PHOTO: Tom Izzo speaking at Wednesday night vigil outside the MSU Auditorium.
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By TOM SHANHAN
Michigan State interim president Teresa Woodruff acted promptly, providing a compassionate message about an unspeakable campus tragedy. Her leadership at a media briefing belied she’s been on the job only three months.
Michigan State campus police chief Marlon C. Lynch also spoke, accompanied by East Lansing and Lansing officials. They praised the first responders. Their voices were transparent as was required of their public obligations.
But two days later a familiar voice reminded us why college athletics – when it’s led by the right people – is the front porch of a university. Michigan State basketball coach Tom Izzo spoke at a vigil from the steps of the MSU Auditorium – a metaphoric front porch.
“I’m just a basketball coach,” said Izzo, apologizing as he put on reading glasses to read prepared comments instead of his “off the cuff” when he’s talking basketball.
His comment also alluded to standing amid Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, MSU student government leaders Jo Kovach and Hannah Jeffrey and other officials, but he couldn’t have been more wrong. His presence was respected in the Spartans community and his words provided solace.
“Just a basketball coach” is true at most schools – but not in East Lansing. Michigan State is a special place, and Izzo has snugly fit in the past 40 years – 12 as an assistant coach to his mentor, Jud Heathcote, and this, his 28th as head coach.
Michigan State’s basketball icon found the right words.
“I hope you meet 10 people around you and become closer,” he said in closing. “The world needs it. Michigan State needs it. The grieving time needs it. I need it.”
Three students from Michigan high schools, Arielle Anderson, Brian Fraser and Alexandria Verner, were murdered on an otherwise innocent school night. Five more students were critically wounded. Others frantically took cover until heroic first responders provided the all-clear.
This was not Ulvade, Texas, where there was hesitation from first responders and obfuscation from officials.
We had direction in the immediate aftermath of a lunatic with access to a gun violating the hallowed halls of our welcoming campus. He pulled back those heavy beige oak doors facing Grand River Avenue to enter the back of Berkey Hall. The doors are recognizable to any of us who took history and sociology classes in the building central to the campus since 1945.
This kid from small-town America learned in a Berkey classroom how to research history from distinguished campus professor, Madison Kuhn. That class is still serving me well with my books and website.
One day our journalism professor sent us out during class to write about something we observed on campus. I stood by the heavy oak rear door and wrote how it never had a chance to rest. Just as it was about to close another student pushed it open from the inside or pulled it back open from the outside. The professor loved the animated description — giving me a 4.0 and praise in front of the class. He said he sat up in his bed as he graded the papers at night.
Berkey Hall was a place to grow.
The shooter used those same dedicated doors to enter and wreak chaos on the innocent and then exit Berkey. He continued his insanity at the MSU Union, an inviting student gathering spot since it opened in 1925. He sent terror, fueled by rumors of multiple shooters, throughout the scenic campus on the Banks of the Red Cedar.
Izzo’s voice helped heal us.
Sometimes we hear his lively voice praising his players. Other times he bellows loudly at those same athletes. But best of all is when his voice joins ours collectively to celebrate victories, Big Ten championships, Final Four trips and a 2000 national championship. And Senior Night.
But there’s more.
At other schools, some coaches keep their distance over jealousy and petty squabbles. At Michigan State, Izzo welcomes football coaches into the family. The basketball coach with a football mentality has been trusted to participate in the hiring process.
He has been supportive when the new head football coach was a natural fit as a former assistant on campus — Mark Dantonio and Mel Tucker – as well as when John L. Smith was an awkward piece to the puzzle. He was brought in from outside the Michigan State football family without understanding its history.
As Izzo spoke Wednesday night at the MSU Auditorium, he was across campus from his normal position on the sidelines of the Breslin Center if the world hadn’t been turned upside down. The Minnesota-Michigan State basketball game was scheduled for Wednesday night until sports events were postponed or canceled along with classes and other campus activities.
Izzo reminded us that it’s just a game when he said Saturday’s return to competition at Michigan in Ann Arbor is about honoring the victims. He put aside the acrimony that exists in a heated rivalry.
Before Izzo was a Michigan State icon, there was a time when Heathcote had to take a strong stance to see that Izzo was his successor. There was a time in Izzo’s first three seasons when he feared he’d be fired. With success, NBA owners tried to lure him away. Five years ago, ESPN conflated the Larry Nassar scandal with his basketball program.
But through it all Izzo demonstrates we can still love Michigan State, even when things out of our control go wrong.
The pain from February 13, 2023, will remain, but we were able to start down the road of moving on with life. A familiar voice reassured us while speaking from our shared front porch.
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RAYE OF LIGHT
Jimmy Raye, Duffy Daugherty, the 1ntegration of College Football and the 1965-66 Michigan State Spartans
Foreword by Tony Dungy