Tennessee basketball coach Rick Barnes remembers vividly the day he met Tom Izzo. They were in Columbus, Ohio, recruiting a local guard named Eli Brewster in 1986, both of them young assistant coaches — Barnes at Ohio State, Izzo at Michigan State.
“Right from the very beginning, the first time I met him, he just has a great way of making you feel comfortable,” Barnes said.
Thirty seven years later, Izzo and Barnes have been in a lot of gyms together — in high schools and at AAU tournaments, in Kuwait coaching U.S. troops, at Madison Square Garden in New York, at the NCAA Elite Eight in San Antonio and in the home arenas of each other’s schools.
They’ve only once been at the Maui Invitational at the same time, in 1991, but that early season tournament in paradise has been a sentimental part of both of their coaching careers. And thus, in August, when a wildfire tore through Lahaina, Maui, where the longstanding invitational is held, Izzo and Barnes both wanted to do something to help.
Their teams were scheduled to play a closed-door scrimmage against each other this month in East Lansing (after scrimmaging last year in Tennessee). That gave them an opening. And so Sunday’s meeting between No. 4-ranked MSU and the 10th-ranked Volunteers is now a fundraiser — the Maui Relief Charity Game — an exhibition at 3:30 p.m. at Breslin Center. A limited number of tickets remain, with proceeds going to the Maui Strong fund. The game will also be on Big Ten Network.
“I heard Kansas was going to do it first (with) Illinois,” Izzo said. “I said what a great idea, what a great cause. I thought it’d be great for our fans, since we’re both ranked in the top (10). … So it was one of those win-win-wins. But the biggest one is to Maui because I can’t even imagine the devastation those people have been through.”
Tennessee is playing at the Maui Invitational next month — Barnes’ sixth trip with his third school — though this year’s tournament has been moved to Honolulu. MSU is scheduled to play there next year — Izzo’s sixth trip. His first games as MSU’s head coach were at the Maui Invitational in 1995.
Barnes had already been a head coach for eight seasons by then — first at George Mason, then Providence, then Clemson, before taking over at Texas in 1998, where he spent 17 seasons and nine times faced Izzo’s Spartans, including a four-game series, twice on each campus, that ended in 2013. Tennessee hired Barnes in 2015, shortly after he was let go by the Longhorns.
Among their memorable meetings as head coaches — their NCAA tournament regional final clash in 2003, won by Texas in San Antonio with a trip to the Final Four on the line.
“I’ll never forget … before I could shake Tom’s hand (afterward), (Texas star guard) T.J. Ford came up to me, he was hugging me. I couldn’t get to Tom and Tom just graciously stood there while T.J. was hugging me,” Barnes said. “I just respect Tom so much. When you lose at that point in time, believe me, you don’t want to hang out there and watch the other team celebrate. And he stood there like that, like the gentleman that he is and the friend that he is. He just waited until T.J. got done. And he grabbed me, he hugged me and said, ‘Hey, man, I’m happy for you. Go win a championship.’ ”
Three and a half years later, MSU beat Kevin Durant’s Texas squad on Drew Neitzel’s last-second bucket in November of 2006 at Madison Square Garden — a moment which Durant’s father reminded them of during a recruiting trip years later.
“Rick’s an interesting guy. I mean, he is a very straight shooter,” Izzo said. “We have mutual respect. And we’ve kind of done it the same way for the same length of time. We’ve had some good games, and they were the right way. He’s a good guy and that’s what I’ve always appreciated about him.”
Early that same year as the Neitzel-Durant game, Izzo and Barnes were among a dozen coaches in Kuwait together coaching U.S. troops, a meaningful trip for both men. Barnes fondly remembers that on the flight back they all played a joke on Maryland coach Gary Williams — telling him there weren’t enough first-class seats for all of the coaches and they’d have to draw straws. They set it up so Williams was the last one left. Williams handled it with the same fervor he showed while coaching.
It was two decades before that, while Barnes was working for Williams at Ohio State, that he had an interaction with Izzo and Jud Heathcote that led to an early lesson in recruiting he’s never forgotten.
“That year I went up to Detroit (Pershing) to look at a kid by the name of Steve Smith,” Barnes began. “It was a Saturday morning practice. I walk in and Jud Heathcote and Tom are sitting there. You just love being around them because they’re funny tell stories and talking. And Steve had one of those days where he made some 3s and he literally shot a couple airballs. And I remember sitting there (next to) Tom. And Jud looked at Tom and said, ‘If you bring me to see another player who shoots an airball, I’ll fire you.’
“And I go back (to Ohio State) and Gary Williams kept questioning me on (Smith). I said, ‘Well, I can tell you, Coach Heathcote told Tom, “If you bring me to see another player who shoots an airball, I’m going to fire you.” When I told that to Gary Williams, he said, ‘I’m not going to see (Smith) then.’ … I don’t think we could have gotten him anyway. But I learned a valuable lesson. I think Jud knew what he had in Steve Smith and I’m a young coach and he put me through the wringer.” More than three decades later, when Izzo and Barnes were both in their mid-60s, coaching through a pandemic, the care they had for each other endured. While MSU was getting set to play Duke at an empty Cameron Indoor Stadium in December 2020, Izzo learned Barnes had COVID. These were early days still, before COVID vaccines were available and treatments like Paxlovid were common, when at that age it was especially scary. Izzo had just gotten through a bout with COVID himself. So he called Barnes from the locker room.
“He said, ‘How are you feeling?,’ ” Barnes recalled. “ ‘I think I’m OK.’ And he said, ‘How many days have you had it?’ I said, ‘this is my third or fourth day.’ And he said, ‘Well, I’m telling you that I felt pretty good after three and four days.’ He said, ‘Day 6, 7, 8, it jumped all over me.’ And you know what, that’s exactly what happened to me. Honestly, it helped me that he told me that.
“Tom is a guy that, he’s a man of principle. I know how much he loves his players. I know he’s tough on them, like any coach would be. But you know he’s doing it the right way. There’s never any doubt. … I do believe this, if I called him with a dire need, I don’t even think he would ask me what it’s about. He’d say, ‘Tell me what you need. And I’m there.’ ”
Contact Graham Couch at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Graham_Couch.
This article originally appeared on Lansing State Journal: MSU basketball: Old friends Izzo, Barnes come together for Maui relief