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Is it still OK for coaches to scream at kids?

With Michigan State in town for the Final Four, the debate over head coach Tom Izzo berating one of his players during first-round NCAA Tournament game comes to Minneapolis. 

Michigan State Spartans head coach Tom Izzo
Was Michigan State Spartans head coach Tom Izzo, the 64-year-old Basketball Hall of Famer, justified in confronting Aaron Henry, a 19-year-old freshman he felt wasn’t hustling?
Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

The video went viral within minutes. And in the weeks since, almost everyone who saw it — fans, athletes, coaches, media types — debated whether Michigan State Coach Tom Izzo acted appropriately when he berated and lunged at one of his players during a timeout of a first-round NCAA Tournament game.

The conversation transcended generational and social lines. Was Izzo, the 64-year-old Basketball Hall of Famer, justified in confronting Aaron Henry, a 19-year-old freshman he felt wasn’t hustling? Was there a better way of handling it? How has the line between acceptable and unacceptable behavior by coaches shifted in the last decade? And since Izzo and the Spartans advanced to the men’s basketball Final Four this weekend at U.S. Bank Stadium, does that make it all good?

“Every basketball player has watched this clip probably ten times over,” said Tina Syer, president of the Positive Coaching Alliance, a national non-profit committed to positive coaching norms in youth sports. “This is a great opportunity at the dinner table, at your next practice, to talk to your team. In this moment, what would you have done if you were coaching this team? It’s a lost opportunity if people aren’t talking about this with their team and their kids.”

The topic even came up earlier this week on a conference call promoting the women’s Final Four, with UConn’s Geno Auriemma among the coaches weighing in.

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“I just find it a little bit disconcerting that more and more coaches are being told, ‘This is inappropriate; you’re not acting the right way,’” Auriemma said, as reported by Mechelle Voepel of espnW. “What is the right way, and who is going to decide what the right way is? I don’t know what the answer to that is.”

Here’s one answer: Don’t act like a maniac. Especially on national television.

Let’s go back to what happened.

Michigan State, the East Region No. 2 seed, faced No. 15 seed Bradley in Des Moines. Trailing by one at halftime, the Spartans scored ten consecutive points early in the second half to jump ahead. But Izzo wasn’t happy with Henry, a promising 6-6 freshman forward who botched a defensive assignment, then let his man beat him down court.

Some context: Michigan State hadn’t advanced past the tournament’s first weekend since 2015, lost to a No. 15 seed once already in 2016 (Middle Tennessee), and still hadn’t recovered from  three hard games in three days to win the Big Ten Tournament. Bradley, in its first NCAA Tournament in 13 years, clearly wasn’t intimidated by Izzo or his team. The Spartans could lose if they weren’t careful, and Izzo knew it.

At a timeout with 16:48 to play, Izzo walked out to intercept Henry heading to the bench. Izzo briefly grabbed his arm, yelled at him, then pointed a finger toward his face. Henry appeared puzzled, unsure why Izzo was so mad.

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“That’s what I was trying to understand,” Henry said in the locker room the next day. “He’s yelling, and I’m trying to listen. I’m like okay, we’ll talk about it in the huddle.”

Junior guard Cassius Winston, the Big Ten Player of the Year, gently guided Izzo away. Later in the timeout, with everyone seated, Izzo lunged toward Henry. Senior guard Matt McQuaid eased Izzo back to his stool. Longtime Spartan observers could not remember Izzo ever doing that in a game. Izzo remained so angry that Winston had to tell Henry what Izzo needed from him.

“He was getting after Henry the whole game,” Winston said. “It was tough for Henry. He’s a freshman. Bright lights. All kinds of things going through his head. I just felt, at that moment, I could get the message to Henry a little bit better. That’s all it was.”

The Spartans won, 76-65, with Henry making a key basket in the lane and two foul shots down the stretch. Two days later, Henry contributed nine points and nine rebounds in a 70-50 second-round victory over Minnesota. And in the next round, Henry poured in a season-high 20 points against LSU.

“I didn’t show any disrespect and fight back,” Henry said. “Most people would have in this generation. Not me. I just knew what he wants from me as a man. If he didn’t think I could handle it, he wouldn’t have embarrassed me on TV like that. It’s not even embarrassment. He just wanted the best for me.”

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Via Twitter, former Spartan players, fellow coaches, television commentators and professional athletes backed Izzo, who has coached the Spartans to 22 consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances, eight Final Fours and one NCAA title. Some declared those critical of Izzo’s behavior must be “soft.” But others, including a Detroit News opinion columnist, criticized Izzo for losing his cool.

Izzo’s players defended him, some even laughing at the commotion. Several noted Izzo had cried a few days earlier while consoling injured junior swingman Kyle Ahrens during the Big Ten championship game — a telling sign.

“I guess it’s hard being outside looking in,” Winston said. “But we know how much he loves us. We know how much he cares for us. We know how much he wants the best for us. He has that relationship with us that yelling at us doesn’t take away from us. The same way he yells at us, he’ll cry for us, and pull all the strings for us to see us do the best that we can.”

Syer appreciated Izzo holding Henry accountable for mistakes. That, she said, is what good coaches do. But she disagreed with how Izzo delivered that message.

“I would argue there are better ways of taking the player on for his lack of effort,” Syer said in a telephone interview. “It would never be okay if a player got upset in a moment like that and lunged at their coach or lunged at a fellow teammate. That would be viewed as unacceptable. There was a real-life lesson here to teach about self-control.”

And, Syer added, what if a Michigan State chemistry professor had done this to a student in a classroom? “It’s amazing what we allow and think is okay in a sporting environment,” she said. “It’s hard to think of any other environment where it’s okay, and it’s okay because he loves his players.”

St. Thomas Coach John Tauer, a two-time national Division III Coach of the Year and a tenured psychology professor, noted two societal changes made this a bigger story that it might have been ten years ago: The move away from authoritarian coaching, and ubiquitous social media. “It’s the carrot and the stick,” he said. “The stick is increasingly viewed as unacceptable.” And, he added, video sharing allowed millions to view it and take sides before Izzo sat for his post-game press conference.

Lynx Coach Cheryl Reeve admires Izzo’s passion and intensity, which mirrors her own. However, she said, “it is never okay to physically approach a player in the way Coach Izzo did…I don’t think any situation warrants being touched by a coach in that way, in a fit of rage, and it seemed to be.”

But she liked how the players handled it — responding to Izzo’s anger with grace, calming him down, getting his message across, then moving on. “If that had happened even five years ago, I don’t know we would have thought much of it,” she said. “Times are changing, and what’s acceptable in terms of the way you motivate is in question. If you saw that in the women’s game, that would not be a good look. I didn’t think it was a good look for coaches, at all.”