EAST LANSING, Mich. (AP) — Despite his success, fame and fortune, Michigan State coach Tom Izzo is still an approachable guy. His cell phone vibrates constantly, and his windowed office on campus give friends and strangers a chance to knock on the glass and give him a big thumbs-up.
There have been a lot of those lately.
The 55-year-old coach has led his men’s basketball team to the Final Four for the sixth time in 12 seasons, a feat also accomplished by just UCLA’s John Wooden and Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski.
If Izzo cuts down the nets Monday night in Indianapolis — a decade after he won a national title there — his .770 winning percentage in the NCAA tournament would rank No. 1 among active coaches.
To prepare for Saturday’s semifinal against Butler, Izzo even escaped his Michigan State offices one day this week to get some work done, driving one-half mile to the Kellogg Hotel and Conference Center to work on a game plan.
Izzo agreed to give the Associated Press exclusive, behind-the-scenes access for the first two days of his Final Four preparations.
Izzo’s conference room:
The room connected to Izzo’s office suite has a treadmill in the corner, plaques on the wall recognizing past head coaches, assistant coaches and those from Izzo’s coaching tree who have gone on to lead programs such as Indiana’s Tom Crean and Dayton’s Brian Gregory.
Izzo sits on right side of the long, oval table.
His right hand rests on a computer mouse connected to a state-of-the-art video system — that is when he isn’t reaching into a 35-ounce barrel of Utz Cheese Balls.
Assistant coaches Mark Montgomery, Dwayne Stephens and Mike Garland step in the room along with video coordinator Jordan Ott, joining Izzo and assistant video coordinator Doug Herner.
The staff begins to prepare to face the other teams in the Final Four: Butler, Duke and West Virginia.
“You got Butler,” Izzo says to Montgomery.
“You should take West Virginia,” he tells Stephens.
“You take Duke,” Izzo says to Garland. “And in our film session, show the guys our good and bad runs against Tennessee.”
Ott’s crew of student assistants recorded a slew of games all season, helping Izzo and his staff devise game plans for possible NCAA tournament opponents.
“How many Butler games do we have in the computer,” Izzo asks.
“Seven,” Ott says. “You said you wanted losses, but they haven’t lost since Dec. 22.”
Izzo nods his head.
“I don’t think we can go back that far,” he replies.
College coaches borrow and share scouting reports with friends in the business. Izzo reads aloud: “Butler has some trouble guarding long, athletic players that are able to shoot the ball and put the ball on the floor to score.”
Then, he snickers.
“You know why?” Izzo asks. “Those guys are pros.”
With that, there’s only the hum of a refrigerator.
“That place will be hoppin’ for them,” Izzo says of Lucas Oil Stadium, which will be filled with fans pulling for the hometown Bulldogs.
Sitting at his desk, strewn with papers, Izzo prepares to do five straight phone interviews, raising his total to nine by noon.
His shelves are filled with framed pictures of his wife, Lupe, their children, Raquel and Steven Mateen, as well as one of Izzo with President Barack Obama.
Floor-to-ceiling windows are behind him and to his left, creating a fishbowl effect that leads to people — such as Dan Jimenez of Lansing on this day — knocking on the glass and flashing a thumbs-up.
Izzo likes the fact that those who met him when he joined Jud Heathcote’s staff as a little-known assistant in 1983 don’t think he has changed. But it creates challenges and distractions, because Izzo has a hard time saying “no.”
“Herner talked me into checking into a hotel (Tuesday) to get some work done,” Izzo says. “We haven’t done that before, but we’re going to give it a shot.”
Izzo gets out of his chair to grab a bottle of apple juice out of a drawer that hides a refrigerator.
“I’ve never had a cup of coffee in my life,” he says.
One of Izzo’s telephone interviews is with ESPN’s Hannah Storm on “SportsCenter,” and he is publicly asked for the first time about a report that Oregon plans to lure him with the largest contract in college basketball.
Izzo dodges the question for the first of many times, saying he is happy at Michigan State and focused on trying to win another national championship.
Izzo’s conference room:
Soon after Izzo rejoins Herner in his conference room to get to work, but not for long.
First, five-star basketball camp founder Howard Garfinkel calls. Then the doctor who performed shoulder surgery on highly touted incoming recruit Adreian Payne rings. And his executive secretary, Lori Soderberg, hands Izzo a trimmed-down list of people who have called: former Spartan Eric Snow, ex-Michigan coach Bill Frieder, ESPN analyst Jay Bilas and Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun.
Just when Izzo is about to focus on semifinal opponent Butler, he breaks for a Final Four conference call featuring the four coaches. Izzo rolls his eyes when asked about the Oregon report and basically repeats what he said earlier.
Soon after he’s done with the conference call, Washington Wizards coach Flip Saunders calls.
“They’re pretty good,” Izzo says of Butler. “They’ve got two pros.”
Then, Izzo laughs hysterically toward the end of the call.
“Flip said, ‘You’ve got to get to the championship game because if you get there, I’ll get thrown out of our game so I can watch,'” Izzo tells Herner.
Moments later, West Virginia coach Bob Huggins calls.
“I’m happy for you,” Izzo says. “We’ll see you down there.”
Izzo takes a quick break to eat some pizza before sitting back down to watch Butler video.
“Oh my God,” Izzo says. “It’s 2 o’clock! Where did the time go?”
Herner points to Izzo’s incessantly vibrating cell phone.
“It usually doesn’t work when you turn it off,” Herner deadpans.
Team film room:
Izzo gathers his players in a room with three long tables on three tiers and comfy, basketball-colored chairs to briefly look back at the win over Tennessee and ahead to Butler.
Life-size pictures of Mateen Cleaves, Morris Peterson and Jason Richardson line the left side of the room and images of Earvin “Magic” Johnson, Steve Smith and Eric Snow are on the right wall.
“I’m convinced we’re just as good as any team left,” Izzo tells the team. “I haven’t felt that way in years. I didn’t in ’05 at the Final Four. And last year in the finals, I didn’t think we were as good as North Carolina.”
Izzo shows key runs — good and bad — from Sunday’s game against Tennessee.
“Watch the difference in our offense,” Garland says. “It’s almost like night and day.”
After a light workout, players leave the Breslin Center, and Izzo decides to do the same.
“I’m going home to have dinner with my family,” Izzo says. “I’ll be back in about an hour and a half.”
Kellogg Hotel and Conference Center:
Izzo walks into the Vista Room at 7:54 a.m. Tuesday, where Ott has created a makeshift setup to scout Butler.
The unmarked room is across the hall from a conference filled with people attending the Michigan Traffic Safety Summit. The windows are open, pushing a crisp breeze into the conference room, but the blinds are shut to improve the picture projected on a screen.
Izzo is very impressed with Butler forward Gordon Hayward and guard Shelvin Mack.
He points a laser pointer at the 6-foot-9 Hayward.
“He was 5-11 going into high school, and he kept his guard skills after he grew,” Izzo says.
Mack makes shot after shot.
“This guy will be a pro,” Herner says.
“Yeah, he will,” Izzo says as they commence a 4-hour session interrupted just once by a radio interview. He’ll later poll his staff about how to handle Butler’s on-the-ball screens and its top two players.
Izzo’s Lexus SUV:
Making the one-half mile drive back to the Breslin Center for a packed news conference, Izzo reflects on the company he now keeps with Wooden and Krzyzewski:
“It’s funny because it doesn’t really sink in right now, which it shouldn’t,” Izzo says. “It’s pretty impressive, and yet it is something I sure won’t think about for another 10 years or so.”