Few basketball fans have attended as many NCAA tournament games over the last decade and a half as Lupe Izzo. Her husband, Tom, no. 1-seed Michigan State’s fiery head coach, has led the Spartans to 14 straight NCAA appearances, racking up a 35-13 tourney record, including six trips to the Final Four and a championship in 2000. Over that time she has gotten to know the Michigan State players nearly as well as her husband has. A longtime East Lansing, Michigan, resident, she is known for her grace, candor, and ebullient spirit. She recently spoke to Grantland’s Davy Rothbart about the Michigan State hoops family and the team’s chances in this year’s tourney.
The camera always seems to find you in the crowd at the end of a close game during the tournament. How hard is it to watch a tight finish?
It’s really hard. I try to remind myself to breathe, because a lot of times I realize I’ve been holding my breath forever. I try not to get too high or too low, and just stay as calm as I can by remembering how the game can change direction in just a few minutes or even a few seconds. At the tournament, I’m surrounded by all the players’ parents. If we’re playing bad, I try not to react — I don’t want to shout something that could seem disrespectful.
Senior Draymond Green was just voted the Big Ten Player of the Year. What’s he like off the court?
Draymond is an old soul. He comes from a great family, raised by his mom and his uncles. He’s such a thinker, and he thinks outside the box. He takes notice of a lot of things that other people wouldn’t. On Senior Day, he went out of his way to thank the team managers. They have such a thankless job — all these years of service for no pay, being part of the team but never really being recognized. The fact that he acknowledged their hard work and thanked them in such a public way — that says a lot about Draymond.
What kinds of sacrifices do you have to make when you’re the wife of a basketball coach? What are the biggest challenges?
The hardest thing is not having him around. He’s on the road year-round. Even when he’s home, he often leaves the house at 7:30 a.m. and isn’t back until after midnight. It’s challenging that he has become such a nationally recognized figure. Tom always, always stops to chat with strangers and never passes anyone without saying hello or signing a ball. He ends up belonging to everybody. Everyone wants to tell him a story or share a memory, and he’s incredibly gracious. Even Michigan fans — they may not like the Spartans, but they like and respect Tom, which is a great compliment.
But all the attention can wear on me and wear on our kids. We have two children — a daughter who’s a junior in high school and a son who’s in sixth grade. They don’t mind when other kids see Tom and get excited, and I give them a lot of credit for that. But when older people fall all over him, they don’t like that as much. Still, we’re hugely thankful to be in the position we’re in, and we don’t lose sight of just how lucky we’ve been. Tom’s standing in the community has allowed me to do a lot of great charity work for children, hospitals, food banks, and the homeless.
Players know that when they arrive on campus, your house is always open to them. Are there any players with whom you’ve remained especially close?
About a year ago I lost my mom. [Spartan alum and NBA player] Morris Peterson was one of the first people to call me. He spent a half-hour on the phone with me, just talking about what had happened. I also lost my dad, and [three-time All-American] Mateen [Cleaves] came to the funeral. He came all the way to East Lansing and spent a lot of time with me, just sitting beside me, holding my hand, like he was my own son. It was especially meaningful because he’d known my parents.
Can you talk about the 2000 championship team, led by the “Flintstones” — Peterson, Cleaves, and Charlie Bell? What did it feel like to win the NCAA title?
Mateen had a really strong personality and was awesome with his teammates. Basically, he became a player-coach. Tom just sat back and let him talk to the other players, since Mateen had known Morris and some of the others since they were little kids. He knew how to speak to them in deeply personal ways to inspire them and give them the will to win. A.J. Granger was also a special part of that team, along with Antonio Smith, who had graduated the year before but had been with those guys since grade school. This was still early in Tom’s career, and winning it all was incredible — the school’s first championship since Magic Johnson was there in 1979. It’s because of those special players and their families that Tom has been able to have the success that he’s had.
After turning down an offer from the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2010, Tom said he was “a Spartan for life.” Can you ever see your husband coaching in the NBA?
They come calling every year. A lot more than the Cleveland or the Atlanta offers that we’ve made public. It used to be where they just came at the end of the year. Now they come throughout the season. We discuss everything together. It’s an honor to him to be considered, but so far we’ve always just wanted to stay here in East Lansing where our families are. Whether Tom admits it or not, he’s built a dynasty here. People love him … for the community leader he has become. It’d be very hard to leave. Honestly, I think Tom might want to try coaching in the NBA someday. Just to say that he did it. But for now, it’s not in his sights. Winning the tournament is all he’s thinking about.
What are your predictions for this year’s tournament? How deep a run can the Spartans make?
We lost Branden Dawson [to knee surgery], and he added a lot to our team. I just pray we play to our potential. I always say that if we get to the Elite Eight, that’s awesome, but once we get there, we still want to go on, and we’ve had our share of luck.
The NCAA tournament is great. I love the Cinderella teams that make an unexpected run. I love to hear the stories behind each team, their players and coaches. And I feel good when I see teams make the tournament that have never made it before, or haven’t made it in years. I love it all. This is my favorite time of the year.