Dienhart: Jud Heathcote made the world a better place

Dienhart: Jud Heathcote made the world a better place

The Big Ten and college basketball world lost a legend with the passing of Jud Heathcote.

The green sport coat. The balding head. The sheepish smile. It all describes Heathcote. And so does this: A great basketball mind.

“Michigan State has lost one of its icons today,” MSU coach Tom Izzo said in a statement. “And yet, nothing can erase his impact on the program, the players he coached and the coaches he mentored. Spartan basketball is what it is today because of Jud Heathcote.”

During a 1980s Big Ten era often defined by hard-edge coaches, there was a man known simply as “Jud.” He was a terrific coach, no doubt about that. But even more vital: Heathchote was a good person. He was approachable, accommodating and kind, a teacher who understood how to connect to people. It wasn’t all about Jud. It was all about making you better.

Heathcote, 90, always will have a special place in Big Ten and MSU lore for wooing a kid named Earvin “Magic” Johnson from Everett High in Lansing, Mich. to campus. The careers of both never would be the same.

The two went on to lead Michigan State to the 1979 national championship in Johnson’s second year on campus. That 1979 national title game pitted Johnson vs. Indiana State and Larry Bird in Salt Lake City. The game has gone down as one of the most historically significant NCAA title tilts and gave birth to the modern popularity of the Big Dance, as Magic took down Bird and the unbeaten Sycamores. And the meeting spawned a legendary “Magic vs. Bird” rivalry that came to define the NBA in the 1980s.

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After Johnson left following that title run, Heathcote remained and continued to forge a consistently strong program. He led the Spartans from 1976-1995, compiling a 339-221 overall record and a 181-161 Big Ten mark. He won Big Ten titles in 1978, 1979 and 1990. And he took MSU to the NCAA tourney nine times in 18 seasons in East Lansing, as the program transitioned from Jenison Field House to the Breslin Center.

In addition to Johnson, Heathcote coached Spartans greats like Scott Skiles, Steve Smith, Greg Kelser, Shawn Respert and Eric Snow, among others.

Skiles was my favorite Spartan under Heathcote, perhaps because he was a peer and a native of Indiana (Plymouth High, which he led to the state title in 1982 over Kenny Barlow and Cathedral High), like myself. Skiles was as tough as they come, a warrior with endless range who backed down from no one.

I have some great memories of watching Heathcote’s Spartans visit Purdue’s Mackey Arena while I was growing up. And I never will forget when the Johnson-led teams came to West Lafayette. During the title season of 1978-79, the Boilermakers beat the Spartans on a last-second shot by Arnette Hallman in Mackey. It was one of the few times MSU stumbled during its run to the championship.

I never will forget the angst of Heathcote during the Spartans’ tortuous loss to Kansas in the 1986 Big Dance. The the NCAA loss to Georgia Tech in 1990 also was painful for Heathcote. In each game, there were clock issues that worked against MSU. And who can forget when Heathcote slammed a ball down in anger at Illinois and had it pop him right in the face?

Heathcote had an affable personality and never took himself too seriously, which made him a popular and endearing figure in the coaching ranks as well as a fan favorite. He always looked so pained when things went wrong. Those grimaces. That scrunched up face. The dejection. You couldn’t help but suffer along with Jud.

Heathcote played at Washington State and was born in North Dakota. His coaching tree includes the likes of Skiles, Don Monson, Tom Crean and Izzo, who followed Heathcote on the Spartan bench and has become an all-time great by taking the program even higher.

Prior to taking the Michigan State job in 1976, Heathcote coached Montana for five seasons, taking the Grizzlies to the NCAA tourney in 1975 and coaching the great Michael Ray Richardson.

Take care, Jud. You made the world a better place while you were here. And, you will be missed.

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Email Tom Dienhart using the form below.

Tom Dienhart, BTN.com Senior Writer

About Tom Dienhart: BTN.com senior writer Tom Dienhart is a veteran sports journalist who covers Big Ten football and men's basketball for BTN.com and BTN TV. Find him on Twitter and Facebook, and send him questions to his weekly mailbag.

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