Jud Heathcote, master college basketball coach and stand-up comedian, once summed up his profession and himself in a single sentence.
“The one thing about this game is that it makes fools of us all, and I’m living proof of that."
He was the man who coached Magic Johnson to a national championship. He understood -- as we all did -- that would be the first line in his obituary, and when the time came Monday night at the age of 90, so it was.
But there is so much more to the Heathcote legend than one night in Salt Lake City in 1979, when the basketball world got its first delicious taste of Magic Johnson vs. Larry Bird. He showed that a coach could be crusty, demanding and grouchy – and still give some of the most entertaining press conferences the game has ever seen. He could grump away all night, and almost always leave you smiling.
Coach Heathcote made me a better person, player, and champion. He turned a young kid into a man. Thank you so much for all you did for me.— Earvin Magic Johnson (@MagicJohnson) August 29, 2017
Take a February day in 1985. Earlier that Saturday, Bob Knight had shocked college basketball by hurling a chair across the court, in a fit against the referees. That night, Michigan State was hosting Michigan. As the officials approached the Spartans bench for the pre-game handshakes, a straight-faced Heathcote turned around, picked up his chair, and reared back to throw it.
He was forever grousing about Minnesota’s fieldhouse, with the benches set below the floor. On his last visit there during his final season in 1995, the Gophers gave him a stool as a present. He said he was surprised that it actually had all three legs.
Funny man. But he could also win.
With his arrival in East Lansing in 1976 – the guy came from Montana, of all places – a golden age of Spartan basketball was born. Michigan State has had only two coaches in the 41 seasons since; Heathcote and Tom Izzo, the assistant who replaced him. In the same span, Kentucky has had six coaches, UCLA nine.
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When Heathcote won his title in 1979, it was more than just the good fortune of having the basketball in the hands of Johnson, though that certainly didn’t hurt. Magic made the Spartans a must-see contending team. But it was Heathcote’s matchup zone defense that made them champions. At the moment of truth in Salt Lake City, that defense limited unbeaten Indiana State to 28 points in the first half, and harassed Bird into 7-for-21 shooting and six turnovers; a bad night that torments him still, and always will.
That showdown, won by Michigan State 75-64, is considered a defining moment in the Final Four and college basketball. It is also the centerpiece to Heathcote’s career. But his legacy shows us something else, too -- just how cruel March can be. It is possible to argue that no coach has been treated worse by the whimsy of fate in the NCAA Tournament than Heathcote.
There was The Great Clock Malfunction Of 1986, when Kansas was inexplicably given at least 11 extra seconds to rally and tie their Sweet 16 game. The Jayhawks won 96-86 in overtime. That the error came in Kansas City made it even more galling for Michigan State.
The Spartans went home, Kansas went on to the Final Four.
Jud Heathcote guided the Spartans to their first NCAA Championship in 1979. pic.twitter.com/3IfcAsHI4Q— Spartan Basketball (@MSU_Basketball) August 29, 2017
There was the 1990 Sweet 16 game against Georgia Tech, when Kenny Anderson’s basket at the regulation buzzer forced overtime, and the Yellow Jackets eventually won 81-80. Replays showed Anderson’s shot came a fraction too late.
Once more, the Spartans went home, Georgia Tech went on to the Final Four.
There was his last game in 1995. No controversy this time, just a sad thud. Michigan State was a No. 3 seed going into the NCAA Tournament, the Spartans eager to send Heathcote into retirement with a long run. They blew a nine-point halftime lead and were upset 79-72 by No. 14 seed Weber State in the first round. What a way to go.
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Bottom line: Heathcote took some punches in the gut from the game he loves.
Through it all, he was always Jud. This was in 2015, Heathcote looking back 25 years to the Georgia Tech game:
“They couldn’t go back to the monitor then. They call that the Michigan State change; now they have the monitor and the lights on the backboard and all that. I felt like we kind of got cheated in that game. I used to kid Bobby (Georgia Tech coach Cremins) that I was afraid to turn my back on him. When I saw him, I’d grab for my wallet. But it wasn’t Bobby’s fault.
“I’m sure their position would be, you had a chance to win in overtime, and you didn’t. In all my coaching career, I always looked at the next game, not the last game, so I didn’t dwell on that game. But I didn’t forget it, either.”
College basketball won’t forget him. Jud Heathcote was absolutely one of a kind. That deserves a spot on his epitaph, right next to being Magic Johnson’s coach.