Two nights after the worst night, two nights after a peaceful campus and a bustling community was ripped apart by a gunman, two nights after three young lives were taken and five others pushed to fight for a future and thousands of others impacted in ways big or small, Tom Izzo stood and tried to make sense of it all.
“Just a basketball coach,” the Michigan State coach said, and that is true. He wasn’t here at a candlelight vigil to offer words that heal hearts and solve problems. He had no magic wand.
There is no magic wand.
Arielle Anderson. Alexandria Verner. Brian Fraser. None were coming back to campus, coming back to class. The speeches, the hugs, the thoughts, the prayers were all powerless to change a thing.
Anderson of Harper Woods, Michigan, was known for her dedication to family and friends. She was studying to be a doctor. Verner was a gifted three-sport athlete and campus leader from Clawson, Michigan. She was pursuing a career as a forensic scientist. Fraser, of Grosse Pointe, Michigan, was known for having a personality and future as bright as his smile.
They represent everything this school has been, is and forever will be, no matter what some gunman intended. All these tenacious students, all these kids barreling toward the future, all these young students looking to get in, make a difference and then go help their families and communities.
Michigan State is a massive university that somehow creates the tightest and most personal of bonds. Maybe it’s the shared journey. Maybe it’s the magic of a sprawling campus. Maybe it’s just the ethos of the place.
It is certainly represented well by its longtime men’s basketball coach. He has been here 40 years, 28 as the head coach. Both his children graduated from MSU. He’s its most famous employee, a man who somehow combines the balled up fists of underdog rage with the talent and confidence of a favorite that reached all those Final Fours.
“I don’t like the place,” Izzo said. “I don’t love the place.
“I live the place.”
This is their place. This is their school. This is their family.
And Monday it was shattered.
Police said a 43-year-old gunman with no known ties to the school and no known motive (if such a thing could exist) came to campus Monday and unleashed unimaginable hell. Three dead. Five wounded. Thousands impacted, both on campus and into the far reaches of the alumni.
Michigan State is a place of promise and purpose, of great memories and boundless possibilities. It should be about classes, study sessions and laughs in the dorms. It should be autumn walks over the Red Cedar and late nights out downtown and, yes, euphoric victories inside the Breslin Center.
It shouldn’t be a crime scene. It shouldn’t be police lights flashing on CNN. It shouldn’t be vigils and speeches.
“I can’t begin to imagine what all of you are going through,” Izzo said to the student crowd in front of him.
“Look around,” he continued. “Look next to you. Shake somebody’s hand. Introduce yourself to someone you don’t know. That’s who we are and that’s who we need to be right now.
“… Michigan State is my home,” Izzo said. “Everybody thinks I am a Yooper. Yes, that is where I came from [Iron Mountain in the remote Upper Peninsula], but virtually all of my adult life I’ve been a Spartan. I’ve seen some incredible highs and, yes, unfortunately there have been some devastating lows.
“But as a Spartan we always get through it,” he continued. “If you need proof, look at us all standing here tonight, each and everyone of us, we’ve come for many different reasons. To heal. To drive. To honor our victims. To stand up to fear, which you’re going to have to do a lot in your life.
“Whatever you are feeling, it’s all valid.
“Emotions are different for each and every person,” he said. “I cry in front of my team. I cry on national TV. Don’t be afraid to show your emotions. We all process trauma in different ways. I am just glad we are all here together, tonight. So let me close with a challenge. Let us do a better job taking care of each other.”
He praised the doctors working to save lives. He praised the first responders and the police forces that secured campus and kept the worst from being even worse. He praised the campus leaders for having an emergency plan and then the students for following it.
He was just a basketball coach, he noted. A nobody. Just a guy who had been here longer than almost anyone else and cared as much as anyone else and was hurting for an institution, a place, an ideal that he held dear.
So he came to speak and came to challenge and came to lead. Sometimes these college coaches get too much praise and too much power and perhaps too much money. It’s just basketball. It’s just sports.
Yet sometimes it’s so much more when so much more is desperately needed.
“I think everyone who has mentioned something has to be done in our society,” Izzo said. “Gun violence is insane right now. We all have a platform. Some are small, some are high, but we all have a platform. And I hope each and every one of you uses your platform to help others so that other families don’t have to go through what these families are going through right now.
“I hope you meet the 10 people around you and become closer. The world needs it. Michigan State needs it. The grieving time needs it.
“I need it.”