Building the Izzo Way (Cont.)
How will Montgomery's program diverge from the Izzo formula?
For starters, it will be a little more even-keel. That's not a strategic choice so much as a product of Montgomery's personality.
"I'm a little calmer [than Izzo], but just as intense," Montgomery says.
Izzo says Montgomery's steady approach might be a concern because "the biggest thing about the job is you've got to have passion for it. And then, if you've got passion, the question is how you display that. Every individual is a little different, and [Montgomery] has got to find his niche."
Stephens knows both coaches well, and while he agrees with Izzo's assessment, it got him laughing.
"It's true, [Montgomery] is a little more even-keeled than Coach Izzo. So are probably 99 percent of the coaches in the country," says Stephens. "[Montgomery] knows how to be intense. He has passion for what he does and that passion comes out in every workout and in every film session. He knows how to turn it up and show that toughness and that demanding style that Coach Izzo taught us."
Recruiting is a different story. There's little doubt that the process works differently in DeKalb than in East Lansing.
"At a high-major school [such as Michigan State], you can recruit fewer players, and it's not hard to figure out who the top five players in the state are -- it's already on the recruiting service," says Montgomery. "Besides, it's easy to walk into a gym and pick out the best player. [At a mid-major], your eye has to change a little bit. All of a sudden you have to find [players ranked] six through 20, and you have to be a little more selective."
To that end, Montgomery and his staff not only scout prospects themselves, but when potential NIU recruits visit campus, he relies on current Huskies to tell him which players have the skills to compete. Once Montgomery identifies an on-court match, he starts to dig deeper.
"We have to burn the phone lines a little more here [than at MSU]," Montgomery says. "Each assistant coach is going to take 10 to 15 kids and make sure they're bird-dogging them. They're going to make sure I get on the phone with [the recruits]. And then we're calling [a recruit's] high school coach, his AAU coach, his parents, we'll even call other schools [the recruit has played against]."
Montgomery has an advantage in his culture-building efforts because Northern Illinois is located only about an hour west of Chicago, where many of his players went to high school. That proximity allows him to not just build a familial feeling among the players, but actually to involve their families and hometown friends. The idea is for Interstate 88 to become a Chicago-to-DeKalb prospect pipeline similar to the one Izzo benefited from at MSU when he recruited players from Flint such as Mateen Cleaves, Morris Peterson and Charlie Bell. That paved the way for other players from that area, such as Jason Richardson and Draymond Green, to come to East Lansing.
"The culture you build is best when the players you recruit become your best recruiters," Izzo says. "I think that can happen if [Montgomery] can choose the right guys out of Chicago -- guys who are playing with each other and for each other. That's part of the culture."
Northern Illinois hired Montgomery in March to replace Ricardo Patton, a veteran coach who had twice taken Colorado to the NCAA tournament before coming to NIU. Patton managed only a 35-83 record in DeKalb, including a 9-21 mark last season.
Montgomery quickly reeled in a seven-player recruiting class last spring that included two top prospects from Chicago, Abdel Nader and Andre Henley. Henley came first; Montgomery had been following him on the recruiting trail while at Michigan State and thought of him as a Big Ten-level prospect. Indeed, it was Henley's commitment that persuaded Nader that Montgomery was building something special in DeKalb. And when Nader committed to NIU in May, the Chicago Tribune called it "one of the biggest recruiting scores in Northern Illinois history."
So it was a major disappointment to NIU fans in early September when Montgomery dismissed Henley and sophomore Nate Rucker from the team. (NIU didn't specify why the players were dismissed.
In removing Henley and Rucker, Montgomery made the sort of decision that can be good for a program's long-term health, even if there's a substantial short-term cost. Izzo worked through similar situations at MSU in recent years when he dismissed players Chris Allen and Korie Lucious, and Montgomery responded similarly at NIU.
Stephens was impressed.
"I was talking to [Montgomery] the other day, and I told him, 'I feel like I'm talking to Coach Izzo," Stephens says. "It's funny, because once you take that next step and you cross over [to the head coach's position], you're looking at things from a different standpoint."
Despite losing Henley and Rucker, Montgomery still has five freshmen on campus -- including Nader -- and he's trying to lay the groundwork for a strong season.
Northern Illinois' first game is Friday, Nov. 11, in a gym Montgomery knows well -- Mackey Arena in West Lafayette, Ind. The Huskies will face Purdue, and NIU will be serious underdogs.
When the Huskies crash the boards or apply stifling defense, Montgomery will take the next step in applying the blueprint established by his old boss.
Regardless of the outcome of that game, Izzo is sure that Northern Illinois chose wisely: "I'll be shocked if [Montgomery] is not only good but real good."
Weise sends Habs past Lightning in overtime
Penguins rally to beat Blue Jackets in series opener