Chalk up another great year for the Michigan State men’s basketball team and coach Tom Izzo. The Spartans were co-champions of the Big10 and won the conference’s grueling tournament. And in the NCAA’s March Madness, they made it all the way to the Final Four, knocking out the top-seeded team in the process.
Being a fan of this team got me thinking: Coach and I have a lot in common. We’ve both been doing our jobs, mostly at MSU, for a long time. Coach Izzo came here as a part-time assistant in 1983, becoming head coach in 1995. I was on the faculty at UC-Irvine starting in 1985, before moving here in 1991.
But the real similarities are deeper and more important:
First and foremost, we’ve both been fortunate to be surrounded by talented and hard-working students who listen to our ideas, experiment with them, develop them in their own ways, and translate them into meaningful outcomes—winning big games and making new discoveries.
That’s not to say there aren’t frustrations along the way: games lost, grants and papers rejected, grinding practice on the court and repetition in the lab, and even occasional conflicts. But our students are usually resilient—they overcome those setbacks and frustrations, and they go on to productive lives as players and coaches, researchers and teachers, and other careers as well.
We also both had mentors who helped us start our own careers. In Coach Izzo’s case, one mentor was Jud Heathcote, the previous head coach who hired him as an assistant. My mentors included my doctoral advisor, Nelson Hairston, and my postdoctoral supervisor, Bruce Levin. Coach Izzo and I also had friends who helped shape our careers early on: Steve Mariucci, who went on to become an NFL coach; and Phil Service, who did important work on life-history evolution.
Coach Izzo and I also both benefitted, I think, from early successes—again, largely due to our students—that helped establish our reputations, allowing us to retain our jobs and thrive by recruiting more talented, hard-working students. For Tom Izzo, it was players like Mateen Cleaves, Charlie Bell, and Mo Peterson who took the Spartans to the Sweet 16 in his 3rd year as head coach and to the Final Four the next year, and who won the 1999-2000 National Championship. For me, the early students included Judy Bouma, Felisa Smith, John Mittler, Mike Travisano, Paul Turner, and Farida Vasi, and postdocs Toai Nguyen and Valeria Souza.
Coach Izzo has also had assistant coaches and staff, who I imagine do a lot of the heavy lifting. While some might eventually become head coaches of their own teams, many others labor in relative obscurity. In a similar vein, I’ve had outstanding lab managers including Sue Simpson, Lynette Ekunwe, and—for over 20 years, before retiring last year—Neerja Hajela.
Coach Izzo and I have both had deep benches—students who helped the team succeed without being in the limelight themselves. For Coach Izzo, they include the walk-ons and others who see limited action in games, but who compete against the starters every day in practice, helping everyone become even better. I think of three undergraduates who joined my lab when it was just getting started in Irvine (all Vietnamese refugees, by the way) who asked if they could work in my lab. Trinh Nguyen, Quang Phan, and Loan Duong prepared media and performed experiments like some incredible three-brained, six-handed machine, setting a high standard for everyone who followed in their footsteps.
Coach Izzo and I are nearly the same age. Retirement might be easier, but neither of us is ready for that. It’s too much fun when you’ve got talent to encourage and guide like Cassius Winston, Joshua Langford, Nick Ward, Xavier Tillman, and Aaron Henry—and on my team Jay Bundy, Kyle Card, Nkrumah Grant, Minako Izutsu, and Devin Lake.
Of course, there’s more that Coach Izzo and I have in common—we were lucky to be born into circumstances that allowed us to pursue our dreams without the obstacles that many others face.
Last but not least, Coach Izzo and I have had supportive partners who’ve accepted our peculiar obsessions and the long hours and frequent travel that our work entails.