Like they have before the prior 27 games of their respective seasons, Michigan coach John Beilein and Michigan State coach Tom Izzo addressed a gaggle of reporters before facing off against each other as Michigan and Michigan State renew their rivalry Sunday afternoon in Ann Arbor. The differences were meager: Izzo spoke on Thursday after the Spartans practiced, standing in front of a green wall in the Spartans East Lansing practice facility, Beilein spoke Friday from his usual spot behind the podium inside the Crisler Center media room in Ann Arbor. What was remarkable was the similarity in how both coaches answered the same questions. It was almost like they were having a conversation with one another.
“It means a lot to so many people for bragging rights,” Beilein explained. “It is one game at a time but it could (be played) four times this year, and so you take it one day at a time and it is an important game. They are standing in the way of a conference championship. They are really good, I know it means an awful lot to fans and it means a lot to us.
Izzo echoed a similar sentiment about how much the rivalry means to fans, and the significance it took on for him having been at Michigan State for 36 seasons. “The rivalry has gone a lot of different ways over the years you know,” Izzo told reporters Thursday. “When you have been here as many years as I have you’ve been through the Skiles era, the Fab Five, some negative times for us, some negative times for them. Some winning streaks for each group, but I would say the last five, six seven years it is now where a rivalry is supposed to be and that is where both teams are really good. To think that we have had two top ten teams in this state, not only this conference for almost the entire year is something the fans should enjoy but still a rivalry, it is a respectful rivalry.
The words “respectful rivalry” may be surprising to the ears of some Wolverine and Spartan fans based on not only the history between these two teams on the basketball court but what unfolded before the football game between the two schools in 2018. Beilein and Izzo do have a relationship, but it is one more out of association as Big Ten coaches in the same state as opposed to a genuine friendship.
“I don’t think we have ever been to dinner or anything like that,” Beilein replied when asked about his relationship with Izzo. “We understand we are both really blessed to be coaching at these two universities, there is a lot of respect we do share.” Beilein went on to explain the similarities between the two coaches away from the court. “Our escapes are similar, our family, getting out on the lake in the summertime. There is no animosity at all but we don’t text often, we don’t call often.”
Izzo felt the same way and expressed himself in fewer words.
“I don’t know why everybody wants to make it a love affair, I have great respect for John and I am sure he does for me.”
That mutual respect shone through last summer when Beilein underwent his heart procedure and received well-wishes from many during his recovery, Izzo’s call was among the first.
“He was one of the first calls this year after I had my heart surgery, but I think we both understand the challenges of this life, and it’s a great life. There’s some connection there. At the same time, we are always trying to get back to our roots; he comes from a small town, I come from a small town, I think Iron Mountain might be bigger than Burt, New York. I think we come from similar beginnings.”
According to 2010 census data, the population of Burt, NY was 1,423 (Burt is a Hamlet inside the town of Newfane, NY), and the population of Iron Mountain was 7,624. Both men come from humble, small-town beginnings, and with how much both have called back to those roots during press conferences and other stories during their respective tenures, it is clear their hometowns shaped their upbringings. Now, residing just sixty-four miles (forty-nine as the crow flies) apart and playing each other twice per season, the shared respect they have for each other has only grown as both their teams have success on the court.
“Ya know what I think I am proudest about is both programs have done it the right way, and that might seem corny but it is very important to me,” Izzo said when asked about the pride he takes in the rivalry and how strong it has been for most of the last ten years. “I am sure it is very important to him, and we have a good mutual relationship that is built on respect and knowing that both teams are good and we think both coaches are good.”
Beilein followed up with praise for Michigan’s accomplishments as well as Michigan State’s.
“For both of these programs to be where they have been with a whole bunch of championships in the last decade, four Final Fours between the two of us. Who is doing that? What other state is doing that with two schools in the same state? Duke and North Carolina. That’s the only one you can compare, and maybe I am missing a state out there. It’s not happening, it really says a lot about what two great programs we have.”
Big Ten Basketball in the state of Michigan has rarely been stronger than it has been for most of this season. Both teams have stayed in the top 10 of the AP Top 25 poll since November 26th. Michigan and Michigan State will compete alongside Purdue for the regular season conference championship over the next two weeks, and the fact that the Wolverines and Spartans have gone a combined 109-21 (55-13 Big Ten) since the beginning of the 2017-18 season speaks to just how good both teams currently are and the great run that fans of both teams are witnessing.
With a Michigan win Sunday, Beilein will draw to 10-11 in his career against Izzo, if the Spartans are victorious, Izzo and his team will snap a three-game losing streak to Michigan. Regardless of the outcome, once the final buzzer sounds, both coaches will shake hands and reaffirm that mutual respect they have built for each other over the last twelve years.