This was in Chicago, first week of the basketball season. Michigan State had just beaten Kansas, and the Spartans broke from their post-game huddle in the locker room afterward with three words.
“Beat Ohio State!”
Wait a second. Wasn’t their next opponent Arkansas-Pine Bluff? Right, but Michigan State was just days away from playing Ohio State – in football.
This was in Indianapolis, the first Saturday in December. The Spartans had just edged Iowa in an epic Big Ten football championship game. Afterward, defensive end Shilique Calhoun, coming off a monster performance, thought kudos were in order.
“Congratulations to the basketball team on their win today. Look forward to them making it to the Final Four and winning a national championship also.”
Know what you see at Michigan State right now? Two different thriving sports – with two different thriving coaches – very much on the same page.
Tom Izzo and Mark Dantonio live about a three-minute walk from one another. They became friends in the 1990s when both were assistants at Michigan State. Izzo stayed and took over the basketball program. Dantonio left on his own career football path, but when he returned as the Spartans’ head coach in 2007, Izzo was on the selection committee.
Now they visit one another’s practices, pick each other’s brains, woo each other’s recruits, advise on each other’s problems, share each other’s success – and there is plenty to share at the moment.
Consider one weekend in the life of Michigan State athletics.
Friday afternoon, December 4
On the eve of the Iowa showdown. Dantonio speaks of having long watched the resilience and consistency and ability to find ways to win that Izzo puts into a program he has coached to seven Final Fours.
“I saw it grow and I saw it happen. So there were great examples of those things happening when I looked across the intermural fields to our basketball arena. When I went and saw practice, I saw players communicating with each other, trusting in each other, attention to detail. Really focused, competitiveness at a very high degree. When I went to basketball games . . . I saw that composure, that ability to handle adversity and win down the stretch.
“We try to emulate that as we move through. Tom and I are very good friends. We were good friends when I left, we're good friends now.”
Saturday morning, December 5
The Big Ten football championship actually is like an Elite Eight game with its one-or-done stakes for the playoffs, so Izzo sends Dantonio a message.
“Now you know what college basketball coaches go through.”
Saturday afternoon, December 5
After blowing past Binghamton 76-33 to go 9-0, Izzo flies with his family to Indianapolis -- the same place he had taken his Spartans for the Final Four last April. He had wanted his team to attend the football game, but time was an issue, with finals coming up and a busy schedule to play. Izzo walks the streets before the game, soaking up the atmosphere. Unlike last April, he is not sequestered in his hotel room, studying game film.
“I get to be a fan tonight,” he says to his wife.
Saturday night, December 5
Mark Hollis Michigan State's Athletic Director, Dantonio and Izzo chat on the sideline of Lucas Oil Stadium before the game. Izzo mentions much he is enjoying the evening, with no duties to do as a coach.
“That’s why I love the Final Four so much,” Dantonio says.
You probably know how the rest of the night went for Michigan State.
Sunday morning, December 6
Hollis is driving back to East Lansing. It is a grand time to be a Spartan. Dantonio’s team is headed to the playoffs. Izzo’s team is unbeaten and headed for the top of the rankings. There is something special in all this. Unique, really. It’s not every place the two coaches of the bright-light sports mesh so thoroughly, at such a spectacular moment.
“You look around the country, and try to find other combinations that are genuinely close,” Hollis says. “I know there may be friendships, but this is one where there’s truly a sense of, `What can I do for you.’ It’s not uncommon for either coach to spend considerable time with recruits, not only from football or basketball but any of our 25 sports. Tom will spend time with golf recruits and Mark will pull out a volleyball recruit to midfield during pregame and have a conversation.
“The ability for these two guys to keep each other grounded or pull somebody up when maybe there’s a down stretch . . . I think it's based on when they were both assistant coaches at Michigan State together and they kind of got to see Michigan State through that lens. Both had an inspiration to be a head coach and the combination of putting them back together in that role has contributed tremendously to that success.”
The synergy between the two, and all his sports, is vital to Hollis. “It’s a culture we’ve tried to build. We’re surrounded by a lot of brand schools and when you look at cash flow, we’re not at the top of the game. But we have incredible people and we have enough resources that are focused toward the student-athlete that these two guys can really drive not only their own sport, but the collection of all of them.”
Monday morning, December 7
Izzo is in his office, understanding that his team will likely be ranked No. 1 by the end of the day. He talks about his love for football. He reminisces how he and former NFL coach Steve Mariucci became friends growing up. How he had not been at Dantonio’s season finale with Penn State because the basketball team was in the Wooden Legacy in California; only the fourth home football game he has missed in 32 years. “Kind of a football coach on a basketball court,” Hollis had said of Izzo.
“One thing I try to do is teach my guys to appreciate other sports and learn from them,” Izzo is saying. “It’s a necessity, if you ask me, that in 99 percent of the schools, the football program has to be good. I guess Duke and Kentucky and Kansas can argue that. But when the football’s good, everybody’s happy in the athletic department.”
What does he think about Dantonio?
“I hope I’m a no-ego guy and he’s definitely a no-ego guy,” Izzo says. “There’s so many things we can discuss with one another. It’s really necessary to have that relationship. I always tell an assistant, when he gets a (head coaching) job out of here, the first thing you should do is go see the football coach, because he’s the one guy you have something in common with and will understand.
“I think there’s jealousy in college sports between sports, for some ungodly reason. Not only football and basketball other sports, too. We just kind of help each other. On a football Saturday you’ll see all 25 sports down on that sideline.”
The Big Ten season is approaching and Izzo will probably not be able to make any of Dantonio’s playoff games in person.
“My wife and kids will have to be football fans supporting them,” he says. “I’ll be doing it with my team from a hotel room, or my house. But he knows I’m with him, and I know he’s with me.”
Hollis loves to hear such thoughts, and tries to promote them. Nearly every athletic director does, but where else is there this much success at it
“I can almost say none,” Izzo mentions.
Especially during a week like this.