Michigan State basketball’s Tom Izzo remembers how Bob Knight helped create the Izzone

EAST LANSING — Tom Izzo passed Bobby Knight’s record for wins at a Big Ten school in 2022, now sitting at 687 and counting.

He passed Knight’s previous Big Ten record of 24 NCAA tournament appearance in March with his 25th straight, the longest active streak in college basketball.

Izzo also stands 20 wins away from Knight’s record of 353 conference victories. And one more regular-season championship will tie Michigan State’s Hall of Fame coach with the 11 Big Ten titles won by Knight at Indiana and Purdue’s Piggie Lambert.

Yet the first meeting against Knight in Izzo’s debut season might be the most memorable for him and the most important his fledgling program.

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Jan. 4, 1996: MSU 65, Indiana 60. Izzo’s first of 333 Big Ten victories in his first home conference game. In front of a Breslin Center crowd that looked more like the Hoosiers’ Assembly Hall than the field of green it has become over the past quarter century.

Michigan State Spartans head coach Tom Izzo on the bench during against the Tennessee Volunteers at Breslin Center in East Lansing on Sunday, Oct. 29, 2023.

A moment that, to this day, still lingers in Izzo’s memory bank as a turning point for what he built at MSU.

“We weren’t very good, and they were pretty good,” Izzo recalled Thursday. “I said we had 4,000 red sweaters pulled over their bellies. I don’t know if some people were or pillows in there or what. But I walked out and I looked up, and I couldn’t believe it. And that kind of helped me, without (Knight) knowing, because (Mark) Hollis and I got in a screaming match in the hallway. And I said ‘It’ll never be like that again.’

“And we started going to fraternities and sororities and lunch rooms, and we got the Izzone going. And pretty soon that changed. Coach Knight helped me there.”

The iconic Knight, who spent 29 years at Indiana and also coached at Army and Texas Tech, died Wednesday at 83 years old. The former Ohio State basketball star remains the benchmark in Big Ten basketball and among the pantheon of coaches in all of sports.

Izzo first met Knight when he was a young assistant under Jud Heathcote, a close friend of Knight’s. During Heathcote’s farewell in 1995, Knight gave the legendary MSU coach a green recliner as a parting gift.

“I was fortunate. I always had a good relationship with Coach Knight, and the reason is because him and Jud were such good friends,” Izzo said. “He felt we did it the right way here, so he always took care of us. He took care of me when I got in the league. He was great to me, so I’m gonna miss him.”

Though that first win wasn’t a gift for Izzo a year later — his team jumped out to a 19-point lead before hanging on late — it began a friendship with Knight that carried over the decades. He said he last talked to Knight three years ago, but recalled advice he got from the legend during the Spartans’ ascent toward their 2000 national championship run.

“He helped me during a Final Four year with some things he called and said and talked to me about …,” Izzo said. “I know everything wasn’t perfect, but there’s been a lot of us everything’s not perfect for. I made the comment that Jud Heathcote always told me that the game sooner or later makes fools of us all, it did him once in a while.

“But I always rate a kid on whether he could marry my daughter, and I rate a coach if would I want my son playing for him. Steven’s a little scrawny, but I’d have loved for him to play for Bob Knight.”

Indiana fired Knight in 2000 after Izzo won his first championship, then went on to coach at Texas Tech for his final six-plus seasons before announcing his retirement late in the 2007-08 season. The sometimes mercurial and controversial coach still ranks sixth all-time in Division I history with 902 wins and on Jan. 1, 2007, surpassed Dean Smith’s one-time record of 879 victories.

“He was good for the game,” Izzo said of Knight. “And 99% of his kids would die for him. Some of them at 40 and 50 years old still would die for him. That’s to me the mark of a human being. …

“Bob was different than people knew. I mean, there was a side of him that was so good. A big heart. He did a lot of things for a lot of people that nobody knew about. That’s what I love.”

Contact Chris Solari: csolari@freepress.com. Follow him @chrissolari.

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This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Michigan State coach Tom Izzo: How Bob Knight helped create Izzone

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