Q+A: Tom Izzo

by Kyle Stack / @KyleStack

Tom Izzo is comfortable in his own skin, which is something that six Final Four appearances and a National Championship can bring. In his 17th year as head coach of Michigan State’s men’s basketball team, Izzo has established a standard of success that hasn’t been met by many other college basketball programs.

The list of accomplishments seems never-ending: Six Big Ten titles, two Big Ten tournament championships and all those Final Fours. Recognition of the role he plays in college basketball made him an ideal spokesman for Dove Men+Care’s ‘Journey to Comfort’ campaign, which continues with brand new commercials starting March 8.

Izzo, Shaquille O’Neal and Steve Nash filmed commercials with Dove to continue a campaign that’s seen Magic Johnson, John Thompson III, Kirk Herbstreit and other sports personalities discuss how they sweat and why they’re comfortable in their skin.

I spoke with Izzo by phone in mid-December about the campaign. In the midst of the Big Ten tournament after a season in which Michigan State went 24-7, and 13-5 in conference, Izzo’s team has its eyes on reaching the Final Four for the third time in four seasons.

Here is what Izzo had to say about what he likes about Dove’s campaign, how much he sweats and his strategy for keeping his team focused early in the college basketball season.

SLAM: What is it about Dove and their ad campaign that appealed to you?

Tom Izzo: You know, I’ll be honest with you. I’m not opposed to doing some [endorsements], but I don’t really do a lot of them. I was watching some of the commercials and sitting there with my wife, I saw John Thompson III and [Kirk] Herbstreit, and I know both guys pretty well. I’m sitting there…Dove Men+Care is about being comfortable in your own skin. I’m thinking about that, ‘It’s not me.’

I watched the commercial, and then I saw Magic’s. Of course, being a Michigan State guy and it all seemed so natural that when they approached me—I’ll be honest with you—I said ‘yes’ right away. I just thought it would be a cool thing to do. Then I started using the product. I liked the product! It was like a win-win-win for me.

SLAM: What does that mean to you, to be comfortable in your own skin?

TI: You know, like I’m doing the commercial today and the statement is Journey to Comfort. My journey has been a long road. I started as a GA (graduate assistant) and kind of worked my way up. As we go through all the things I reiterated, I sat there and said my story kind of fits the commercial. At the same time, the product, to me, I truly liked it. I know I’m doing an interview and I know I’m doing this and that but I get across that I enjoy the product.

My 11-year-old son, he’s using the deodorant and he gives me a ‘Hey Dad, I like this.’ I’m laughing and I’m saying, ‘You should be in the commercial.’

SLAM: Is he in the commercial?

TI: Ah, he’s not so far. I’m not sure if he will be when it goes on later on today. He’s at school now and going to be coming home. Sometimes they have kids, so that’s another neat thing about this whole process. It’s not a very staged one. You kind of sit down and talk; they don’t throw a lot of stuff at you that you have to say. Which I’m more of an off-the-cuff guy. If I go and speak, I don’t write up 10-page speeches. I write notes down and just go off the cuff. That’s kind of the way this has been. It’s been really interesting, to be honest with you.

SLAM: Well, you have to tell stories in the commercials. How many stories do you have in your head to choose from?

TI: You know, that’s the funny part. When they called me about it, I’m thinking what are some big things that have happened in my life. Like they always do when they first talk about you, you say, ‘Oh my God, I can’t think of five or six different things that have happened to me.’ And then you start talking as you’re down there, and it wasn’t set up the way I thought it would be. It wasn’t this big, structured deal. Pretty soon, you’re coming up with six, eight things as you talk about how you started as a coach.

My first game was against Chaminade, if you can believe that. We barely beat them. [laughs] [ex-Michigan State head coach] Jud Heathcotte on the background, you know. My second game was against UNC, against Dean Smith. And Vince Carter was on that team and they were really good; we weren’t very good. But before the game, [ESPN analyst] Bill Raftery calls me over and he says, ‘I have something to show you on TV back in the studio’ and so I thought I didn’t want to see it. [laughs] So, I go over there and it says ‘Dean Smith 831 wins’ and ‘Tom Izzo 1 [win]’ [laughs]. And that was part of the journey to comfort that I wasn’t very comfortable, to be honest with you. Twenty minutes later, we were down 20 and we lost that game.

The next game was against Steve Nash and Santa Clara and we lost that one. So, I left Maui (for the Maui Invitational) 1-2. But I learned a lot and I kind of grew. That was one of the more memorable things as I started off. Not only did I have to face a national TV audience, but I had Jud Heathcote and Magic Johnson right behind my bench. I’m sweating my tail off to beat Chaminade by two [points] and then I’m getting Dean Smith. It was one of the interesting stories we talked about.