen-pecked husband to Izzo’s nagging wife. But just as in the world of marital bliss, the bottom line is that Izzo loves the kid. To Izzo, love means never having to say you’re sorry.

But Izzo doesn’t just reserve his vitriol for his players. Sometimes the biggest punching bag for Tom Izzo has been Tom Izzo.

He didn’t have his players prepared. He made some boneheaded decisions. He stinks as a coach. Tom Izzo has heard it all—from his own hoarsey mouth.

Still, for all his success at MSU, Izzo has but one National Championship to show for it, and that came 10 years ago. Not that it’s for the lack of trying, or for not having come close. Izzo looks like he’s the most tormented man in America at times, coaching his kids in East Lansing, but somewhere deep down inside, he must like it.

But like I said, the guy’s a little nuts.

Bo Told Frieder Where To Go Before ’89 Tourney

In College Basketball on April 5, 2009 at 8:13 pm

“‘A Michigan man will coach Michigan!’ Bo famously declared. And in his eyes, Bill Frieder was only partly a Michigan man, now that he’d accepted another job, effective at the end of the season.”


Bo Schembechler wasn’t the athletic director at the University of Michigan for very long. But, not surprisingly, it was long enough for him to make his mark.

And that’s all Bo needed to make his mark as athletic director with so little time on the job.

It was 20 years ago to the day, as I write this, when the Michigan Wolverines won the NCAA basketball tournament.

They did it under the guidance of an assistant coach, because Bo told the head coach where to go and exactly when.

Now!

The U-M team of 1989 is getting the short shrift around town. Much of the ballyhoo, and it’s hard to argue it, centers around the 30th anniversary of the 1979 champs from Michigan State. The Magic Johnson-Larry Bird battle of ’79; MSU vs. Indiana State. The start of a beautiful rivalry, one that carried over into the NBA.

The fact that MSU now appears in the 2009 Final Four, 30 years later, in Detroit no less, does absolutely nothing to abate the nostalgia.

Nor should it.

While the drama in the ’79 tournament occurred on the court, the storyline in 1989 got rolling before any of the teams played a single tourney minute.

Bo was about ready to retire as Michigan’s football coach. He was going to coach one more year. But from 1988 to early 1990, Schembechler added A.D. to his title.

So in 1989, Bo found himself in the spotlight even though it was basketball season. He didn’t go looking for it, though.

The Wolverines were coached by Bill Frieder, and had been since 1981. The basketball program had some success under Frieder. The man could recruit. He began pilfering most of the best high school talent from Detroit and Flint, two of the state’s basketball hotbeds. Sometimes right from under the nose of Jud Heathcote, coaching at rival MSU.

Michigan won the 1984 NIT title, the saccharin to the NCAA tournament’s sugar. It was a nice little championship, but not the big prize that the folks in Ann Arbor had in mind when they saw one great high school player after the other enroll.

The 1988-89 team piqued the hopes of the Michigan faithful.

Led by guard Rumeal Robinson and forward Glen Rice, U-M went 21-6 in the regular season. Frieder’s kids were one of the top-seeded units going into the tournament.

The college coach leaving one school to go to another is a drama frequently played out. I’ve always found it odd that when players choose to transfer, they must sit out one entire season before they can play for their new school. Yet coaches can come and go as they please. Sometimes without the inconvenience of having to tell the truth about their plans.

Darryl Rogers, in 1980, promised the folks in East Lansing that the scuttlebutt of him fleeing to the desert to coach football at Arizona State was a bunch of hooey. And he kept asserting that, almost to the moment that he boarded a plane for a press conference at ASU.

Nick Saban, a couple years ago, angry and his voice full of indignation, became defensive when reporters quizzed him about rumors that he was about to become the new football coach at Alabama. Saban assured the pesky reporters, and his employers, the Miami Dolphins, that there was no fire near that smoke.

A few days later, Saban was at Alabama, being introduced as the Crimson Tide’s new coach.

But that’s OK; just as long as the kids sit out a year at their new school.

Coach Frieder, with Glen Rice–before finding out that honesty wasn’t always the best policy

Even Schembechler, in the early-1980s, found himself being courted, by Texas A&M. But Bo was forthright, and didn’t deny the rumors. In fact, he went out of his way to let everyone know that he was thinking about it, hard.

So when Billy Frieder told his boss, Bo, on the eve of the ’89 tournament that an offer had been made for him to coach at Arizona State, and that he’d be taking the job as soon as he got done coaching the Wolverines, Schembechler blew a gasket.

Bo fired Frieder, on the spot.

“A Michigan man will coach Michigan!” Bo famously declared. And in his eyes, Bill Frieder was only partly a Michigan man, now that he’d accepted another job, effective at the end of the season.

Assistant Steve Fisher was named interim coach, for as long as U-M would last in the tourney.

The “Michigan man” quote is legendary, and followed Schembechler to his death in 2006. It was practically used as part of his epitaph.

Now here’s the funny part: Frieder was a U-M grad. Fisher was not.

That’s OK; why should the facts get in the way of a good rah-rah speech?

So Steve Fisher, who few people had ever heard of even though he was in his seventh year as a Michigan assistant, was, in an instant, the U-M coach for the tournament.

A–ahem–“Michigan man.” Kinda, sorta.

Steve Fisher: nobody could beat his coaching debut

The tournament commenced—Frieder kicked to the curb, the unknown Fisher coaching.

Michigan won their first round game. Then their second. In the Sweet Sixteen, Michigan continued to roll. In the game that sent them into the Final Four, U-M demolished Virginia, 102-65. All while A.D. Bo Schembechler grinned. His “Michigan man” was 4-0, two victories away from the brass ring.

In the Final Four, Michigan would have to face Illinois, who beat them twice in the Big Ten season. They say it’s hard to beat a team three times in one season. They were right; Michigan slipped by Illinois. They were in the championship game.

“Michigan man” Fisher was now 5-0.

Finally, some drama ON the court, in the Final against Seton Hall. The game went into overtime. Robinson calmly hit two clutch free throws. Michigan won, 80-79. They were champs, under the interim Fisher.

Bo smiled some more.

For his efforts, Fisher was rewarded by Bo with an offer to drop the “interim” tag from his title. And Fisher, soon afterward, recruited the Fab Five and made it to two more championship games, though he lost them both.

But Fisher was forced to resign in 1997, the school rocked by the Ed Martin donation scandal that involved members of the Fab Five.

A true “Michigan man”, the kind that Bo Schembechler knew of, would never have gotten the university entangled in such a scandalous web.

Bill Frieder, U-M class of 1964, never did.

All Frieder was guilty of was being honest with his boss about a job offer.

Spartans Need To Look At Detroit Thru Visitors’ Lens

In College Basketball on March 30, 2009 at 4:05 pm

“But this is Ford Field, not the Breslin Center. The Spartans will be playing on that floor for the first time, just like the other three teams.”


If I was Tom Izzo, I’d blindfold my team, drive them around in circles, and try to convince them that the Final Four in which they’re about to participate is nowhere NEAR Detroit.

I’d cover all signs that say Ford Field. I wouldn’t let them look at anything until they were in the locker room. THEN I’d remove the blindfolds. Maybe I’d pipe in some phony anti-MSU rhetoric and tell them that they’re in Chapel Hill or Dallas or Orlando. Anywhere but in Detroit.

I know, not feasible. If only.

There are two sides to the sword, as you know.

One side says that the Spartans, who advanced to the Final Four Sunday by virtue of spanking the Louisville Cardinals (and good), have it made — playing in the Final Four in essentially a “home court” situation. How can it NOT be an advantage, playing such monumental basketball in an arena 90 miles or so away from campus?

But look at which team has all the pressure on it this morning.

The Spartans are in a box. If they fail to win the championship, they’ll go down as the team that couldn’t seal the deal with “home court” in their favor. How many teams even GET such an opportunity?

If they win, well, then they SHOULD have won. They have home court, after all!

Of course, winning is always the best option. Who cares what they say about you, once you’ve become a champion?

The point being, I hope Izzo — and knowing him, he’ll probably take my unsolicited advice — de-emphasizes, as much as possible, this supposed home court advantage the Spartans possess.

Because it really ISN’T a home court advantage.

It’s not like Ford Field is going to be populated with 90% Spartans fans. The NCAA people didn’t go quite THAT far when they awarded the Final Four to Detroit.

“Oh, and if any local team should qualify, then they will be allotted all the tickets.”

Not quite.

The advantage isn’t really all that much of one. It’s all in the head. And the more the Spartans think they hold an advantage, then the worse off they are.

And if they think that UConn is going to cower and bow to them meekly, simply because the game is being played in Detroit, then MSU is REALLY going to be in a world of hurt.

Izzo, who can make the original Prince of Pessimism, Chuck Daly, look positively like Barney the Dinosaur, will no doubt put on his best tired, haggard face and tell the media folks that nothing is in the bank until the check clears. As well he should.

It’s terrific that MSU was able to pick this year, of all years, to make it to the Final Four. Thirtieth anniversary of the 1979 team winning it all. Revenge against Kansas for the 1986 clock debacle. And, of course, the event taking place in Detroit.

But this is Ford Field, not the Breslin Center. The Spartans will be playing on that floor for the first time, just like the other three teams. The stands will not be full of green, from one end to the other. No Izzone.

Conversely, if I was UConn coach Jim Calhoun, I’d make a big deal out of it. I’d tell anyone who’ll listen how tough his kids have it, facing MSU in Detroit. It’s time for some mind games right about now.

MSU in the Final Four, in Detroit? Great!

But not so great, really. And they need to be reminded of that. A lot.