Is it a Final Four without Duke? It is with Izzo

© Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

Art Spander

MINNEAPOLIS — It’s gray and gloomy, which is not unusual this time of year in Minnesota; perfect weather for walking through the enclosed passageways from one downtown building to another — gerbil tunnels, they’re called — or hosting an NCAA final that doesn’t seem like an NCAA final.

Oh, there are people roaming the streets, bundled up, of course, and it’s hard to find a restaurant reservation, if not as hard as in Indianapolis — do all these Midwest locales end with “polis,” the word for city-state?

It’s just that none of the usual suspects, Duke, Kentucky, Gonzaga, even Kansas, is involved. When the Final Four is held Saturday at U.S. Bank Stadium, the huge Viking-shaped glass-and-steel structure where some 13 months ago the Super Bowl was played, there will be a degree of unfamiliarity.

Yes, Michigan State is involved, and the Spartans have been there and won that. But they’re playing Texas Tech, hardly a perennial in the tournament, and the other semifinal is between Virginia and Auburn. OK, so Virginia has been No. 1 in the polls, and last year became the first No. 1 seed to lose to a 16th seed. But Auburn? That’s the school that always loses to Alabama in football.

You hear some saying they want new teams, which translates as “anybody but Duke.” Yet, take a look at the TV ratings when the Blue Devils are playing.

People who don’t know golf still know Tiger Woods. People who don’t know tennis still know Serena Williams. And people who don’t know college basketball know Duke. Besides, it would have been interesting to see how Zion Williamson played in what would have been his only Final Four.

The event has grown to the bursting point, held every year since 1996 in a football stadium. From the upper deck, the players are minuscule, but fans want the experience, and there’s always the big screen if they need to see who made that jumper.

Tom Izzo, the Michigan State coach, grew up as a boyhood friend of Steve Mariucci, who coached football at Cal and with the 49ers. They came from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, members of a group who have their own dialect and are known as “Yoopers.”

It was not surprising that each graduated from Northern Michigan University or, because of the geographical location, they were fans of the Green Bay Packers rather than the Detroit Lions.

Izzo was not so much a gym rat as a coaching wannabe, willing to work virtually for nothing in the hope something big would come along.

You see them at the tournament, walking around in warm-ups, eating at fast food places, trying to make an impression.

They share rooms. They share a dream. For Izzo, the dream came true.

"It's like even now,” Izzo said Friday, “like we might be the only profession where — everybody wants a vacation, right? You guys all want a vacation. Last week I said — my whole thing was, please let me work another day or two and then please let me work another week, you know.

“We are a little certifiably insane. That's why sometimes the game makes fools of us all.”

A third-team, Division II All-American in 1977, Izzo moved on to be the head coach at Ishpeming (Michigan) High School. Then it was an assistant job at Michigan State, a graduate assistant, then Tulsa, then back to Michigan State under Jud Heathcote.

“I did go through three interviews with Jud and finally begged him to keep me as a graduate assistant.” Izzo said. “That was interesting, you know. Mom was mad at me because I was 26 years old and didn't have a real job yet.”

When he got that real job, in 1990 as Heathcote’s associate coach, Izzo knew how to win. And then in 1996, Izzo was elevated to the head position he has possessed for more than a quarter century.

“The way things have gone,” Izzo agreed, “It's worked out well for me, for Jud, I think for Michigan State, and believe it or not, for my mom and my family too. Everybody's benefited. I think, if you're ready to sacrifice — it doesn't matter if it's your job or mine.

“Not many people are willing to do that as much anymore. So I'm happy I was part of that generation in that respect.”

He’s here — and Duke is not.