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Leadership Lessons from the Basketball Court

By Bisk
Leadership Lessons from the Basketball Court

College athletics coaches live in an unforgiving world, where a few bad results lead to questions about strategy, management style and effectiveness.

This is especially true in basketball, where coaches are capable of garnering their own spotlight as they chew out officials, manage timeouts and instruct their players in ways that resemble a commander leading his troops into battle.

Tom Izzo is Michigan State’s commander-in-chief. Known for remarkable consistency, Izzo is set to lead the Spartans to their 19th consecutive NCAA Tournament since taking over as head basketball coach in 1995. Among his achievements:

  • Seven Big Ten Championships
  • Seven Final Four appearances
  • Two appearances in the National Championship game, winning the title in 2000

Izzo is known for his ability to coach teams beyond the expectations set for them and his rather generous open-door policy. He turned down the opportunity to coach LeBron James and a title contending team in the NBA in 2010 when he announced, “I am here for life at Michigan State,” thereby garnering respect from his players and the athletic community. Here are some of the characteristics that embody Izzo’s leadership style, as described by former players, colleagues and friends.

Honesty and Authenticity

Izzo’s friend, colleague and former assistant Brian Gregory told ESPN in 2014 that one of Izzo’s greatest attributes is that he is “brutally honest.”

“He doesn't tell his players what they want to hear, but rather what they need to hear, even when they don't want to hear it,” Gregory said.

Despite his success, Izzo remains grounded. Hailing from a small Michigan town, he has maintained a reputation for being real and accessible. He is one of the most recognizable faces on campus and he embraces it, yet never lets his celebrity distract him from being involved at every level in the pursuit of perfection for MSU, be it a social issue on campus or a beef between players in his locker room.

Even though a recent visit to the Boys and Girls Club of Flint with the team garnered headlines, Izzo told it wasn’t meant for the publicity as much as it was to find a way to help address the city’s water crisis. The Spartans basketball team spent the day after a road game helping kids with a water bottle recycling project after Flint received millions of donated plastic water bottles. Izzo’s connection to Flint goes beyond a desire to help the community. Several players on the 2000 national championship team – nicknamed the “Flintstones” – grew up in the area. The coach said he plans to spend time in Flint after the end of basketball season to help devise a way to address the water crisis. 

Developing Talent

Michigan State does not always land the top recruit in the country, yet under Izzo’s guidance, 16 players have gone onto play in the NBA, with eight being selected in the first round of the NBA Draft. Two former Spartans, Shannon Brown and Draymond Green, play roles in championship teams.

Many of Izzo’s players stay for the full four years, a rare occurrence in basketball these days. The reason stems from a way of thinking about development at MSU that recognizes the difference between playing in the NBA and having a career in the NBA. It takes time to truly learn the game and develop into a player who can be effective at the next level. Golden State Warrior Green knows this as well as anyone having played under Izzo from 2008 to 2012.

“Coach Izzo will give you the opportunity to take film home and then sometimes he'll bring you in his film session, just you and him and you realize it's like you aren't watching the same film at all,” Green told ESPN of learning from Izzo in 2014.

Another aspect of it is Izzo’s eye for talent. Izzo told the audience during the 2007 Greater Lansing Business + Sports Luncheon that he looks for “versatility. I don’t like a ‘guard’ or a ‘center’ or a ‘one sport guy.’ Most basketball coaches love one-sport guys. I hate one-sport guys. I like multidimensional people, (because) I think they have multidimensional skills.”

In general, his players possess a willingness to listen, learn and develop the type of multi-dimensional skills that make them stand out from other players.

Team Focus

One thing people around the Spartan basketball program always note is Izzo’s unshakable commitment to the team. His relationship with his players go beyond that of an ordinary coach to being a close friend and mentor. Despite the fact that Green is no longer a Michigan State player, he still calls the coach, knowing his open-door policy unlike any other coach out there.

“I called him at two in the morning a few days ago, and he answered,” Green said in the ESPN interview. “He doesn't need to do that anymore for me. I'm not one of his players anymore, but he will always do that. Past, present and future players, he's always there for them.''

But it isn’t just MSU’s players that marvel at Izzo’s focus on the team. Izzo has a reputation for helping his fellow coaches, even if that means sitting with the family of a women’s golf recruit and her parents for an hour, as Dave Pruder, MSU’s director of athletic equipment, told ESPN.

Izzo and other MSU athletics coaches also collaborate with faculty from the Eli Broad College of Business for the Building Winning Teams: A Quest for Excellence program that helps business professionals enhance their leadership ability and to build strong teams. That may seem like a strange use of a basketball coach’s time to some, but to Izzo, it’s about ensuring that Michigan State competes at the highest level. Whether that means giving a speech or helping the school identify and lure a new football coach, Izzo is ready to help. For him, history and culture are held up as something to take in pride in.

Izzo even looks at the families of student athletes as part of the team. His willingness to listen to athletes and their families, to absorb their values and find a way to serve as a mentor so that he and his coaching staff can essentially be like second parents to their athletes also plays a major role in getting the best out of his teams.

Pursuing Results

The things Izzo does besides winning on the basketball court set him apart as a leader, but at the end of the day, the record books will talk about his wins and losses.

Izzo is focused on perfection, according to MSU Athletic Director and close friend Mark Hollis. In an interview with ESPN, Hollis explained that Izzo “worries about everything. His mind is constantly maneuvering through what's wrong in the pursuit of perfection.''

The level of consistency achieved in MSU’s basketball program is done through two principles: preparation and accountability.

Looking at Michigan State’s basketball schedule, fans might notice the number of powerhouse opponents the Spartans face early in the season. That is deliberate, as Izzo aims to expose his team to tournament-style play from the beginning, while evaluating the way his group handles success, failure and adversity. By the time the tournament arrives, he has a tight-knit group playing at the highest level.

In terms of accountability, Izzo understands that while everyone’s goals are different, they have a role to play in the larger success of the program. Whether it’s an academic goal, getting drafted or winning a conference championship, each player is instructed to identify a goal at the beginning of the season and told that they will be held accountable for achieving it, sports agent Molly Fletcher wrote in her blog. By getting the players to buy in, Izzo has been able to polish players into well rounded professionals and teams into national champions.

Category: Strategic Leadership and Management