COLLEGE PARK — Michigan State men’s basketball coach Tom Izzo stood in the media room at the Xfinity Center on Sunday, facing reporters with fluctuating emotions. Minutes before, the 23rd-year coach celebrated with his players tearfully after the come-from-behind, 74-68 win at Maryland. It was a pivotal win for the Spartans, who rallied from a 13-point halftime deficit in front the Terrapins’ sold-out, boisterous crowd, keeping them third in the Big Ten conference race.
But Izzo, weary and drained amid the most scrutinizing time in the university’s existence because of off-the-court issues, couldn’t relish the victory for long. The Hall of Fame coach, widely viewed as one of the best to do it — on and off the court, with integrity and class — was blitzed with questions about a recent ESPN report revealing an assault on a female student in 2010 by one of Izzo’s former players who, at the time, was serving as a student-assistant.
“I’m very proud of the comeback of my team. It was a tough game,” Izzo said to begin his opening statement. “[Maryland] had their guys ready to play. I thought they played awfully well in the first half. I did not think we played well in stretches. The halftime was interesting. Saw some guys really come together. We all know it’s been a tough time with a lot of distractions, and I think sometimes guys just have to focus on their job, and then deal with the other stuff after. And that’s what they did.”
Michigan State Coach Tom Izzo after the Spartans' 74-68 win over Maryland https://t.co/dA0ybqNnGp
— Kyle McFadden (@k_fadd) January 28, 2018
Immediately after Izzo opened the presser to questions, ESPN’s Tisha Thompson, an investigative reporter for “Outside the Lines,” asked, “In 2010, Travis Walton was charged with assault and battery for punching a female student in the face. There were witnesses. She was injured. Why was he allowed to continue on the coaching staff and be with the team while charges were pending?”
According to the report, Walton continued coaching after being “criminally charged for punching a female MSU student in the face at a bar in 2010.”
Izzo answered: “Well, as I said before, we’ll cooperate with any investigation, and always have. We’ve done it before. We’ll do it again moving forward. That’s all I’m going to say on it. We did cooperate with everything.”
Thompson interjected: “We want to give you every opportunity to answer questions. There’s a lot of questions. The big one is why did Travis leave the program in 2010?
The report also said Walton joined Izzo’s staff the year after Michigan State went to the Final Four. Additionally, ESPN reported Walton was accused of sexually assaulting a different woman months later after the postseason run.
Walton has denied making physical contact with the accuser and pleaded not guilty at his arraignment. His assault and battery charges were dropped as well. However, he pleaded guilty to a civil infraction for littering in another report by ESPN’s “Outside the Lines.”
Izzo stared off into the room and paused, shaking his head in a flustered manner before saying: “I don’t know what you mean. He graduated.”
Thompson fired back: “He was with your staff throughout 2010. An allegation came forward later that year that from a woman and her family, to the athletic department that your players raped her. He then left the program later that year in 2010. Why?”
Another “Outside the Lines” report revealed former Michigan State players Adreian Payne and Keith Appling were accused of raping a female student following freshman orientation at the university in 2010, putting Izzo and his program under more turmoil.
“To be honest, I don’t know why [Walton] left,” Izzo answered. “I know he went to Europe to play and, as you know, I’ll still say I’ll cooperate with any investigation that’s made. I did it then. I did it before. And I’m not going to answer any questions that aren’t pertaining to either basketball or things I’m not going to talk about right now.”
Thomas persisted: “Let me ask you this question, then. Looking back at the way sexual assault allegations have been handled by your basketball program, do you have any regrets?”
Izzo closed his eyes and sagged his head briefly before giving this answer: “I’ve cooperated [with] every investigation. Every one. And I will continue to cooperate with every investigation. Every one.”
After Michigan State's win over Maryland, Tom Izzo again addressed the sexual assault scandal plaguing the university. pic.twitter.com/OAEBfERdmw
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) January 28, 2018
For the next three minutes, the questions asked pertained to the game itself, but before Izzo left the press room, Thompson fired one more question: “What do you tell [your players] when it comes to the way they conduct themselves around women?”
Izzo answered: “Now, there’s a good question. I tell them everyday, at the end of every practice. I go over an academic thing, a couple social things and a basketball thing. And that takes place every single day. And it takes place after every single game, after every single trip.”
In spite of the off-the-court incidents, Izzo went on to say he plans on keeping his “locker room open” to the media, no different than his previous 23 years.
“I don’t plan on closing it ever,” said Izzo, who owns a 562-223 career record and has guided the Spartans to 20 straight NCAA Tournaments, seven Final Fours and the 1999-2000 national title.
All of this comes just days after Larry Nassar — a former Michigan State and USA Gymnastics doctor, who followed a guilty plea to 10 counts of first-degree criminal sexual conduct with children under the age of 16 — received a jail sentence of 40 to 175 years on Wednesday. Last week, 156 girls and women spoke of abuse under Nassar’s attention.
“It’s very hard for me to say [our struggles Sunday is] because of what’s going on when there’s people who have been through a lot more than my guys have been through,” Izzo said. “Yes, this is something that affects them, but not nearly as much. Don’t feel sorry for me or them. There’s 140 some women that we feel more sorry for. I thought we did our best job of trying to deal with all the distractions.”
On the same day Nassar was sentenced, Lou Anna K. Simon resigned as Michigan State president. Two days after, Mark Hollis announced his retirement as the institution’s athletic director.
On Friday night, Izzo and football coach Mark Dantonio, whose program also has come under fire for sexual abuse allegations, both issued press conferences saying they would not step down at their respective positions.
According to interviews and public records acquired by Outside the Lines, at least 16 Michigan State football players have been accused of sexual assault or violence against women since Dantonio took over the job in 2007.
Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette said a special prosecutor would be investigating Michigan State to decipher how Nassar sexually assaulted girls and young women for two decades without university undertaking.
“I think there’s been more life lessons learned this year than ever,” Izzo said. “This was my message before the game, at halftime and after the game: Continue to realize there are people who have gone through a lot and they get an opportunity to help the healing process a little bit, just a little bit.
“It’s hard to focus on basketball, because when I do, I feel guilty. So many things you don’t know. I feel guilty talking anything else. And those women that I’ve watched, I’m sure it was draining at the end for me. I was also emotional, because I’m an emotional guy. … I hope people rally around them. And I hope we’ll rally around people that need us.”