Head for the Mountain
Tiny Upper Peninsula town will be rooting for Izzo
Posted: Wednesday March 24, 1999 10:02 PM
IRON MOUNTAIN, Mich. (AP) -- Gold and black are the official colors at Iron Mountain High School. But Friday has been designated Green and White Day -- and no one's complaining.
The occasion, of course, is Michigan State's appearance in college basketball's Final Four this weekend. It's a matter of hometown pride for Iron Mountain, where Spartan head coach Tom Izzo grew up and where many of his relatives still live.
This is the second time in a matter of months that the Upper Peninsula town of 8,000 has celebrated a native son's success in the sports world.
The San Francisco 49ers in January reached the NFL playoffs for the second consecutive year under head coach Steve Mariucci, Izzo's boyhood pal. Both were star athletes at Iron Mountain High, where trophies honoring their accomplishments are on prominent display, and they remain best friends.
"This town is very, very excited," said Tom Johnson, athletic director at the school, where the outdoor signboard this week proclaims best wishes for Izzo.
So is the Izzo clan, Andy Izzo said Wednesday, fielding yet another call at the business his father established in 1914. It began as a shoe repair shop and has expanded to include exterior home improvement and flooring installation services.
"We're a very tight-knit family, very proud," said Andy Izzo, Tom's uncle and one of four brothers.
Even so, he said, there are no plans for a family gathering to watch Michigan State's semifinal clash Saturday with top-ranked Duke.
"We'll all sit at home and watch," Andy said. "We don't get together in a big family group because if we interrupt each other during a big play, we'd probably kill each other."
Not everyone would be there, anyway. Tom Izzo's father, Carl, has been traveling with the team during its playoff run and will be at courtside in St. Petersburg, Fla., this weekend.
So will Mariucci, who accompanied the Spartans to St. Louis last weekend for the Midwest Regional finals.
That kind of support is nothing new for the buddies from Iron Mountain, who met in middle school and struck up a friendship so close they would serve as best man in each other's weddings.
They were drawn to each other by a mutual interest in sports and, perhaps, the fact that neither was gifted with size or extraordinary talent. What they had was grit -- and persistence.
"Both had an uphill battle," said Tom Clarke, who was Izzo's basketball coach at Iron Mountain. "They were successful because of their desire, their determination, their competitive spirit. These guys just did not want to lose."
Izzo was captain of the basketball team, while Mariucci was football captain.
Both went to Northern Michigan University in Marquette, where Mariucci began as fourth-string quarterback and ended up leading his team to the NCAA Division II championship in 1975.
The 5-foot-7 Izzo, meanwhile, made the basketball squad as a walk-on after Clarke wrote a letter pleading with the coach to give him a chance. He would become team captain and earn third-team Division II All-America honors.
Since then, Izzo and Mariucci have gone far and accomplished much. But folks back home say they've never forgotten their roots.
They were grand marshals in the town's Fourth of July parade last summer, and they put together a golf tournament that raised $74,000 for the high school. Another is planned for this June.
"They've had a lot of recognition since they've made it to the big time," said Mike Constantini, manager of Bimbo's Wine Press, a tavern in Iron Mountain that expects a packed house Saturday night. "But they still drop by when they're in town -- same as always."
No doubt the crowd at Bimbo's will be solidly behind their local hero -- which hasn't always been the case during football season.
After all, Mariucci's 49ers locked horns in the playoffs with the Green Bay Packers, who are much beloved in Iron Mountain. The towns are about 100 miles apart.
"Pulling for Steve and being a loyal Packer fan was pretty hard to do," Clarke said. "It'll be nice not have any dual feelings."
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