Let’s play some NCAA men’s basketball trivia. Which coach has the most Division I NCAA Final Four appearances of all time? That’s easy: John Wooden. At one point, Wooden led UCLA to nine consecutive Final Fours and championships from 1967-75 and ended his career with 12 total appearances.
Second question: Which active Division I coach has the most Final Four appearances? Again, this might seem pretty simple after his team just won the NCAA Championship last year, but the answer is Mike Krzyzewski. Coach K has 11 Final Four appearances and is tied for second all-time with legendary North Carolina coach Dean Smith.
OK, third and final question for the bonus point: Which active coach has the second-most Final Four appearances, all with the same school (Coach K is also first in this active category with all 11 appearances coming with Duke)? Here is your hint: This coach is also tied for fifth all-time in Final Four appearances with two other coaches. I wish I could get a count on how many of you said Michigan State’s Tom Izzo.
To die-hard college basketball fans it may not seem that tough of a question either, but in general it seems that despite everything he has accomplished at Michigan State, Izzo rarely gets the credit or placement he deserves among the top coaches in college basketball today and maybe of all time.
Izzo has not only become the face of the Michigan State Spartans basketball program, but in some respects he has become the face of Big Ten basketball, serving as the longest tenured coach in the conference and the fourth longest tenured coach in the six power conferences (ACC, Big 12, Big East, Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC), just behind Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim, Krzyzewski and Connecticut’s Jim Calhoun.
The MSU head coach began prowling the East Lansing sidelines during the 1995-96 season after 12 years as an MSU assistant coach. Now, in his 17th season, he’s putting the finishing touches on his seventh Big Ten regular-season championship team with eyes set on another Final Four and NCAA Championship.
Izzo has been around a while, not seen in any school colors outside Spartan green and white since the 1982-83 season as an assistant at Northern Michigan. He has six Final Fours to his credit and one impressive national championship in 1999-2000, but how does he rank with some of the greatest coaches of all time?
It seems unlikely that anyone would ever approach the greatness of John Wooden and his UCLA teams of the 1960s and ’70s that won 10 national titles, and even if they did it would be foolish for anyone to be compared to Wooden anyway. If there is a “Golden Laws of Sports” book somewhere, page one certainly reads, “Nobody will be nor can ever be as good of a coach as John Wooden.”
How about the polarizing figure of Bob Knight, a former Big Ten man himself? Izzo doesn’t necessarily match up win-for-win with Knight. After all, Knight is second all-time in wins with 902 Division I victories, but it was over the course of 42 years as a head coach. Izzo, again just in his 17th season, has won 407 games at Michigan State, putting him on a 24 wins per season average, about 2.5 wins per season more than Knight. Being 47 years old, it is unlikely that Izzo will come anywhere near Knight’s 42-year head coaching career, but if he did, his pace would break the 1,000 win barrier, something no Division I coach has yet accomplished.
Like Knight, Izzo also pulled off something pretty amazing, winning the NCAA Championship in just his fifth year after taking over a Big Ten program. Granted, Knight won three national championships with the Hoosiers including an undefeated season, but he has already fallen behind Izzo’s Final Four mark. Knight reached the Final Four five times in 29 years at Indiana. Izzo had five of his appearances from 2000-10.
Not even the great Wooden, Coach K, Hall of Famer Dean Smith or current North Carolina coach Roy Williams, the four coaches with more Final Four appearances than Izzo, won national championships that early in their tenures.
One final coaching giant, I believe, holds the best comparison to Izzo, and that’s Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski. Obviously at the pinnacle of his profession, Coach K generally seems to be put far ahead of any other current coaches. Coaches like UConn’s Jim Calhoun, Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim or UNC’s Williams all seem to fall short in comparison to Coach K, but if anyone comes close to matching the accomplishments of Krzyzewski, it should be Izzo.
Izzo doesn’t have the longevity of Coach K, as many national titles, the wins or many of the accolades that 32 years at Duke have afforded Krzyzewski. But it is very difficult to find a coach that has done more with less than Izzo. With only 13 High School All-Americans to ever play for Izzo, it is remarkable that he is the third coach to reach three consecutive Final Fours. Krzyzewski has coached more than 40 Blue Devils selected in the NBA draft; Izzo has just 12.
2012 may be Izzo’s greatest coaching job yet as he just grabbed a share of his seventh Big Ten Championship this week, a testament to his entire career after Michigan State began this season unranked and 0-2. Yet once again, MSU is poised for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament and has a Player of the Year candidate in Draymond Green.
Izzo deserves to win his second National Coach of the Year award, and he just might get it. Perhaps then the nation will know the greatness that is Tom Izzo.
Brett is a senior majoring in journalism. Do you think Tom Izzo ranks among the greatest coaches of all time? Or does Sparty’s leader make your blood boil? Let Brett know at [email protected] or tweet him at @BAsportswriter.