DeKALB – Tom Izzo didn’t know if his longtime pupil was leaving his Michigan State program when he said his goodbyes last weekend.
Izzo was aware his associate head coach of the past four seasons, Mark Montgomery, had a good chance of being named Northern Illinois’ next men’s basketball coach. He also has been around the business long enough to know nothing ever is certain in college basketball.
So Izzo kept his parting words short and to the point.
“I just told him to go in there and knock ‘em dead,” said Izzo, the Spartans’ legendary coach.
Montgomery did well enough to be announced as NIU’s 27th men’s basketball coach Thursday. He agreed to a five-year, $1.5 million contract with the Huskies, the same contract given to former men’s basketball coach Ricardo Patton.
Montgomery called his mentor Wednesday night to say he’d accepted the NIU job. He said he was greeted by an ecstatic Izzo. Then came the questions.
“When I told him I was definitely taking the job, he wanted to know everything,” Montgomery said. “When you’ve been through the rodeo a few times, you know what questions to ask. He just wanted to make sure one of his guys were taken care of.”
Montgomery is clearly Izzo’s guy, and has been for much longer than the decade he spent working as a Michigan State assistant coach. A former Michigan State player from 1988-92, Montgomery is the only person to be recruited and coached by Izzo, then work as his associate head coach.
Montgomery said his relationship with Izzo went beyond teacher-student, or even mentor-protegé.
“He was a definite father figure,” Montgomery said. “We took a great liking to each other, a trust in each other.”
When Montgomery applied for the NIU job, Izzo didn’t hesitate to give NIU athletic director Jeff Compher a recommendation. But it couldn’t just be a good recommendation, Izzo said. It had to be better than that.
“The problem with recommendations is everybody is going to give a good one,” Izzo said. “Then you have to decipher what is a recommendation and what is a sales pitch. For me, it was easy to sell Mark.
“I said, ‘I’m telling you Jeff, this guy is ready, he’s capable and he’ll bring a lot to the table.’ It wasn’t a recommendation, it was a belief. I hope I got that across to Jeff, because I really believe Mark’s capable of doing a great job there.”
Compher said Izzo got the point across just fine.
“I found that you don’t often talk to coach Izzo,” Compher said. “You listen. I did a lot of listening when it came to coach Monty.
“He had so much, I think, respect for his ability, but also kind of a proud parent knowing that [Montgomery] has really risen through the ranks of coaching and has done so well. I told [Montgomery on Wednesday], I think he’s president of your fan club.”
Listening to Izzo rave about Montgomery, it’s easy to see why he was in no hurry to leave Michigan State. But Montgomery said NIU was a job he simply couldn’t pass up.
“Michigan State is always going to be home,” Montgomery said. “But at the same time, everyone at Michigan State knew my lifelong dreams and goals was to become a Division I head coach, and running my own program.
“Michigan State will always be a special place in my heart. But with an opportunity like this, coming to NIU, it’s not as hard for me to leave as some people might think.”