Thinking back to my college days, when someone would ask who’s the most famous Big 10 basketball coach the obvious answer was Indiana’s Bobby Knight. A close second though would be the man who single-highhandedly turned Michigan State into a basketball school (well maybe with the help of a certain recruit named Earvin ‘Magic’ Johnson). This man is Jud Heathcote.
George Melvin “Jud” Heathcote grew up in North Dakota and attended Washington State University after briefly serving in the military at the end of World War II. His coaching career began at West Valley High School in Spokane, WA, before he was an assistant at his alma mater. His first head coaching position was at the University of Montana in the early 1970s (advancing to the NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 in 1975); with his big break coming in 1976 when he accepted the Michigan State head coaching position.
Prior to Jud Heathcote’s arrival in East Lansing Michigan State accomplished very little in men’s basketball. The Spartans only had 3 NCAA Tournament appearances (1957, 1959, and 1967) and 2 Big 10 Titles (Michigan State didn’t join the Big 10 until the 1950-51 season). Heathcote’s predecessor Gus Ganakis had a very mediocre 85-84 overall record, just 45-57 in conference play. Not only was Michigan State attempting to reverse their basketball fortunes, they were trying to compete in a conference dominated by coaches such as Iowa’s Lute Olson, Illinois’ Lou Henson, and the aforementioned Bobby Knight.
Heathcote’s first season in East Lansing was in a word, bad: 10-17 overall and 7-11 in conference play (although the record is a more favorable 12-15 and 9-9, due to Minnesota getting in trouble with the NCAA). However, something was transpiring off the court which would literally transform Michigan State into a basketball power overnight.
The top recruit of the high school class of 1977 was New York City’s Albert King, who signed with Lefty Driesell’s Maryland Terrapins. Right up there was Lansing, Michigan’s Earvin ‘Magic’ Johnson. Johnson received offers from literally everybody including Bobby Knight and Indiana; however, Magic wanted to stay close to home. Thus the decision came down to Michigan and Michigan State. Johnson chose Michigan State after Jud Heathcote said that the 6’9” prodigy could play point guard for the Spartans (a decision that NBA coach Pat Riley would repeat in the early 80s to form the basis of the Los Angeles Lakers ‘Showtime’ teams).
For 1977-78 Michigan State went 25-5 overall and 15-3 in conference, winning the Big 10 Championship outright and advancing to the Elite 8. It was the 1978-79 season though which established Michigan State as a basketball power: 26-6 overall and 13-5 in conference play, back-to-back Big 10 Champions, and NCAA Tournament Champions. Additionally, it was the the NCAA Finals in Salt Lake City where Michigan State’s Magic Johnson faced off against Indiana State’s (and one-time Bobby Knight recruit) Larry Bird (the first of MANY match-ups these 2 would have in the NBA) that began the transformation of the NCAA Tournament from something to watch between the Super Bowl and baseball’s opening day into March Madness.
Michigan State couldn’t quite follow up the success of the Magic Johnson era in the early 80s. By the mid 80s though the Spartans were back in the NCAA Tournament. Led by hard-nosed point guard (and future NBA head coach) Scott Skiles Michigan State got back into the NCAA Tournament; and came within a scoreboard foul-up at Kansas City’s Kemper Arena of knocking off 1986 Final Four participant Kansas in the Sweet 16. Shown below is an excerpt from a Deadspin article on that Sweet 16 game:
“In 1986, the Jayhawks met the Spartans in a Southeast Regional semifinal matchup at Kansas City’s godforsaken Kemper Arena. Some shot clock irregularities gave the Jayhawks an extra 10-15 seconds of game time, which they used to complete their comeback from a second-half deficit and send the game into overtime, which they then of course won. Michigan State fans were livid about the supposed home cooking, and it’s one of those minor footnotes in history that fans on the internet still get all CAPS LOCK-y about still today while conveniently ignoring the fact that Michigan State blew a few chances in the waning moments of the second half to seal a victory.”
By the late 80s though Michigan State was back in the upper tier of the Big 10. The Spartans won their third Big 10 Championship under Heathcote in 1989-90 and were regularly back in the NCAA Tournament. A bigger change occurred off the court during that 1989-90 season though. Michigan State moved from the antiquated Jenison Fieldhouse to the Breslin Center. This new arena gave the Spartans a decided home-court advantage; especially the student section that was moved closer to the court.
Watching Michigan State games during Heathcote’s tenure would often display images of a coach growling and screaming on the sidelines. However, Heathcote was very different off the court; often displaying a self-depreciating sense of humor. One of the best examples of Jud’s off-the-court demeanor was illustrated during an interview he gave during a media event at the Chicago Hyatt. When a question was asked about the point guard depth for Michigan State, Heathcote responded as follows:
“Most coaches in America would give their left testicle to have a point guard like Mark Montgomery. I guess they won’t like me saying that. So what I should say is that most coaches in America would give their right testicle to have a point guard like Mark Montgomery.”
Jud Heathcote retired following the 1994-95 season, turning Michigan State over to his long-time assistant coach Tom Izzo. In his 19 seasons in East Lansing Heathcote went 340-220 overall, 182-160 in conference play, 3 Big 10 Conference Titles, 9 NCAA Tournament appearances, and the 1979 National Championship. Much like Wisconsin’s Dick Bennett would do a few years after Heathcote’s retirement, Jud left the Michigan State program in much better shape than he found it; with his successor taking the basketball team to achievements that couldn’t have been imagined when he first came to East Lansing.
Jud Heathcote passed away at the age of 90 in 2017. His legacy lives on to this day, including a somewhat small yet significant coaching tree. It was his 19 seasons in East Lansing though that brought basketball to Michigan State and built - both literally and figuratively - one of the most passionate basketball fan bases in the country, as evidenced by The Izzone.