SPOKANE, Wash. — Tom Izzo’s team piled onto the bus on Jan. 18 in frigid Champaign, Ill., and as it pulled away from State Farm Center after a 78-62 win over Illinois, he pulled out his phone.
Izzo wanted to talk to Jud Heathcote. Heathcote wanted to talk to Denzel Valentine.
So Izzo passed the phone to Valentine, allowing his mentor and Michigan State predecessor — a guy who played the game in the 1940s for Colorado College and Washington State — a chance to give his sophomore guard some pointers. That’s the gentle way to describe Heathcote’s teaching style.
“He gave me some advice about my game — and he gave me some crap,” said Valentine, a knowing smile crossing his face, countless Jud stories from his father’s playing days at MSU stored in his memory.
“I just said, ‘It’s time to give up the Harry High School stuff and realize you’re in a college environment,’ ” Heathcote recalled Monday of their conversation, which came after a 15-point, 11-rebound, four-assist night for Valentine. “ ‘Once you do that, you’ll be a great player.’ ”
In fact, Heathcote told Valentine this MSU team would be his in the future if he kept progressing as a player and leader. Anyone inside the MSU program would say the same. But then, it’s still tightly connected to Heathcote in so many ways.
“His handprints, fingerprints and footprints are all over it,” said Carlton Valentine, Denzel’s father and an MSU forward under Heathcote in 1985-88.
The 86-year-old retired coach, who won MSU’s first national championship with Magic Johnson and Greg Kelser in 1979 and fought to make sure Izzo replaced him in 1995, will be in Spokane Arena on Thursday to watch East Region No. 4 seed MSU (26-8) take on No. 13 seed Delaware (25-9) to open the NCAA tournament.
He’ll have to get to his seat with the help of a cane and perhaps his wife, Beverly — “I’ve got a 10-cent body and a million-dollar mind,” he joked — but Heathcote said he’s thrilled to get the chance to watch MSU live, in the town he has called home since retiring. He used to jet to every NCAA site to support Izzo’s teams, but the plan this year is to travel only to Arlington, Texas, for the Final Four if the Spartans make it.
Heathcote likes those chances a lot more after watching MSU storm to the Big Ten tournament title with wins over Michigan and Wisconsin. Or at least he did until he realized ESPN’s Digger Phelps is one of countless analysts picking the Spartans to win it all.
“So there’s no chance,” Heathcote joked of a friend and former Notre Dame coach he beat en route to the 1979 title. “Digger doesn’t know what he’s talking about.”
The Heathcote wit is as sharp as ever, the jokes as biting. He adds levity to any situation, as he no doubt did Tuesday after watching the Spartans practice at Gonzaga’s McCarthey Center. What people may not realize is how much he still adds to MSU’s brand of basketball, and how much of it can be traced to his era.
Anyone who used to watch his teams may have had flashbacks over the weekend as MSU’s fast break got rolling. A few of them ended with spot-up three-pointers in the corners, Keith Appling zipping the ball to Valentine or Gary Harris. Think Eric Snow to Shawn Respert.
“It’s the same fast break,” said MSU associate head coach Dwayne Stephens, who played for Heathcote at MSU in 1989-93. “Pretty much exactly how we ran it when I played for Jud.”
There are still plenty of Heathcote-devised sets in the encyclopedia known as MSU’s playbook — and not just the groan-inducing “weave” — and his basic philosophy of turning good defense into transition offense occupies a prominent spot on Izzo’s priority list.
Izzo added rebounding as a staple — out of necessity because his first couple teams couldn’t shoot, he said — and he added more great players, more consistent Big Ten and NCAA success, and more emphasis on cutting-edge scouting techniques that pay off especially well during this time of year. He ditched the zone defenses Heathcote liked to employ as change-ups, though Heathcote still pleads regularly with the current staff to reconsider.
Izzo’s recruiting prowess and penchant for dissecting opponents through video were two keys to MSU’s resurgence in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and two of the reasons Heathcote chose him as a successor. But Izzo’s basic basketball beliefs and coaching style are very familiar to anyone who witnessed the Heathcote era.
“I see Jud’s influence on (Izzo) all the time,” Carlton Valentine said. “He’s sort of a smoother, cleaner-cut version of Jud. He says some of the same stuff. Like they both say ‘cut-out’ instead of ‘box-out.’ He’s intense like him. He’s heavily influenced by Jud, whether he wants to admit it or not — and I’m sure he would.”
And Heathcote would point to the late Marv Harshman as the inspiration for many of his offensive beliefs. Nearly 20 years after playing the role of sixth man small forward for Washington State, Heathcote joined Harshman’s staff with the Cougars in 1964-71. It was a staff of two, and Heathcote said Harshman considered them “co-coaches.”
Heathcote was the defensive coordinator. He had a feel for devising ways to stop people, for which he’d later earn much acclaim after MSU’s matchup zone flustered Larry Bird and Indiana State in the 1979 title game.
Harshman had the offensive sets, and the belief in getting the best players as many shots as possible. From Johnson and Kelser to Jay and Sam Vincent, to Scott Skiles and Steve Smith and Respert, Heathcote carried that forward.
Now he watches every MSU game on TV and he calls often. Early in the season, Heathcote told Stephens that MSU center Matt Costello’s free-throw form was way too flat. Costello added arc and is 28 for his last 35 after a 3-for-8 start.
“I don’t know how much I really influence what they do anymore,” Heathcote said. “Sometimes I watch and I can’t pick out much. But if there’s one thing, I believe you have to continue to teach as a coach to be successful. I don’t think there are a lot of teachers of the game in the game anymore. But Tom is one of them.”
And he teaches with the Heathcote edge. Carlton Valentine, who led Lansing Sexton to a pair of state titles, credits Heathcote for shaping him as a coach and laughs to think back at how tough he was on him as a player.
The ribbing never ends. After talking with Denzel Valentine, Heathcote said he mailed him a Sports Illustrated article that included his picture and wrote: “Your dad never made Sports Illustrated.”
“I really appreciated Denzel just talking to me,” Heathcote said. “He’s a nice kid and I’m a big fan of his. Frankly, I think he should have the ball in his hands more. He always makes something happen.”
“It’s not always good, but he makes it happen.”