SPOKANE, Wash. - As the NCAA tourney rolls into Spokane, it brings with it a reunion of two old friends -- one a coach, the other his mentor -- whose connection is steeped in Spartan green.
Jud Heathcote of Spokane got his start coaching basketball before he want on to bigger and better things, such as coaching the Michigan State to an NCAA championship in 1979. So when the former Head Spartan found out his team was coming back to Spokane for the first round of the tournament, he was ecstatic.
His Spartans are a favorite to win the national championship this season.
"If they're on the floor, they're very, very good, maybe better than anybody," Heathcote said, and he should know, having coached the Spartans to the national championship in 1979.
While he lives in Spokane he acts like he's still back in East Lansing, and often talks with his former assistant and current Spartan Head Coach Tom Izzo. This week, instead of picking up the phone, he can do it in person.
"This is great to have them here so I get to see them first hand," Heathcote said.
With six Final Four appearances in 12 seasons, Izzo is arguably the best person to coach a team in the NCAA tournament, but when Heathcote calls, he answers.
"He gives me different pointers on different things and I still listen because I value his opinion, I value his knowledge, I value his friendship and he taught me more than anybody about the game of basketball," Izzo said.
Wednesday afternoon Izzo attributed his success to Heathcote, his mentor.
"He was a special guy for me, I'm not sure I'd be here, in fact I know I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for him," Izzo said.
The friends caught up at Tuesday's closed practice. Heathcote said he's not giving any pump up speeches.
"I just try to make a comment, and good luck and that's it," he said.
Heathcote will be cheering on the Spartans Thursday and plans to see Izzo again in Texas at the Final Four.
If recent history is any indication, odds are good Heathcote can go ahead and book his travel plans. Michigan State has had some recent success in Spokane. The last time they played here in 2010 they went onto the Final Four.
As for people looking for a little advice from Coach Heathcote on their brackets, he has Michigan State winning it all over Wisconsin.