As the Michigan State Spartans celebrated another trip to the Final Four, the whole Peachtree Hoops crew sat back in the luxurious Official HD Viewing Center and wondered how life would have been different for Spartan and Atlanta Hawk fans if head coach Tom Izzo had accepted the Hawks head coaching position in the summer of 2000.
The Hawks were coming off an awful season, the worst of Lenny Wilkens' tenure with the team and, sensing rebuilding on the horizon, parted ways with the veteran coach and began to pursue someone who they believed could help nurture a young team on the rebuild.
Hawks GM quickly set their sights on Izzo, who had just recently won a national championship over the Florida Gators. Izzo was offered a 5 year, 15 million dollar deal to take over the Hawks. Izzo didn't take too long before deciding to continue the good thing he had going in East Lansing. He turned Atlanta down citing, among other things, that he ultimately wasn't convinced he could succeed with a franchise in such disrepair.
The Hawks would stagger about through the tenure of coaches Lon Kruger and Terry Stotts before finally rising under Mike Woodson. Along the way there would be a troubled sale of the team, subsequent squabbles and financial concerns from the new owners of the club, and sluggish ticket sales. Only recently has the team emerged from lottery desolation to be relevant again.
Meanwhile, Izzo has enjoyed Mount Rushmore status at Michigan State, going to the national tourney every year---including the Final Four four more times since turning down the ATL. Oh, and he hasn't gone poor, either, pulling in and over around 2 million a year with MSU with bonuses and supplemental incomes included.
Think about what Atlanta and Michigan State might have been like had Izzo had taken the money and headed to Atlanta.
Look at the head coaches that played a significant role in college coaching before being lured to the greener pastures of the NBA since Izzo turned down Atlanta:
Leonard Hamilton (309 wins)
Lon Kruger, (430 wins)
Jim O'Brien, (286 wins)
Kevin O'Neill (171 wins)
Mike Montgomery (569 wins)
With the exception of O'Brien, now hanging on with his third team (Pacers) in ten years, everyone else was one team and done.
The most striking example is that of Montgomery, who had grown Stanford to the point of being a perennial presence in the tournament field and an occasional #1 program. Montgomery, in 2006, took the bait of a 4 year, 10 million dollar contract from the Golden State Warriors. After two seasons into that contract, Montgomery met the same early fate as Kruger and Hamilton, being terminated and being sent back to school.
When Montgomery left Stanford, there were pages of flowery farewells documenting his departure. At the end of his run in Oakland, there was so long and good luck---though we can't find much of the good luck.
We're not saying Izzo would have been a bust as so many (Pitino, Calipari) had been before---but in college you can be seen as an icon if you win a single championship. In the NBA, you can win multiple championships and still be unceremoniously pushed out.
Izzo in Atlanta would have seen Jason Terry, Dion Glover, and DerMarr Johnson as his youth to build around. How would he have been able to manage that youth in a mix with veterans like Dikembe Mutombo? In college, if you don't like what's going on at a position like point guard, you can go out and bring in 2 or 3 of the nation's best high school recruits to address the situation. In the NBA, if you don't like what you have at point guard---too bad---maybe you can bring in somebody someone else doesn't want in free agency or get lucky in the draft. It's a stark contrast that sinks many former college coaches pre-exisitng thoughts about success in the pros.
And what about Michigan State? Without Izzo, would they have had the run they have had over the past decade? They have to be happy to have their signature coach sticking around, enjoying the iconic status he enjoys, and being consistently relevant in the NCAA.
In the NBA, you must succeed every year or else risk getting flushed at the next slump. In college, you can enjoy years of stress-free check cashing by being tourney-ready year after year and staying on top of recruiting.
Izzo, unlike some who came after him, made a good choice---leaving behind the right kind of what-ifs.