East Lansing — It was enticing and agonizing, no doubt about it. And in the end for Tom Izzo, it was enlightening.
His nine-day exploration ultimately became something else, and it brought Izzo right back where he began, where he has been for the past 27 years. He’s staying at Michigan State instead of leaping to the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers, and he says he’s turning a once-in-a-lifetime chance into a last-in-a-lifetime chance.
Spartan for life — that’s the phrase that was used freely Tuesday night, as Michigan State officials happily welcomed back their renowned coach. There was relief all around, but also some testiness as Izzo scolded the media for its intense focus on the story. Izzo and others — school President Lou Anna K. Simon and athletic director Mark Hollis included — made pointed criticism of rumors and tweets and blogs, and the wear of the process clearly showed.
In breaking his self-imposed silence, Izzo insisted he never felt ready to leave, but owed it to himself and his family to investigate an unprecedented opportunity. Did the indecision of star LeBron James play a factor in Izzo’s turning down Cavs owner Dan Gilbert’s $30 million offer? Of course it did. Izzo said he wasn’t able to talk to James, but emphasized this wasn’t about what was missing in Cleveland.
Ultimately, it was about what he has built at Michigan State, an elite program that might have the nation’s No. 1-ranked team this season. Izzo’s contract also will be altered, according to Simon and Hollis, although they said it would have been reviewed anyhow. You can figure Izzo will receive some sort of raise over his $3 million salary on a seven-year rolling contract, but if this was about money, he would have been gone.
This was about what I suspected all along — relationships. Izzo, 55, cherishes his connection to a place he has been since 1983, a program he has led for 15 years. And shortly after he stepped to the podium Tuesday night, his players walked onto the stage, hugged him and stood behind him.
“I’m gonna be a lifer, this is what I’m gonna be, and (darn) proud of it,” Izzo said. “This was a time in my life where I had to look at it and say, ‘How many more offers or opportunities do you get?’”
“I know a lot of people would say, ‘Why would you want to leave? I didn’t want to leave. But I think it’d be a bigger mistake if I didn’t look, because I’d always wonder. I decided this decision would put me here for life, or not. And I’m not going through any of this anymore.”
I can’t imagine Izzo or Michigan State would ever want to go through this again, not if the Lakers call or another school calls or the Harlem Globetrotters call. And I can’t imagine there would ever be an NBA offer quite like this — a chance to coach a superstar and work for a Michigan State alum, Gilbert.
Again, it was about relationships. James understandably kept his thoughts on his July 1 free agency private, which added to the complexity of the process for Izzo. He never got a call from James, and the coach had to wonder what type of relationship he could build with one of the best players in the world.