Shawn Windsor: Michigan State's Tom Izzo sends important message after COVID-19 diagnosis

©Detroit Free Press

He wants to be a cautionary tale. Proof that even the most cautious, protocol-following obsessive — and Tom Izzo is Tom Izzo because he is nothing if not obsessive — can test positive for the novel coronavirus.

He has been “beating his brain” trying to figure out how he might have contracted it, trying to find where the crack in the system was hiding. Maybe he touched something and touched his eye, he wondered Monday afternoon during a news conference, when he took time from his home to let everyone know he would be just fine.

That he is just fine, despite a raspy voice, a little fatigue, an occasional chill. Despite having to now quarantine for the next nine days, away from his team, away from the place that made him, away from the program he made.

Away from the thing that gives him his identity, maybe more than even his childhood home in the Upper Peninsula. Izzo is Michigan State basketball, and he fought hard to protect it the last six months, adhering to all the rules and procedures, imploring his team in meetings — masked, of course — teaming up with the state’s other prominent college coaches to tape messages on behalf of the state:

Wear. A. Mask.

He believes it makes a difference, because that’s what the science says, even as he got the virus … while wearing a mask wherever protocol dictated.

That fact, he said, won’t deter his belief that masks and social distancing work. That won’t deter his advocacy. If anything, he wants to use his infection to hammer it all home more.

“Don’t let up for a second,” he said, “especially those of you who have kids, or families. Stick to the protocol.”

He understands that his getting the virus despite living in the kind of bubble many of us do not opens the system to more questions, even criticism. And he understands that his positive test Monday morning makes it look, at least in some way, that it might not matter what we do. That the virus will have its day, especially on college campuses.

He also understands that cases are going up in spots around the country, that some places are locking down again, that while no player or other coach or staff member has tested positive at MSU, plenty of players and coaches have in college football.

Clemson lost to Notre Dame because it didn’t have its quarterback, Trevor Lawrence. Wisconsin has missed its last two games because of an outbreak. Izzo’s good friend, Greg Kampe, Oakland University’s coach, tested positive last week (and also is doing fine).

All of this is happening as a COVID-19 surge roils across the country. For months, public health doctors have warned a second wave is coming, that the winter might be as harsh as last spring in the nation’s ICUs. Some hospitals are getting close to capacity again.

And schools want to hold a basketball season in spite of all this?

Well, yes, said Izzo.

“We can’t quit living,” he said.

He insists there is a happy medium out there, a place between scuttling the season and cramming arenas full of screaming students. He insists there will be legitimacy to the season, too, even if schools have to cancel games, as has happened in football.

“Do I think it’s worth it?”

“Yes.”

Of course, he does. He’s a basketball coach. He lost a chance to coach in the NCAA tournament last spring just as COVID-19 began to overtake the country. He has watched other sports return, with lots of success, in the eight months since.

He wants to show that his program and his conference and his sport can be part of that success, too.

And so, he set up a news conference via Zoom on Monday afternoon, despite his infection. And while he kept it short, by his standard, meeting with reporters after a positive test is not something most high-profile coaches would do.

But, he had a message. A few of them, actually.

The virus can get anyone. He and his program will handle the adversity. His absence from his team the next nine days or so could help his players and coaches. They will have to lead themselves, even as he watches on a stream from his home.

In other words, this is an opportunity for Izzo. Because everything is an opportunity for Izzo.

“Somehow I’ve got to make a negative a positive,” he said.

He may never know where or when he got it. He may never find the leak in the bubble. He understands that. He also understands that his misfortune shouldn’t sway anyone from the words of our public health officials.

He plans on using his megaphone to back them up as long as it takes. And he plans on watching a lot of film the next week and a half.

In the meantime, wear a mask, he said. It has nothing to do with toughness.

“I want everybody to stay safe.”

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