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Jud Heathcote Laid Foundation For Modern Michigan State Success

The longtime Spartan head coach took Michigan State to elite levels of college basketball.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Tulsa Practice Brett Rojo-USA TODAY Sports

Jud Heathcote came to East Lansing as an unknown looking to revitalize a program in relative mediocrity. He would leave Michigan State having established one of the premier basketball programs in the NCAA.

He started his coaching career on the west coast and built a successful program at Montana from 1971-1976. There Heathcote won two Big Sky conference titles and left the school with a 80-53 record. Still, Michigan State and the Big Ten would be an entirely different level of basketball. In 1976, Michigan State was a program that needed Heathcote to rise to the challenge.

Before Heathcote, the Spartans were a program that achieved success, but never on a consistent basis. The Spartans went to their first Final Four in 1957 under coach Forddy Anderson, but the combined record of the five coaches from 1949-1975 was 317-306 (.508).

Heathcote’s first season looked much like the previous years. The Spartans sputtered to a 12-15 record and sixth place finish in the Big Ten. Michigan State’s fortunes soon changed with the recruitment of a hometown kid from Everett high school.

Ervin “Magic” Johnson chose Michigan State over offers from Indiana, Michigan and UCLA because Heathcote’s forward thinking on how to utilize him. Heathcote valued Johnson’s playmaking and ball handling abilities and wanted Johnson to play point guard. A 6’9” point guard was unheard of during that time, but Heathcote’s vision of what Johnson could become changed Michigan State and the NBA forever. Johnson paid tribute to Heathcote on Twitter after receiving news of his death.

Heathcote and Magic won the Big Ten and reached the Elite Eight in 1977-78. It was the first Big Ten title for the Spartans since 1967. The next season the Spartans marched to a 26-6 overall record and an NCAA Championship. Heathcote and Michigan State defeated Larry Bird’s Indiana State in one of the most well-known college basketball games of all time.

With that championship, Heathcote elevated Michigan State to new heights. Heathcote proved that you could win a national title in East Lansing, and the program has held that standard ever since.

Heathcote coached at Michigan State until 1995. In an era of Big Ten basketball built on hard-nosed play and big coaching personalities, Heathcote maintained Michigan State as a program in the upper echelon of the Big Ten. After the title in 1979, Heathcote won another Big Ten title in 1990 and made the NCAA tournament seven other times. Perhaps his greatest work was handing over the reigns to his successor, Tom Izzo.

Izzo was hired by Heathcote initially in 1983 on a part-time basis, but returned full-time in 1986. As an assistant coach, and starting in 1991, an associate head coach, Izzo learned and was guided by Heathcote. When Heathcote retired in 1995, he seamlessly handed the keys to the program to Izzo and the Spartans maintained the program’s culture and standard cultivated by Heathcote.

Coach Izzo would go on to win a national title in 2000 and continues to build on an impressive legacy. Take a look at what Heathcote meant to Izzo:

The Big Ten lost a legend on August 28th. The work he did on and off the court for Michigan State and the Big Ten is enormous. The conference’s basketball history was shaped by his career in East Lansing, and the Big Ten will continue to benefit from his work far into the foreseeable future.