Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Spokane hoops legend Jud Heathcote died Monday; revisit our 2009 profile

Posted By on Tue, Aug 29, 2017 at 12:36 PM

click to enlarge Spokane hoops legend Jud Heathcote died Monday; revisit our 2009 profile
Michigan State Athletics
Jud Heathcote, with Greg Kelser, Earvin Johnson and Terry Donnelly, meeting the media after winning the national championship on March 26, 1979, by a score of 75-64 over Larry Bird’s Indiana State Sycamores.

Jud Heathcote was a coaching powerhouse, winning a national title in 1979 at Michigan State after directing his Magic Johnson-led Spartans to a championship win against Larry Bird and Indiana State in one of the best March Madness finales ever.

Heathcote moved to Spokane upon his retirement and often attended Gonzaga games between watching his old Spartans on TV. Heathcote died Monday at 90, and Inlander publisher Ted McGregor Jr. shared a story he wrote for the paper years ago.

This story was originally published on March 26, 2009, under the headline "Jud and the Juggernaut":

The way Jud Heathcote tells it, today marks the 30th anniversary of the day America tuned in to see his green blazer and trademark comb-over. “The reason that game was the most watched ever,” Heathcote deadpans, “was that everyone wanted to see me coach.”

“That game” was the NCAA championship game of March 26, 1979 — and his Michigan State Spartans won it. Oh, and it featured a couple guys you may have heard of — the Spartans’ sophomore sensation Magic Johnson and Indiana State’s Larry Bird, who had led his underdog Sycamores to a 33-0 record up to that point.

The game stands out for a few reasons: For one, it remains the highest-rated game ever televised in the history of basketball. And what came next was huge, too: As Heathcote puts it, “Magic and Larry probably saved professional basketball — the NBA was really declining when they came along.”

And the monumental nature of the game has led to a new book, When March Went Mad, by Sports Illustrated writer and CBS basketball analyst Seth Davis, published earlier this month — just in time for this 2009 edition of the NCAA Tournament.

College basketball wasn’t always the month-long juggernaut we know today — Davis argues that, in fact, the Madness really all started that Monday night in Salt Lake City 30 years ago.

There’s a lot to cover in When March Went Mad — two teams, two seasons, two superstars and two coaches on a collision course. Some veins are richer than others, though, and it’s Heathcote who emerges, along with Magic Johnson, as the star of the book. Best of all, the endearing, gruff-uncle guy who spews biting one-liners and nuggets of offbeat wisdom is a Spokane guy.

Since retiring from Michigan State in 1995, Heathcote has lived out of the spotlight in south Spokane with his wife Beverly. The two of them met when they happened to live in the same apartment building back in the 1950s. That building? The Hemlock Arms in Browne’s Addition, where Jud lived while coaching and teaching at West Valley High School after playing for Jack Friel at WSU.

Now 81 — and despite two open-heart surgeries over the past year — Heathcote remains sharp as ever. He attended the Michigan State games in Minneapolis last weekend and next week plans to be at his 36th Final Four.

“Coaching is coaching,” Heathcote says today of his 14 years at West Valley. “That was the foundation of what you do the rest of your life. You learn how to win, and you learn how to lose.”

He must have been doing something right. Back when high school games were played at the Armory, one opposing coach just let his kids sit outside the door and listen to Heathcote’s halftime pep talk. Then he told them to go out and just do what Coach Heathcote said.
In 1964, he landed a job as assistant to Marv Harshman at WSU. Then he took the head coaching job at Montana in 1971, gaining national recognition when his Grizzlies lost to mega-power UCLA by only three points in the 1975 NCAA Tournament. Five years later, Michigan State came calling, and his date with destiny was set.

Everyone who ever came into contact with Heathcote has stories of his singular personality — he’s a true original along the lines of a Dick Vitale. In fact, Vitale recalls when they first met: Vitale was the coach of the University of Detroit, which had a longstanding annual game with Michigan State — the kind of game that has no upside to the bigger school, so Heathcote breaks the ice with, “I just want you to know we are not going to be playing you any damn more.”

Heathcote’s style of coaching was decidedly old-school — breaking down players’ faults through withering criticism and dark humor. But for the players who stuck it out, he has formed lifelong relationships. Greg Kelser was, along with Magic Johnson, the star of the 1978-79 Spartan team, and Seth Davis quotes him saying that he often considered leaving the team to get away from the coach who rode him so hard. But then, years after Kelser had left school, it was Heathcote who helped push him to finish his degree. And after injuries cut Kelser’s NBA career short, it was Heathcote who helped him tackle a second career in broadcasting.

“I came to understand that this man really cared about me and my well-being,” Kelser tells Davis.

Then there are the coaches who owe it all to breaks Heathcote that first gave them as assistants. In fact, ESPN’s Andy Katz has done the math and believes Heathcote’s “coaching tree” is bigger than either Roy Williams’ or Mike Krzyzewski’s. Tom Crean, Kelvin Sampson, Mike Montgomery, Trent Johnson, Don Monson — to name just a few — all trace their roots one way or another to Jud Heathcote. And of course Tom Izzo may be the best example. The current Michigan State coach started out on the bench with Heathcote for 12 years before taking over the powerhouse program.

"I learned more about coaching and dealing with people through Jud than anyone else," Izzo has said.

“I was always looking for a work ethic,” Heathcote says of his criteria for hiring new assistant coaches, “a guy who really wanted to work — not a knowledge for the game, but a passion for the game.”

But Heathcote is most proud that he actually did what he was hired to do — coach.
“Coaches today are sometimes more businessmen than teachers and coaches,” Heathcote says. “We prided ourselves that players would get better each year.” Heathcote was particularly well known as a coach who could improve a player’s shot, often working for months on repetitive motion changes that translated into more points and wins.
And is it a coincidence that basketball here in our region has gone on such a tear since Heathcote came home? After all, he has stayed close with WSU’s coaching duo of Dick and Tony Bennett and with the Zags’ Mark Few.

"We've applied for citizenship in the family," Few told ESPN’s Katz of Heathcote’s coaching tree. "I walk out of every lunch with him with about 50 [set plays]. There's no question he has had an influence on me and our staff."

Get ready for a Heathcote curtain call during the Final Four. The fact that Seth Davis works for CBS, broadcasters of the tournament, guarantees some kind of splash during this year’s final weekend. And Heathcote says when he was back in Michigan in February to celebrate the team’s 30th anniversary, CBS filmed interviews with him, Magic and the rest of the guys.

And what a season it was. While Larry Bird was tearing it up, the Spartans were sort of stumbling through the season. They started great, wound up losing four games early in their conference play and then got it all together. In fact, the final game isn’t nearly as dramatic as the rest of the story Davis documents.

After losing so many early games, the Spartans held a desperate team meeting. In a sign of some kind of newfound flexibility, Heathcote listened to the players’ desires to turn their game loose a little more.

“We had just lost to Northwestern, and we had to do something,” Heathcote recalls. “A million things came out of that meeting, but we changed the starting lineup and won 10 straight after that.” They also restructured their guard play to get the ball in Magic’s hands, even though teams were routinely double-teaming him. After one game late in the season when Johnson particularly dominated, Heathcote sized up what he had in a way only he could: “If I were an opposing coach and saw that big turkey bringing the ball down court every time, I think I’d vomit.”

There were other moments of fun amid the struggle. After winning the Far West Classic and getting stuck in airports trying to get back to East Lansing, one player recalled that Heathcote was so fed up with waiting once they got home that he actually crawled into the hole where luggage was supposed to come out from. A few minutes later, the players had to work really hard not to laugh when two security guards escorted their coach back to the waiting area.

"I've never seen a club that had the impact of a Magic Johnson and a Greg Kelser on a team,” Heathcote sums it up all these years later. “Teams we played against could talk about what Magic could do and try to prepare for it but had no concept of how dominant he could be.”

And that certainly was the case in the championship game. He knew the Sycamores wouldn’t be able to handle Magic, but he was worried about how his own team would handle Larry Bird. So during the practice before the championship, Heathcote had Magic join the second team to play the part of Larry Bird. It’s the best scene in the book, the description of Magic as Bird tearing apart the team that was about to win the national championship, mimicking Bird’s game to an uncanny degree.

To this day, Heathcote says Johnson — “Earvin,” as he still calls him — was the best player to coach he ever had. “All he cared about was winning.” And to attest to Johnson’s smarts, Heathcote points out that post-basketball, he has become a very successful businessman. It was the pure joy of the game that you could see in Magic’s giant smile that seemed to captivate the nation back in 1979.

Despite his jokes to the contrary, Heathcote knows that people tuned in to see Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. But coaches could have learned a lot from the guy Sports Illustrated described as having a “face [as] a jigsaw puzzle of discontent, pieces all over the place, mouth going one way, nose another, eyes rolling toward the heavens.”

While the Sycamores couldn’t sleep with all the revelers in their hotel after their Saturday night win, Heathcote spent Sunday having Magic do his Bird imitation. Meanwhile, the coaches put in a special “man-and-a-half” zone they designed on the fly just for Larry Bird, who had his worst game of the season in the final. And at halftime Heathcote put the word out for to guys to feed role player Terry Donnelly, whose hours shooting in the gym under Heathcote’s tutelage paid off with a 4-for-4 second half and 15 points in the game.

Yeah, he was a very good coach — and even though he never got back to the Final Four, in a profession famous for its lack of job security, he was one of the very few college coaches ever to actually retire. But it’s the other little things that remind you that — behind all his grimaces and grumpiness — he was a very good man, too.

One of the compelling side stories Seth Davis delves into is what happened to Bill Hodges, the coach of the Sycamores, who took over during the preseason when the team’s original coach had health problems. Despite being named AP Coach of the Year in 1979, Hodges’ story is a tough reminder that the world of coaching is filled with much more heartbreak than jubilation. After the dream season, Hodges was eventually forced out and couldn’t land a coaching job anywhere. His marriage fell apart, and today he teaches high school in Virginia.

But Hodges had landed back in the NCAA briefly, as head coach of Murray State in 1998-99. When his Racers won their conference tournament, via a full-court dribble-and-layup at the buzzer that was replayed liberally on ESPN, he was back in the Show.

At his office the next day, one of his messages read, “Nice play.”

When Hodges asked his assistant where that one came from, she answered: “He said his name was Jud.”

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Dan Nailen

Dan Nailen is the former editor of the Inlander. He's previously written and edited for The Salt Lake Tribune, Salt Lake City Weekly, Missoula Independent, Salt Lake Magazine, The Oregonian and KUER-FM. He grew up seeing the country in an Air Force family and studied at the University of Utah and University of...