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Coaches Tom Izzo, Chris Beard each had unique path to Final Four 

It is no coincidence that those two men wound up at the same place, the same time Saturday night, at U.S. Bank Stadium, coaching in the Final Four for the right to reach the NCAA Tournament championship game. 

Texas Tech coach Chris Beard was the Red

Texas Tech coach Chris Beard was the Red Raiders' top assistant under Bob and Pat Knight and also was a head coach at two junior colleges, plus McMurry, Angelo State and Little Rock.   Credit: AP/Charlie Neibergall

MINNEAPOLIS — Despite the fact that they represent different coaching generations and different halves of the country, even though one’s resume amounts to a straight line and the other’s is all over the map, Tom Izzo and Chris Beard could speak each other’s words without missing a beat.

It was Izzo, 64, the Michigan State coach, who said, “The dreams that I had have been superseded and yet I think I’m going to pick some new dreams and see if I can go a little farther.” But it could have just as easily been Beard.

It was Beard, 46, the Texas Tech coach, who said, “I don’t promise our guys a lot in the recruiting process, but one thing I promise is I will bring it every day as a coach, and our staff will, too.” But it could have just as easily been Izzo.

The point is, it is no coincidence that those two men wound up at the same place, the same time Saturday night, at U.S. Bank Stadium, coaching in the Final Four for the right to reach the NCAA Tournament championship game. Both are intense basketball lifers, who love every minute of what they are doing. Each is thrilled with what he has done and always desperate to do just a little more.

“We are,” Izzo said Friday, on behalf of all coaches, “a little certifiably insane.”

Almost all of Izzo’s whole life has had a Michigan dateline. He grew up in the town of Iron Mountain, played and coached at Northern Michigan University and, except for two months at Tulsa in 1996, has been at Michigan State since 1983.

He applied three times that year to be an assistant coach for Jud Heathcote and was rejected every time. “That was interesting, you know. Mom was mad at me because I was 26 years old and didn’t have a real job yet,” Izzo said. “The way things have gone, it’s worked out well for me, for Jud, I think for Michigan State, and believe it or not, for my mom and my family, too.”

Heathcote finally hired the persistent guy as a graduate assistant, and promoted him to full time a few months later. Izzo was beyond happy on the bench for his first Big Ten game, saying it looked like the number of people in the stands was greater than the population in his hometown. He stayed on and succeeded Heathcote as head coach in 1995. Five years later, he had a national title.

Beard also has a mentor to whom he owes his livelihood, Bob Knight. The current Texas Tech head coach served 10 years in Lubbock under Knight and his son, Pat. But that was only one stop on a circuitous route.

The Irving, Texas, native worked at Fort Scott (Kan.) Community College, where the home court shared a building with a rodeo barn. At Angelo State, part of his head coaching duties involved driving the squad in a 15-passenger van that, he recalls, had no heater and only an AM radio. No wonder he exhorts his players, “Smell the roses.” When the Red Raiders played Duke at Madison Square Garden this season, he said, “We ate ridiculously priced food, we walked around the halls of the Garden, we went and played pickup at Rucker Park.

“I tell the guys to never forget where they come from and ‘be you.’ I wouldn’t trade my coaching path for anything,” Beard said. “To that young coach out there like me who sat in the open practices for 22 years and dreamed about being there, don’t give up. It’s basketball, man. If you keep doing it, it will give you a chance at some point. Don’t give up.”

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