Mark Story: Izzo is the opposing coach that UK fans love to not hate

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistNovember 11, 2013 

From slapping the back of Joe B. Hall's head to impugning John Calipari's commitment to fair competition, Bob Knight has long owned a spot atop the scroll of Big Blue villains.

More than two decades after the act, elements of the Big Blue Nation still boil over Christian Laettner's foot and its interaction with Aminu Timberlake's chest.

One devout Cats fan I know still froths at the mere mention of Dean Smith and whatever he did or didn't say to Rick Robey on the court during North Carolina's victory over UK in the 1977 NCAA Tournament.

In the realm of Kentucky Wildcats basketball fandom, grudges seem eternal.

By all rights, UK backers should have a heaping helping of loathing for Michigan State Coach Tom Izzo.

Going into Tuesday night's showdown between the No. 1-ranked Wildcats and Izzo's second-rated Spartans, the longtime MSU head man holds a 4-2 career mark against Kentucky. Not once but twice, Izzo and Michigan State eliminated UK in the NCAA tourney one victory short of the Final Four.

In 1999, State ended the modern golden era of Kentucky basketball by denying UK a fourth consecutive trip to the national semifinals with a 73-66 victory over the Wildcats in the NCAA Midwest Region finals.

Six years later, Izzo and MSU inflicted an agonizing defeat on Tubby Smith's Wildcats, again denying UK one step short of the Final Four with a 94-88 double-overtime victory.

"He's beaten us twice in the tournament when it really hurt," said former UK star Kenny Walker. "We really should hate him."

Except, as best as I can tell, no one in Kentucky hates Tom Izzo.

I asked Hall, the former Kentucky coach turned syndicated radio sports talk show host, if he'd ever had even one call on his show that began with a fan saying "I just can't stand that Tom Izzo ..."

"No, no, not at all," Hall said. "He doesn't rub (Kentucky fans) the wrong way."

Given that almost every other college basketball coach/star player who has ever had a direct hand in pinning painful defeats on UK does rub (some) Kentucky fans the wrong way, what makes Izzo different?

"There's a likability factor with Izzo that is not there with the other quote-unquote 'Kentucky basketball villains,'" said Brooks Downing, a former UK men's basketball publicist who now runs a Lexington-based sports marketing concern.

Walker says Izzo "seems like an old-school coach, a blue-collar type of guy. I think people (in Kentucky) relate to that."

Even as he's beaten UK with some frequency, Izzo has always been publicly respectful of Kentucky's historic status in the college basketball hierarchy.

Before the 1999 NCAA meeting between UK and MSU, Izzo was asked about his team, a No. 1 seed riding a 21-game winning streak, being a two-point underdog to No. 3 seed UK.

"Kentucky's got that (respect) because they've earned it and deserved it," he said.

During the 2005 NCAAs, told that many neutral college hoops fans were rooting for Duke to beat Michigan State and UK to best Utah to set up a Cats-Blue Devils region final, Izzo said he understood. "Both those schools have earned that," he said.

As Izzo has amassed a coaching résumé that includes six Final Four trips, Hall says the MSU coach has worn his success in such a way that it does not aggravate foes, even beaten ones. "With all he's accomplished, he doesn't lord it over his opponents," Hall said.

Downing believes another reason Kentucky backers seem favorably disposed toward Izzo is the fact the Michigan State head man's name has been at least mentioned with the UK job during the past two Kentucky head coaching searches. "I think the fans have seen him at times as a coach that could be here," Downing said.

A final component that likely helps keep Izzo from grating on Big Blue nerves in the way, say, Bruce Pearl used to is that Kentucky and Michigan State are not long-time rivals with a history of playing every year. The two teams did play five straight seasons from 2000-01 through 2004-05, but going into this year's meeting in the Champions Classic, UK and MSU have not faced each other since the 2005 NCAA tourney.

"You don't have that 'Man, this guy gets on my nerves every December' factor," Downing said.

Whatever the ultimate explanation, this much seems clear: Among all coaches who have had significant success against Kentucky, "Teflon Tom" Izzo is the one against whom UK backers seem to bear remarkably little grudge.

Mark Story: (859) 231-3230.Email: mstory@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @markcstory. Blog: markstory.bloginky.com.

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