Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo was mad at Aaron Henry. It was the opening round of the NCAA Tournament, and No. 15 seed Bradley was giving the No. 2 Spartans all they could handle. When Izzo called a timeout, a CBS overhead camera captured the coach storming to mid-court to let Henry have it. Replays showed a red-faced Izzo yelling at the 19-year-old freshman and pointing in his face while assistants and players tried to calm him down.
After the game, which Michigan State won 76-65, reporters wanted to talk to Izzo about his anger. The first Henry-related question came from the New York Times’ Pat Borzi, who asked Izzo what the freshman did to make him so upset. “If you think there was one thing that would make me that angry then you don’t know me that well,” Izzo said.
Izzo rides his players. He’s done it throughout his career, and current and former Spartans swear by his methods. After the Bradley game, as criticism mounted against Izzo for his treatment of Henry, a veritable all-century team of Michigan State stars tweeted support for the coach. “Stop being soft,” wrote Charlotte Hornets forward Miles Bridges. Denver Nuggets guard Gary Harris asked, “So coaches cant yell at players now?”
Izzo shares that logic, and, given all his success at Michigan State, any argument made against it will inevitably be met with the counter-evidence of seven Final Fours and the 2000 national title. “I did get after him,” Izzo said of Henry. “And he did respond. And he did make a couple big buckets. And he did make some big free throws.”
The next question, from a SpartanMag.com reporter, was about whether a late-game call to get the ball to Henry was a way of “challenging him.” After a brief answer about the play itself, Izzo turned his attention to the reporters.
“I get a kick out of you guys get[ing] after somebody because you’re trying to hold them accountable,” Izzo said. “I don’t know what kind of business you’re in, but I tell you what, if I was a head of a newspaper, and you didn’t do your job, you’d be held accountable. That’s the way it is.”
Business probably isn’t the word the NCAA would have chosen for Izzo to reach for there, especially considering the tidy framing of the NCAA logo next to his head. Still, it’s not the least bit surprising that Izzo went there. The NCAA Tournament’s “student-athletes” are treated the same as professional basketball players in every regard besides compensation. You don’t need a coach making $4,359,979 a year to tell you that.
What Izzo’s response does reveal is the narrow approach towards “accountability” in college sports and who gets to be held to those standards. Izzo seems to believe in some sort of accountability double-jeopardy, wherein it’s ridiculous for reporters to hold a 64-year-old man accountable for screaming at a 19-year-old because, well, that’s just how he holds his players accountable.
Izzo, for his part, doesn’t work in an environment in which a superior can hold him accountable for anything. Those seven Final Fours have made his position at Michigan State sacrosanct, and the school’s shuffling of university presidents and athletic directors in the wake of the Larry Nassar sexual abuse scandal has served only to enhance his isolation. Who, at this school and at this point in Izzo’s career, is going to tell him if he’s gone too far?
Izzo may get annoyed at having to answer for his “tough love” approach to those who don’t watch him work on a daily basis. But in yelling at one of his charges in front of a national audience, he’s also putting the onus on his players to answer for his actions.
“It’s OK. He’s gonna yell,” Henry told the Detroit News after the Bradley game, defending the coach who read him the riot act. “You gotta accept it and listen to what he’s saying and apply it to the game. … It’s nothing new.”