"I think Jud will be the sentimental favorite in this year's NCAA tournament," says his wife, Beverly, whom Jud calls Bevo. Indeed, the "Can Jud get to Seattle in his final season?" story line is as good as the 1995 tournament has to offer, and even Heathcote acknowledges that. Sort of. "The Final Four would be a dream come true," he says. Then he thinks a moment. "But, hell, I know 63 coaches who don't give a damn whether Jud Heathcote makes it to Seattle or not."
The tournament has been both kind and cruel to Heathcote. It was kind in 1979, when he and Michigan State won their only NCAA title in what remains the most celebrated championship game ever—the Magic Johnson-Larry Bird matchup in Salt Lake City. It was cruel in '86, when during the Midwest Regional semifinal at Kemper Arena in Kansas City, the game clock was inadvertently shut off for about 15 seconds, helping Kansas rally to defeat the Spartans 96-86 in overtime. It was also cruel in '90, when the Spartans were beaten in the Southeast Regional semifinal in New Orleans by a Kenny Anderson shot that, replays showed, was released after the clock ran out. The bucket sent the game into overtime, and Georgia Tech went on to win 81-80. And to think that those nightmares happened after Heathcote's minor heart attack in September 1984.
But he has been able to keep the postseason pretty much out of his mind this winter as what Respert smilingly calls the Jud Heathcote Farewell Tour rolls on. The Tour has provided the backdrop to an outstanding season, with Michigan State ranked No. 10 and tied with Purdue for the Big Ten lead with a 13-3 record (21-4 overall) after a 67-61 win over Indiana on Sunday. On The Tour, Heathcote has received a putter from Boilermaker coach Gene Keady. From Knight he got a green leather recliner. From Steve Fisher, his smiling foil at Michigan, he got a big-screen TV. From Illinois coach Lou Henson he got an antique watch and a football helmet with a face mask, the latter in recognition of the time Heathcote angrily threw a ball at the floor only to have it bounce up and almost break his nose. ("I never let anybody know how much that hurt," says Heathcote, "but, god, did it hurt.") From Penn State he got a Nittany Lion statue, from Ohio State a set of golf clubs, from Minnesota a stool.
A stool? See, over the years Heathcote has repeatedly disparaged the Gophers' Williams Arena, where team benches are set about three feet below the court. When asked a few years ago about renovations made to Williams that didn't correct that problem, Heathcote said, "Well, it's like when you have outdoor plumbing and you finally get indoor plumbing, but you don't hook up the water."
The thing is, The Farewell Tour wasn't even supposed to happen. By the middle of last season Heathcote had decided that 1993-94 would be his last campaign. He confided this only to Beverly. "I didn't want a whole year of goodbyes." he says. "I thought it would be embarrassing and distracting for my team." But then, on Feb. 28, 1994, a confidential memo, written by Michigan State's associate athletic director, Clarence Underwood, to university president Peter McPherson, was leaked and published in The State News. The memo recommended that Underwood be authorized to tell Heathcote to retire at the end of the season, and stipulated, "if he does not accept this option, that Jud Heathcote be terminated from the men's basketball program effective March 31, 1994."
A public relations disaster ensued, and McPherson threw his support behind Heathcote, saying that the coach would make all decisions about his own future. The Michigan State hierarchy has tried to put the whole affair behind it, but the incident remains an unsavory part of the school's athletic history. As for Underwood, he said he meant nothing "against Jud on a personal basis."
Jud, however, took it "on a personal basis." One of the dominant themes of his life has been the disloyalty he thinks has been shown by school administrators to veteran coaches—men such as Marv Harshman, Heathcote's mentor, and Don Monson, his closest friend, who were given the gate at Washington State and Oregon, respectively. Heathcote was determined that the same thing would not happen to him, and on March 30, about a month after the memo was leaked, he announced that he would be back for one more year. "I didn't want anyone to think I'd been fired," says Heathcote. "That would've been too painful after all these years."
Sixteen winters have passed since that championship game in Salt Lake City, and Heathcote's reputation as an unintentional court jester may have obscured his accomplishments as a tactician, motivator and first-rate molder of back-courtmen like Johnson, Scott Skiles, Steve Smith and now Respert and Snow. Heathcote is the only major college coach, for example, who forcefully thanks his forehead with his hand when things go wrong. He says that in the old days he used to tap his head lightly with his index finger as a sign that a player should start thinking, "but, gradually, the tap became a thank." Heathcote still runs in place comically to protest calls. He still twists his face into expressions that would impress Jim Carrey.
He still wears sport coats of various shades of green to all games, a tradition that started with his first game at the helm of the Spartans, on Nov. 29, 1976. "And green isn't even his best color," says Bevo. To which Jud responds, "I have no best color." Beverly buys the jackets, two or three at a time, and the Heathcotes give them to Goodwill after a couple of years. "They pass from the homely to the homeless," says Jud. He still combs his wispy hair forward, having formed an alliance years ago with Henson and Keady to make sure the Big Ten is the nation's official Bad Hair Conference.
But put aside all that and believe this: The man has always been able to coach, ever since he first draped a whistle around his bull neck at West Valley High in Spokane in 1950. Michigan State's success this season is a result of many things, including the maturity and leadership of the smooth-shooting Respert, the evolution of Snow from a liability at point guard into a probable NBA player and perhaps even a touch of collective revenge for the Underwood memo. But the best thing about the Spartans' success is that it ensures that Heathcote's talent will not go unrecognized in his final season.