The sports industry, be it college or pro, is not often marked by loyalty. Teams discard employees and players as they see fit; he who is a hero one day can easily be looking for work the next. At the same time, coaches and athletes are frequently content to walk away from the organization that groomed them as soon as a better offer comes along.
Sure, there are more than a few contrary examples. Some names are franchise fixtures who are satisfied and/or rewarded enough to remain where they are. And some organizations prize consistency more than others. But for every Joe Paterno there is a Bobby Petrino. For every Mike Krzyzewski a John Calipari. For every Derek Jeter, an Alex Rodriguez.
But when Tom Izzo decided to stay home, it was about more than turning down what he termed a once-in-a-lifetime chance. It was about more than refusing an NBA-sized paycheck. It was about the simple recognition of what he has achieved in his time in East Lansing, and what might still lie ahead.
Money is a hell of a motivator, but when we think of the true giants in sports, what drove them? There’s a belief that in the days before athletic careers came with multiple zeroes at the end, players played “for a love of the game” that no longer exists. I think that’s mostly nonsense. There’s no question that the best players and coaches years ago were tethered to their jobs by a devotion to their sport, but I don’t think that human nature has changed so much from then until now. I don’t think it’s as simple as saying that yesterday’s “love” has given way to today’s greed.
Because even today, there are still men like Izzo who value accomplishment over account balances.
Whenever a coach elects to move on to what is perceived as a bigger or better position, I always wonder if he’s truly thought through the move. At Cincinnati, for example, football coach Brian Kelly was well on his way to becoming a legend. To having streets and stadiums named in his honor. At Notre Dame, what excellence can he hope for? Even a return to championship form is unlikely to vault his name to the heights reserved for the likes of Knute Rockne and Ara Parseghian.
How many have lived to regret their decisions or been proven ill-prepared for their new duties? Rick Pitino left Kentucky– his Kentucky– for NBA riches, only to struggle. He was fortunate to be welcomed back to the NCAA. Nick Saban sought out the NFL, but realized all too quickly that coach-as-boss didn’t suit him nearly as well as coach-as-teacher.
I respect the drive to improve skills and take on challenges, and plenty of coaches are successful wherever they go. Look no further than say, Larry Brown. But there’s something to be said for building excellence and staying on to guide it along.
To think of Michigan State basketball is to think of Tom Izzo. He’s one of the game’s best coaches, particularly when tournament time rolls around. He’s won titles, he proven himself time and again, both as an on-court strategist and a developer of talent. He would have been justified in pointing to his resume and telling the world that he reached all his goals at his current level and was therefore ready for the next.
No one could have blamed him.
Instead, he recognized something essential. Something of which other coaches and athletes should take note. Success and achievement don’t have to be stepping stones or means to an end. Sometimes, it’s enough to be the local hero, because that is a much stronger and more potent legacy. Instead of always seeking to climb the ladder, be it one of finance or prestige, maybe more sports figures should stick around to solidify their presence.
Tom Izzo is well paid by the university. He has a good lifestyle. And while he would have gotten a hell of a lot more money had he left, he also would have been giving up something irreplaceable. Being a legend in the making.
Said Izzo: “I’m pleased to say I am here for life at Michigan State.”
For those of us who have gotten a chance to watch him work and now get to see what other brilliance he has in store, I can say that the pleasure is all ours.
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