Iron Mountain, Michigan is a unique place. Rarely, does a small town like this produce two individuals who achieve such a high level of success in the such similar fields. And it’s even rarer that the two individuals maintain a close friendship for many decades. However, NFL Network’s Steve Mariucci and Michigan State Head Coach Tom Izzo, are certainly two unique, outstanding individuals. And during the 2010 NCAA Tournament, “Mooch” came to see his best friend when his star is shining brightest.
I caught up to Mariucci in the Spartans’ locker room following State’s win over Northern Iowa Friday night. I asked him about the message this game sent to everyone who doubted State’s chances without Kalin Lucas.
“It’s not easy. Kalin’s a really great player, and they’ve had some other injuries, Chris Allen had to suck it up,” Mariucci said. “But they’re gritty, they’re a tough team, and Tom likes to schedule tough games early in the season, to get them battle tested for this reason, and it usually pays dividends because they seem to peak at tournament time,” he continued.
He’s exactly right. Izzo has certainly become “Tournament Tom” over the course of his career, with 13 straight NCAA tournaments, nine Sweet Sixteens, seven Elite Eights, a 5-1 record in regional finals, 25-3 versus lower seeds, five Final Fours (including one for each player that he coached at Michigan St. for all four years) and a national title in 2000.
“It’s just fun to watch. Every year in my mind, I say maybe this is Tom’s best coaching job. And this coaching job is right up there because it’s been a tough year on a lot of different fronts, to try to hold it together and win enough games to win that Big Ten again- a very difficult conference,” Mariucci.
“I’m not as busy as he is. We just stay in touch, you stay in touch with your best friend, don’t you? You just do.”
The exchange made me realize how stupid my question was, even though it seemed to make perfect sense at the time. But I have no regrets.
Since being fired by the Detroit Lions in 2005, Mariucci, who now resides in Monte Sereno, California, has been rumored as a leading candidate for a series of college and NFL head coaching jobs; USC the most recent destination.
At the Saturday press conference, I asked Izzo what Steve said to him as he victoriously came off the court and about having his good buddy around for March madness.
“Well, he’s just so excited to be here. I think when you’re in pro ball for so long and you get the college atmosphere, he loves all the NCAA tournament games, and he flew in all day from Iron Mountain. He was up visiting his dad and on his way back. And he was just proud of all of us. I think he loves the atmosphere. You know, it’s kind of different than the NFL in a lot of ways and pro ball in general, I guess.
So he loves being around the locker room. He loves being in the film room. Last night he watched film with us until wee hours of the morning. He kept telling me to run the fly pattern. I don’t know what the hell he was talking about. But other than that he’s pretty good.”