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Did Tom Izzo Go Too Far?

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FILM REVIEW: Verdict? No. 

Toughen. Up.

Ok, before you freak out and think this is another macho-man piece, start posting pictures of my physique to show how physically frail I am (true) or calling me someone who’s defensive because they were beaten as a child (false), hear me out.

Tom Izzo did not abuse anyone. Not physically. Not verbally. Not mentally.

He yelled.

He was not out of control. He was not unhinged. He did not need to be restrained.

He yelled.

Seriously. That’s all we have definitive proof of. You may have PERCEIVED it differently, but chances are you aren’t someone who’s watched Tom Izzo terribly closely. If you were, you’d be aware of the context of the, by now, absurdly over-viral 5-second snippets of him being angry.

In the 1st instance, he angrily confronts a player returning to the bench. He angrily taps the player’s chest in a rah-rah type of way, not dissimilar to something Phil Jackson did plenty of times. His captain senses Izzo’s anger and asks if he can be the messenger instead. Izzo lets him.

Seriously, that’s about all there was to see.

Soft takes from pundits

Pundits with soft takes will insist Izzo stuck his finger in the player’s face, which maybe lasted two-tenths of a second. He pointed. Angrily, unbelievably briefly, and then retreated. They’ll also point out how Izzo had a clenched fist. When I’m really angry with someone, I tend to make sure my fingers are completely spread. I mean, c’mon. Tom Izzo has been doing this a long, long time. You think someone who’s never done anything physical in 30 years of coaching is gonna sock a kid on national TV? Let’s get real.

The 2nd incident people point to? In the team huddle, the freshman continues mouthing off or saying something that Izzo obviously didn’t like, so Izzo rises up BRIEFLY to admonish him once again. Again, this is maybe half a second. The team quickly says, basically, “We got it, Coach. Relax.” And Izzo sits right back down.

Would someone who was unhinged or out of control of himself accept his players telling him to sit down and relax? Probably not. Izzo never lost it. If anything, he probably was far more calculated than people are giving him credit for.

Coaches are fired up in basketball sometimes. It’s a hyper-competitive environment. Can we have a really deep, philosophical discussion about why such toxic masculinity exists and how much better off we’d be if we all practiced deep breathing meditation before every game and calmed our minds? Sure. But for now, let’s stick with reality. And here it is:

Coaches in the NBA are fiery and angry plenty.

I spent 6 years in an NBA locker room. Literally, my office (the Wizards’ Video Room) was inside the locker room. I worked for 3 different head coaches: the late Flip Saunders (super calm), Randy Wittman (a fiery, Bob Knight-disciple), and Scott Brooks (somewhere in the middle).

All 3 yelled on occasion.

Who did they mostly yell at? Rookies. 2nd year players. Young guys who haven’t earned their stripes.

Do they yell at these guys because they’re easy targets? Because of the power dynamics? Because they’re young and can’t fight back? Sure. If you want to play psychologist, I’m sure there’s an element of all that at play.

But mostly? They yell because that’s how it works in basketball. Others coddle young players their whole lives. Yes men tell them everything they want to hear, not what they need to hear. They’ve been paid under-the-table, given shoes and video games and all the gear they could want. They oftentimes get to the NBA thinking they’ve made it, that they’ve got it all figured out.

Reality Check

Coaches exist as somewhat of a reality check.

Look at Gregg Popovich. Tom Izzo’s “antics” in the tournament were mild compared to him. Pop has been coaching that way his entire career. He’s yelled and MF’d Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, etc. His mantra? Get over yourself. If he can yell at and coach his best players the hardest, it makes everyone else fall in line. If they see Duncan, Parker, etc. being yelled at and ACCEPTING the coaching, it makes everyone else take it as well.

That’s their culture. He pushes guys to limits they didn’t think were possible, makes them uncomfortable, demands more out of them constantly. And what’s happened? He is the best coach in NBA history. Period. The Bill Belichick of the NBA (someone who coaches with a similar ‘tough love’ approach, by the way). Every year they have roster turnover and aging players and pundits think this is the year it all falls apart. Every year they’re wrong.

Moving bar

Honestly, I was surprised to hear some push-back, even from coaches who I have a lot of respect for. I heard things like “if you have to yell at them in March, it’s too late.” Well, no. Being locked in and going all-out is a bar that is constantly moving. Your competition is constantly improving and growing and playing harder. If you stay the same, you’re losing. Players generally want to win and play hard and succeed. But everyone needs a wake-up call every once in a while. I saw that over and over again in the NBA.

Whenever we started to feel really good about ourselves — there’d be more lackadaisical practices, laughing during pre-game prep., etc. — we would go out and get our butts kicked. When we had film sessions where coaches and players kept it real, held guys accountable, fixed our habits and emphasized how hard and physical and tough we had to play, we played better.

Human nature is to relax and be complacent. I’ve said many times: I hated more than anything when we’d get up 20 or so early in a game. Because almost without fail, that game would end up going down to the wire. We’d start taking tougher shots than we needed to, taking plays off defensively, messing around with the ball. And basketball karma is a real, real thing. The Basketball Gods don’t like that. We lost a lot of games that way.

A coach’s job is to fight complacency. Demand selfless pursuit of perfection. Ask everyone to buy in relentlessly and leave it all on the floor each and every night.

So yes, it’s perfectly reasonable to believe Tom Izzo, one of the best coaches in the history of college basketball, when he said he thought the freshman wasn’t giving enough, wasn’t completely locked in, wasn’t doing his job well enough. And it’s a perfectly reasonable response to get angry and demand more out of his player.

If you think others shouldn’t scream at you as a freshman in college, just wait ’til you’re an NBA freshman. When you have to carry around an embarrassing, Dora-the-Explorer type backpack of all the veterans’ things and do basically whatever they want on the road. Being yelled at is a right of passage for an MSU freshman. Cassius Winston went thru it. So did Jaren Jackson Jr., Gary Harris, Bryn Forbes, Draymond Green, and many more of the players who swear by Tom Izzo and became pros after playing for him.

And just a reminder: Aaron Henry did not think he was above it.

He took it, said he was brought up with far worse, that it’s what he signed up for and loves about Coach Izzo. Another newsflash: no one goes to MSU without knowing that Tom Izzo yells sometimes. If you’ve ever watched him coach, you know this. Tom Izzo’s assistants who recruit for him also know this, and when they’re out doing most of the recruiting they make sure they get guys who are mentally tough and can take being screamed at.

No one’s saying if you don’t like it, quit playing basketball. But if you don’t like Tom Izzo’s style of coaching, there are plenty of other coaches. Chances are, they probably yell too:

 

There are certainly coaches who had more sociological upbringings and bring a more even-keeled temperament. You can’t pick your salary, but you can pick where you play.

Izzo’s Job

Tom Izzo’s job, besides molding young men and preparing them for basketball and otherwise and so on…is to prepare guys for the NBA. Again, let’s be real. If you’re going to MSU, you’re going there because you believe you’re going to the NBA. And let’s also be real: VERY FEW OF THEM WILL ACTUALLY MAKE IT. I saw this firsthand in college, too, spending two years as an undergrad working at Maryland for Gary Williams. Every player that came in thought he was going to be a 1st round pick. The overwhelming majority came nowhere close.

Some weren’t talented enough. Some didn’t have the right physical tools. A lot of them? Just didn’t get how unbelievably hard you have to work every second of every single day to become the best of the best. Guys like Greivis Vasquez did and far-outperformed any star-rating or physical limitation perceived of them. He was a rarity. A ton of guys came in thinking they were God’s gift to the earth based on their 4 stars or McDonald’s invite or 30,000 Instagram followers. None of that crap matters. A lot of them end up having to transfer out after the 1st or 2nd year because they just don’t get it.

Tom Izzo is preparing guys who want to play for Pop, or Kerr, or Quin Snyder, or any other NBA coach who yells plenty. He’s trying to get guys to constantly improve every second of every day and never be satisfied. Yes, it’s a relentless, maniacal obsessiveness that’s probably not healthy in a lot of fields. But in a field where your all-time greats are guys like MJ, LeBron, and Kobe, and they all share those qualities? Probably needed.

No one is saying this is the only way to coach or that there might be calmer methods that are also sometimes effective. There are certainly situations where the best thing to do is put your hand around a player, bring him close, nurture him and grow him. Tom Izzo does those things, and so does basically every other coach at times.

There are also situations though, like the 1st round of the tournament when you’re losing to a team you have no business losing to, where a fire can be lit.

Tom Izzo lit that fire. Michigan State won. Toughen up.

Rapid-fire, let’s dismantle any remaining concerns you may have:

But I work in a competitive business/newspaper/dentist’s office and I’ve never been yelled at!

Glad to hear it. Have you worked in politics? In the army? For a top Type-A CEO? In a restaurant kitchen? For the police? Driven Uber? Been a teacher?

In these fields and plenty of others, sometimes you deal with jerks.

It’s part of life, and as Scott Van Pelt observes, it’s an essential life lesson.

While I can guarantee you there are obnoxious, aggressive lunatic coaches far worse than Tom Izzo who might be more deserving of your ire, Izzo has by all accounts been an excellent molder of young men and phenomenal basketball coach who is almost universally loved by everyone who’s ever played for him. I don’t think his players think he’s a jerk. Or think he’s an unhinged lunatic out of control when he yells. That’s you guys on the outside, who honestly don’t know. But even if he WAS a jerk and his players despised him, and he made everyone around him miserable?

Yes, you do unfortunately have to deal with people like that in life sometimes.

If you haven’t, you’re very lucky. When I was an unpaid intern in high school, I worked for a local businessman/city politician who chewed out his unpaid HS interns routinely. It pissed me off. I thought he was a jerk. He was unlikeable, cold, didn’t know anyone’s name, etc.

We all just learned how to put our heads down and work, realize that it was about him and not us, and tune it out. It’s HIS anger issues, not ours.

But if that owner had been someone we really loved? Who recruited us personally and loved us and gave us guidance and inspiration and cared deeply about us and was with us through thick and thin and tried everything to get us in the best place possible after working for him? Maybe we would have been more amenable to some of his yelling.

He wasn’t, so he was a jerk. But what did we do? We complained about it to each other. We told our parents. We bristled being around him and loved the days he wasn’t there.

And you know what? We survived. Didn’t make his methods right. Didn’t make him not a jerk. But it was a life lesson in terms of learning that sometimes people just suck, and sometimes you just put your head down and work through it and let it be about them and not you.

People who get yelled at in kitchens or deal with obnoxious passengers or deal with psycho-aggressive politicians need to have that same mentality. So do NBA players.

WHY ARE YOU CAPING FOR SOMETHING THAT YOU’RE A NERDY DUMB JERK TO PUT UP WITH? I WOULD’VE SOCKED THAT DUDE IN THE FACE.

Relax, Bomani.

Like I’ve said too when I was a manager for Gary Williams at UMD, he could be a raging jerk at times. I’ve said he makes Tom Izzo look like a choir boy.

So yeah, about your ‘but the players are unpaid! it’s not a job! he can’t yell at unpaid volunteers!

…um, wrong. I was an unpaid intern for a jerk boss in HS. I was an unpaid (and un-scholarship’d) manager for a volatile coach in college. Gary said some crazy stuff. To players, to well-paid assistants, and to managers.

If a player wanted to yell back at Gary, he could try that a couple of times. Probably not too often. Most of the time, the best response? Say “yes, sir.” Got you. Don’t have to agree with you, or completely see eye to eye on the play. But instead of coming back with 15 different excuses or explaining how I have a headache and it’s not actually my fault and so on and so forth, usually the best course of action was just say “yes sir,” let him yell, and move on.

Gary yelled a lot. He wasn’t always right. He wasn’t always appropriate. Sometimes he flat-out yelled at the wrong guy, saw the play wrong, etc. But you know what? There is a power structure in basketball. He is the coach. Similar to childhood, you may not always think your parents are right, or that you deserved to be grounded, etc. But you learn to take it. You don’t fight your parents or call them stupid idiot jerks (well, maybe sometimes).

If a player ever punched Gary? He’d be arrested. And rightfully so.

Blurry line between right and wrong

Yes, the line of what’s acceptable and what’s abuse is unfortunately blurry. Some verbal abuse may cross the line and it’s not always 100% clear what the line is. But if a coach were ever to become physical with a player? 100% absolutely unacceptable, and he’d be fired (as many have, thankfully). I never saw Gary become physical with a player. He was a yeller, not a convict. He was an intense, fiery dude. Some days you respected the hell out of him and some days you hated him. But he was a great coach, and he taught guys how to compete and fight and be relentless. Did he break some players by pushing them too hard when they couldn’t handle it? Sure. But he also got guys like Greivis, Juan Dixon, Steve Blake, etc. to go much further than anyone thought possible because of how far he pushed them.

So no, the correct response to Tom Izzo would not have been to challenge him to a brawl. I’m sure his unpaid student managers get it too – many of whom will go on to unpaid internships with NBA teams and then eventually work themselves up the big tree of Tom Izzo managers who have gone up to work for NBA coaching staffs or front offices.

Also, calling people nerds and the like while proclaiming how PC and woke you are is pretty hilarious.

BUT PLAYERS SHOULD BE PAID!

I agree. So does almost everyone, at this point.

But that’s on the NCAA, not Tom Izzo.

The people who decided to write huge thinkpieces about him using the word “job” postgame and saying that their editors can only say ‘job’ because they oversee full-time employees? Give me a break.

Soldiers have jobs. Student newspaper writers have jobs. Peace Corp volunteers have jobs. “Do your job” is a Belichick-ism, common coach-speak throughout all of sports. Tom Izzo was not saying “go out and make us and the NCAA millions by putting on a tremendous athletic display that many can unfairly profit off of.” He was saying do your job on the basketball court: sprint back, communicate, play hard, play together. Stop being ridiculous.

And Tom Izzo has been coaching since the days when coaches hardly got paid. Sure, he is very well-compensated now and I’m sure enjoys it. But he also is a basketball lifer, someone who does it above all for love of the game and the profession. They did not just hire some jerk off the street, pay him $10 million and say “go yell at kids!” He’s been a lifelong educator, coach, mentor in what has become a highly lucrative, competitive, well-compensated field. He is well-compensated.

The players should be too, and if they go on to become NBA stars, they will be far better compensated than Izzo ever was.

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About Bryan Oringher

Bryan Oringher spent the past 7 years working in the NBA. From 2013-17 he was the Head Video Coordinator with the Washington Wizards, and in 17-18 he did Regional Advance Scouting for the Raptors and Hawks. This year, he’s doing NBA analysis on Twitter @ScoutWithBryan and his YouTube channel. You can find all his content to date here.

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