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Spartan fans thankful for that tornado

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Mitch Albom
April 2, 2010

The winds howled. The sky was purple-black. A young Tom Izzo pulled his car off the highway, got out and did what they had told him to do: He crawled under the car for safety. There, beneath the chassis, pressed against the earth, he prayed, “Dear Lord, don’t let me die here.” He was a man against the elements, Tom vs. Tornado, a stranger in a strange land …


And that’ll teach you not to leave home.


This is a story you never hear about Tom Izzo, because with Izzo it’s always Michigan State-this and state-of-Michigan-that, born in Michigan, played in Michigan, coached in Michigan, but there was one time (and one time only) he left Michigan, for a whopping seven weeks, and took a job in …


Oklahoma. Tulsa. The Golden Hurricane.


Speaking of which …


“It got so dark. Sirens were going off. This big storm is coming. I had called the office and yelled, ‘What do I do?’ They said, ‘Can you see the tornado?’ I said, ‘If I could see it, I’d be running!”‘


He laughs at the memory.


“I was praying for a snowstorm.”


The road to Tulsa

A snowstorm he could handle. Izzo comes from the Upper Peninsula, where snowstorms are as regular as breakfast cereal. But tornados? Temperatures in the 100s? Long, flat landscapes?


Izzo had gone to Tulsa only for the money. It was 1986, he’d been making less than $5,000 a year at Michigan State as a part-time assistant, and Tulsa offered a job as recruiting coordinator, which paid, he recalls, around $35,000. A fortune! Jud Heathcote, his MSU mentor, told him it probably would be a good move, so Izzo packed a suitcase and a duffel bag and went to Oklahoma to work for an intense coach named J.D. Barnett.


One of the first questions Barnett had asked him was, “Do you promise you’ll stay?”


And Izzo intended to. He wore a shirt and tie every day, as Barnett demanded. He worked from 6:30 a.m. until midnight, six days a week. He touted the Golden Hurricane logo and told recruits Tulsa would be a great place for them to play basketball.


But seven weeks after he’d arrived—just as Izzo was about to buy a house—Heathcote called. A position had opened at MSU. Did he want to come back?


This, mind you, was only a few days after that storm and Izzo hiding under his car. And it was a new car. And he’d just been given it.


But his heart was in Michigan.


So his butt was in trouble.


The road to East Lansing

He tried calling Barnett but couldn’t reach him. He went into the office at sunrise—it was a Saturday—because he was afraid the coach would be so angry he might not let him get his stuff.


Suddenly, the phone rang. Barnett.


“Tom, what are you doing in so early?”


“Uh … working,” Izzo said.


Barnett had suspicions. Word spreads fast in the coaching world. Finally, Izzo—who’d wanted to wait to tell Barnett in person—admitted on the phone he was leaving.


“Oh, J.D. went off!” Izzo recalls, laughing. “He was screaming, ‘Turn your car in RIGHT NOW!’


Izzo went down the hall and found a young staffer named Ron. He asked for a ride back from the car dealership.


“I can’t do that,” Ron said, glumly.


“Why not?” Izzo said.


“J.D. just called and told me not to do anything for you.”


Izzo eventually took a cab. And that night, he, his suitcase and his duffel bag took an 8 o’clock plane to Michigan.


And he never left.


Some folks do a stint in New York City. Some backpack across Europe. Tom Izzo had seven weeks in Tulsa. So much for sewing his wild oats.


Through the next two decades, he rose through the MSU ranks, took the reins from Heathcote. And now, this weekend, at his sixth Final Four in 12 years, he is one of the best in the business, synonymous with the Spartans and his home state.


“Tulsa was a good experience, and J.D. and I eventually made up,” Izzo says. “But I guess it teaches you the grass isn’t always greener on the other side.”


Or under the car.



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