Round of 32 Matchup Rekindles Rivalry, Friendship

Robert F Worley

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 violationssome 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.”

Amaker remained at Michigan for six seasons, during which time he amassed a .567 winning percentage, notching the 2004 National Invitation Tournament title and losing in the finals of that same tournament in 2006. His efforts were not enough, however, and he was let go after the 2006-07 season.

“Amaker had to weather some things that, when you look at schools that have been under serious probation, the next coach in there, that’s a tough, tough job,” Izzo said. “But I think he was respected by people…. I [was] his number one nemesis at the time, [his] rival, and I always had great respect and admiration for the guy.”

A little less than 12 years and two months after the two “nemeses” first competed against one another as head coaches, Amaker and Izzo will once again face off. This time, it’ll be in Spokane, Wash., as their two teams vie for a bid to the NCAA Tournament’s Sweet Sixteen.

And just 30 hours before the coaches match up once more, Amaker took a moment out of his press conference to remember how it was this “rival” that offered him support upon his dismissal from Michigan. Izzo, Amaker said, was the first opposing coach outside of his “immediate family” to phone him after news of the firing broke.

“We go back a long way,” Amaker said. “He’s a terrific basketball coach, [and] he’s even a better person…. Tom has been a true friend through the years, and I’ve respected him…. I think he’s an ambassador for the institution, for the state of Michigan, and certainly for the game of basketball.”

After Amaker left the podium on Friday, it was Izzo’s turn to take the microphone. While Amaker reflected on their common history, Izzo turned to the present—to Amaker’s current seven-year tenure with the Crimson.

“Knowing Tommy like I do…Harvard’s been just kind of a great situation for him,” Izzo said. “Where he’s taken that place is unbelievable to me. They’re a good, solid basketball team. Tommy is a good, solid human being and a great coach. So, consequently, nothing surprises me about [the Crimson’s success]. I think Harvard is lucky to have him.”

In less than twenty-four hours, the former rivals will once more share a common gym. While they may no longer be watching an AAU Tournament, and while they are certainly no longer in Michigan, their joint journey to and in the big leagues of college basketball has not been forgotten.

“I think the world of him and I just—I wish we wouldn’t have to have this game,” Amaker said. “But certainly it’s here, and I do think that [Izzo] is as good as they come.”

—Staff writer Juliet Spies-Gans can be reached at