Izzo Mindset: 6 Recruiting Lessons I've Learned From Coach Izzo

By: Alex Shattuck

Growing up just outside of East Lansing, Michigan I was always, and still am, a Michigan State fan. One sport in particular has made being a fan really easy, and that’s Tom Izzo’s men’s basketball team. Here are some stats for Coach Izzo:

  1. 22 straight NCAA tournament appearances 
  2. 6 Big 10 Tournament titles (the most in conference history)
  3. 8 Final Four appearances
  4. 10 Big 10 titles
  5. 1 National Championship
  6. 2nd all-time Big 10 wins  (trailing Bobby Knight as of December 2019)

I share these facts about Coach Izzo for those that aren’t familiar with who he is and what he has accomplished at Michigan State. When I examine the teams that I’m working to build, and how I recruit for them, I look back to Coach Izzo as an example.

Here are 6 lessons I’ve created that apply to business from watching and admiring Coach Izzo:

  1. Always recruit. Coach Izzo started the season this year with the #1 ranked team in the country. This does not mean Coach Tom will be complacent with his recruiting efforts. You can bet he and his staff are continuously nurturing relationships with top high school recruits throughout the country. 
  2. Recruit like you’re playing chess. The best chess players can think multiple moves ahead. Some of the best chess players have claimed to be able to see more than 15 moves ahead. Coach Izzo has done this with recruiting and so must we. Tom isn’t just thinking about who he has but who he will have next year and the next year and even beyond that! He always has a pulse on not just who will be graduating, but who may be leaving early for the NBA. He also knows if there’s anyone that isn’t bought in, making bad decisions, or a bad culture fit. This leads me to my next lesson. 
  1. Don’t sacrifice culture for talent. I remember years ago when I read that Coach Izzo released one of his better returning players. I was shocked and initially a little frustrated. I went on to find out that this young man had all of the talent needed but that was about it. He was a cancer and he needed to be removed. I’ve taken this approach in my businesses and every time I’ve removed a talented, but cancerous, employee we have done better. Team morale goes up, everyone steps up and typically we see overall productivity and production increase. I’ve never regretted removing a dark cloud from our culture and I doubt Tom has either. 
  2. Find the best 5 to put on the court. It isn’t rare for Tom to have a junior or senior lose his starting spot to an underclassman. This doesn’t happen in a way that hurts that relationship with the player because his players understand the culture and the desire to win. They share that same desire. Tom is loyal to his returning players but he will put the best 5 on the court. He plays to win. We should as well. 
  3. Prepare for tragedy. Some years, bad things happen to good people. We’ve seen this a handful of times in recent years with unexpected injuries and even tragedy off the court. When you temporarily or permanently lose someone critical to your team’s success you better have been recruiting BEFORE life happens. Hope for the best, prepare for the worst. Develop those coming off your bench. Recruit like your team’s All-American will be gone tomorrow. 
  4. Grab top talent whenever you can. Coach Izzo chases the best talent in the country. I’m assuming he will put a little more time into looking for some specific needs if he knows he’ll have a major void in specific positions, but I believe he isn’t turning away top talent when it becomes available. We shouldn’t either. 

We’ll never know how 2020 would have played out if it weren’t for the pandemic that ended the season prematurely. Did we miss a shot at another Final Four? Probably, but we’ll never know. One thing I do know is that, because of his approach to recruiting, Coach Izzo and Michigan State will get another chance.

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