SPOKANE, Wash.—More than two decades ago, then-Duke assistant coach Tommy Amaker and then-Michigan State assistant coach Tom Izzo ran into each other in the hallway of their hotel. And in a rickety, old high school gym. And in various other interchangeable places on the road—the restaurants, gyms, and highways that are familiar to those involved in the recruiting scene.
The two young coaches were coming from different backgrounds and different universities but were both going after the same high school player: Chris Webber.
Webber was in the midst of a celebrated career at Detroit Country Day School, during which time he guided his team to three state titles. By his fourth year, he was averaging almost 30 points per contest. The forward was highly sought-after, and was just the type of player that major programs like Duke and Michigan State aimed to seduce.
Enter Amaker and Izzo, who, according to Izzo, “spen[t] an enormous [amount of] time on the road together,” traveling down to Florida to watch Webber compete in AAU Tournaments.
“You end up getting to know each other [while recruiting],” said now-Harvard coach Amaker at Friday’s NCAA Tournament media availability. “You don’t get a better guy [than Izzo]…. [Those trips] started our friendship and relationship, and it’s never wavered.”
Flash forward about a decade, and the two were still going head-to-head from the sidelines of the hardwood. But instead of competing for high school players at AAU gyms, Amaker and Izzo were now the head coaches of the University of Michigan and Michigan State, respectively—two schools considered rivals in just about every athletic category.
While Amaker and Izzo had been on the same page when recruiting Webber, their two programs were on anything but equal levels. Izzo and his Spartans had just taken home the 2000 national championship, while Amaker inherited a Wolverines team that was facing the repercussions of several NCAA violations—some of which, incidentally, were incurred during Webber’s career at Michigan, his eventual collegiate home.
“He came in at a tough time,” Izzo said on Friday. “He gets the job and…all those sanctions come out. And he was behind the eight ball before he even got started. Michigan’s a good school, and I think under normal circumstances, he could have had a lot of success.”