Tom Izzo walks up to John Beilein, shakes his hand and exchanges a few pleasantries. Over the past 12 years, that scene has replicated itself dozens of times, but that wasn’t always the case. Sometime last decade, when it unfolded inside an AAU gym in West Virginia, there was an extra step involved — introductions.
The coaches knew of each other, but had never actually met. So Izzo, after spotting the Mountaineers’ coach across the gym, made his way over to Beilein and made his introductions.
“I just had (my son) out there at an AAU event,” Izzo told The Daily in November. “And John was there and he just sat with us and that’s where I learned he was just a regular guy.”
Now, neither coach can remember when exactly the meeting took place. Izzo says his son Steven, now 18, was around five at the time. Beilein recalls Izzo’s Michigan State going on to win some sort of championship that year, while his team had a “really good year.” The clues point to the meeting happening in 2005, but the date itself is immaterial.
What they do remember is a healthy respect, both coaches impressed with the state of the other’s program to the point that they discussed scheduling a non-conference matchup. That never materialized. Instead, their first matchup came two years later in the heat of Big Ten play, with Beilein manning the Michigan sideline.
Since that 77-62 Michigan State win in 2008, the rivalry — then a one-sided footnote — has become one of the premier showdowns in college basketball, with the sides splitting the last 18 matchups and combining for six Big Ten titles over the past decade. The respect, though, has never wavered.
“I think what makes this unique is, usually in the rivalry, there isn’t this much respect,” Izzo said. “That’s just the way it is. That’s part of being a rivalry.”
Today, the respect manifests itself in conversations about their pontoon boats whenever Big Ten coaches convene during the offseason — both coaches are careful to avoid discussing basketball matters with the other. But when Beilein took over a dilapidated Michigan program 12 years ago, their relationship yielded far more significant returns.
Izzo, knowing the state of the Wolverines’ facilities, invited Beilein to take a tour of the Breslin Center and its accompanying practice facility. Using the Spartans’ innovations and Izzo’s suggestions, Michigan broke ground on extensive renovations to the Crisler Center in 2011.
“It really hit me between the eyes how far back we were from many of the Big Ten schools in our facilities,” Beilein told The Daily. “Ours were archaic at the time compared to what the other Big Ten schools had. Not too many people would do that. That shows a lot about the type of person he is.”
Today, the Wolverines’ facilities serve as a guide for this generation of upcoming Big Ten programs. So too does Michigan’s on-court product, which reignited a rivalry that had long been dormant when Beilein arrived.
“He’s done a great job getting good players and making them great teams and that’s what we’re all trying to do,” Izzo said. “He’s improved the crowds and has gotten them more involved. I think that’s something that, when he got there, was lacking. He’s made basketball relevant at a pretty dominant football school.”
The problem for Izzo is that Michigan’s renaissance has cast his team’s once-undisputed superiority over the state into question. Sunday, that reaches a crescendo in a two-hour battle that will unite a pair of fanbases in hatred.
At the end of it all, the coaches will shake hands and exchange pleasantries like they did in a random gym fourteen years ago. But, standing in a Crisler Center hallway four days before the rivalry’s next chapter, Beilein makes sure to conclude with one final point.
“We’re enemies when that ball goes up.”