Person: Tom Izzo
Drink: No coffee this time, just conversation
For fans of college basketball, and especially Michigan State, Tom Izzo is a hero. He has led the team to the 2000 National Championship, 6 Final Fours and 6 Big Ten Championships. In 2011, he earned the prestigious Legends of Coaching Award and in 2010 when the Cleveland Cavaliers made him an offer to coach in the NBA, the East Lansing community responded with a We Love Izzo campaign to show the coach how much they wanted him to stay, which he did.
But as I sat in his office, all his prominence melted away. He was just a genuine guy from a small Michigan town gracious enough to take an hour out of his day to talk with a fellow Spartan.
After the numerous conversations I’ve had during the past nine months, I’ve noticed a distinct trend: life does not go according to plan. No one I’ve talked to is doing exactly what they expected they’d be doing 10 years ago. I’ve also observed that, with the right approach, life will take you unexpected and incredible places.
This concept fascinates me; my life is going to go places I can’t even begin to imagine. The closer I get to graduation, the more that thought is on my mind. So out of curiosity, I posed the question to Tom:
When you were two weeks away from graduating, where did you think life would take you?
As I walked past the National championship trophies in the lobby and through the hallway lined with both photos of NBA greats like Magic Johnson and Steve Smith next to photos of the team celebrating big victories, I couldn’t help but assume Tom didn’t foresee this would be the culmination of his career
I was right.
Tom earned an education degree and always thought he’d be teaching somewhere within the K12 system. Yet, when he graduated from Northern Michigan University, jumping into a classroom didn’t feel right so he opted for grad school instead. He had played on the basketball team during undergrad and signed on as the team’s Graduate Assistant. With a love for basketball and strong competitive side, it was no surprise Tom decided to be a teacher on the court instead of in the classroom.
I asked him at what point he realized he wasn’t going to be a teacher. And when he discovered he might have a shot at a job coaching Division I basketball.
Tom told me he and his college roommate (and best friend since age 9), Steve Mariucci, spent time kicking around fantasies of successful coaching careers; creating aspirations they knew were unrealistic but worth dreaming about anyways. Like he said to me, “I’m sure you’ve spent time thinking about what it’d be like to be a millionaire”. In reality, he figured the likely outcome was a coaching gig at some Division II school.
He clearly exceeded that goal. Steve did too. He went on to coach for the San Francisco 49ers and Detroit Lions before becoming a sportscaster for NFL Gameday. Successes they both attribute to the support and guidance of their best friend.
While Tom wasn’t downplaying his success, as he told the story in retrospect, it seemed like the whole thing had been easy. But reaching an ambitious dream is hard enough, exceeding one is unthinkable. So I asked him what made the difference between coaching DII and DI. What separates good from great?
Tom didn’t ponder the question, he knew the answer immediately: sacrifice.
At age 29, Tom was still working as a graduate assistant at Michigan State making $4,000 dollars a year, often working 18-hour days and single (because “what woman marries a man that makes $4,000 a year”). While his friends were working in stable jobs, establishing their careers and settling down with marriage and kids, Tom was fielding an increasing number of calls from his mother wondering when he was going to wise up and get a real job.
It wasn’t an easy lifestyle, but he knew that’s what it would take to reach the next level. He reached an incredible level of success because he was able to stick it out longer than everyone else. But that path wasn’t without consequence. While Tom is proud of the program he has built and grateful for the opportunities he’s had, his life is not without regret. He juggles the pressure of his demanding career with his role as a husband and father; he looks back and thinks of things he may have done differently.
I admired Tom’s honesty—he wanted me to recognize there are pros and cons to every career path.
Tom has an incredible work ethic and finds a way to deal with the stress and pressure that has only intensified with time. It’s a lot of weight for one person’s shoulders. But that’s the price to pay for a chance to cut down the net after earning a National Title, dress up as a Spartan in front of 16,000 adoring fans, watch young freshman players become confident graduates and have a lasting impression on a community and University.
We had been talking for an hour when the phone started to ring. He pretended like he didn’t hear it. When his secretary buzzed him to say he had someone waiting to talk—he said he’d be a second and continued telling me stories like he had all the time in the world.
When we finally wrapped up our conversation, he said, “Well, I really hope there was something helpful in that,” and I assured him there was.
Talking with Tom brought me an incredible sense of relief.
The truth is for the past year I’ve had a subtle, yet unceasing, voice in my head creating an urgency to succeed. I’m grateful for the internal drive; however, it becomes a problem when the thought turns into a fear that if I don’t “succeed” in the next year or two, I’ll miss my window of opportunity and, more importantly, let a lot of people down.
After Saturday, I can no longer tell people I’m a college student, which is bittersweet because giving up my college student status means it’s time to prove myself in the real world.
I explained this to Tom and he made it very clear my assumption was wrong. Success does not have a standard protocol or predetermined timeline. Some people fast track to success and others take an indirect route. Then he told me not to worry about the expectations from others—what I expect from myself is a heck of a lot more important than what others expect from me.
Because if I’m willing to take a risk and chase my passion, it’s going to be me putting in the grunt work, working long hours for low pay, living with the pressure to make something happen—not those with the expectations. In five years I might be a broke 20 something with a string of insignificant jobs that I’ve only taken to get my foot in the door, living off oatmeal and turkey sandwiches, assuring my parents not to worry because I’ll be alright—and that’s alright.
Because when the time is right, the hard work will pay off.
Although, before I do that, I need to decide what I’m willing to sacrifice to make it happen.
Near the end of the meeting, Tom looked at me and said, “Decide what you value so you know what you’re willing to pay to get it. Then pursue that goal with discipline and work ethic—but not to a point of obsession.
Because he’s seen coaches put the weight of the world on a Championship game and the reality is if you lose that game—you’re going to wake up the next morning and still have the rest of your life to live.