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Tom Izzo, Tom Crean, and Michigan State.


This has been a very strange week.  Part of following sports, especially in the Internet age, is learning that a very low percentage of wacky rumors ever turn true.  Since the day after Penn State agreed to in 1989 join the Big Ten, speculation has abounded about the Big Ten’s twelfth member.  If reports are accurate, rumor will become reality today.  Similarly, for as long as Michigan State coach Tom Izzo has been leading the Spartans on deep NCAA Tournament runs, he has been the subject of offseason speculation about various NBA jobs.  Before this year, nothing suggested that those rumors were of any substance.  This year, however, there may be legs to the rumor that Tom Izzo will become the next coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers.  KJ at The Only Colors still believes that Izzo is likely to return to MSU, but Izzo has admitted to his players that he is considering becoming the Cavs’ coach.  Of course, not content to wait to see if the MSU job will become available, many sources already are compiling lists of potential candidates.  ESPN's Eamonn Brennan, formerly of Inside the Hall, talks about it a little bit.  Unsurprisingly, Tom Crean, Michigan native and former Izzo assistant, is an obvious "conventional wisdom" choice for these lists.  The Detroit News lists Crean as one of two "favorites" for the job (Dayton’s Brian Gregory, another former Izzo assistant, is the other).  Of course, that leads to two questions: would Crean take the job, and would MSU target him? 

On the first question, Indianapolis blogger Kent Sterling, formerly of 1070 The Fan, seems to think it is nearly a no-brainer:

 It would be ridiculous to think that Crean wouldn’t crawl backward over broken glass up the Ruel W. Steele Memorial Highway to I-465 around the eastside of Indianapolis to I-69 up to East Lansing to take the job.  Michigan State is loaded like Lindsay Lohan on a week long Amsterdam bender, and Indiana is a long way from the nearest bar.

Michigan State, of course, is an excellent job, and if Izzo does leave, the Spartans’ returning roster will provide a new coach with a decent opportunity to advance to the Final Four and perhaps win a title in his first year.  On the other hand, it will be very difficult, perhaps impossible, for Izzo’s successor to approach Izzo’s level of success.  As this TOC post notes, when Izzo took over the Spartan program in 1995, MSU’s resume included 11 NCAA Tournament appearances, two Final Four appearances, and a single NCAA title (a title that MSU won in large part because one of the best players in the history of basketball happened to grow up in Lansing).  In 1995, Michigan State was a football school with an above average but not elite basketball tradition.  Today, after Tom Izzo’s incredible run of 13 NCAA appearances, 6 Final Fours, and another NCAA title, Michigan State is credibly mentioned as a top 10 historical power.  It will be a very good job for whomever lands it.  Still, it’s not a no-brainer, in my mind, that Tom Crean would leave another program with a top 10 tradition. My quick thoughts:

Why he might go:
  • Championship-caliber roster (no rebuild required);
  • Ties to Michigan State and to the state of Michigan;
  • Possible personal appeal by Izzo.
Why he might not:
  • IU's strong tradition;
  • Comfort level in Bloomington/disinterest in moving his family again;
  • Long-term job security may actually be better at IU;
  • Pride (not willing to leave IU with a .256 winning percentage).
To elaborate on a couple of my latter points, I think that Izzo's successor will have a tough time living up to Izzo's standards.  Michigan State had never experienced anything like its run of the last 12 seasons before Izzo, and probability suggests that the won't experience it with Izzo's successor.  The cliche about following the guy who follows the legend, instead of following the legend himself, has some truth to it.  It's fairly unusual to change jobs within a conference, and I do not ever recall it happening in Big Ten basketball (I know Alex Agase, a football coach, moved from Northwestern to Purdue in the early 1970s--anyone recall any others?  Gary Moeller once was the coach at Illinois, but he was fired years before succeeding Bo Schemechler at Michigan.  Also, John Pont moved from IU to Northwestern to succeed Agase, but I believe Pont was fired by IU). 

As to the last point, I would never suggest that Crean owes it to IU to stick around if he would rather be somewhere else.  IU gave him a good opportunity, but Crean walked away from a good situation at Marquette, and probably did not fully realize what he was walking into in Bloomington.  I’m sure Crean doesn’t want to spend the rest of his career being heckled by IU fans for bailing.  I’m not sure that would be enough to keep him away from Michigan State, but it must be a factor.  If he leaves now, he will go down in history as the least successful coach in the history of a storied program. I tend to think that even if Izzo leaves, Crean will stick, but in the last three years or so, all IU-related optimism has been unfounded. 

Finally, I suppose it's necessary to consider whether Crean's initial struggles at IU would have turned MSU off.  That's impossible to answer, I guess, but if some IU fans (not me) are grumbling about Crean's progress, then some outside the program may be less than sold as well. 

This is, of course, very premature speculation, and I have no answers or firm opinions.  Still, if Izzo goes to Cleveland, this interesting offseason could become very dramatic for IU.