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"He won," Mariucci cuts in.
"He won," he says even faster, staring through the windshield. "He won one first. But the night is young, O.K.? It's just the beginning."
THE BEGINNING? No. For that you'd have to rewind the tape awhile, to a basketball game during their junior year. It's March 1972, 33 years after Iron Mountain High last won the Upper Peninsula championship. The Mountaineers are playing in the regional title game in Marquette, Mich., Tommy and Steve are co-captains, and the team trails by one point with two seconds left. Tommy, the point guard, has been the team's high scorer, with 16 points, and now he's at the foul line with it all in his hands: a one-and-one. Hit the first, and the Mountaineers tie. Hit the second, and they win. Tommy stands on the line. He shoots. The ball slides along the rim and off. He collapses to the floor in tears. Steve, the shooting guard, is the first person to his side. He pulls Tommy to his feet.
The pattern was set: There for each other, no matter what. They went to Northern Michigan University, where for the first time they were nobodies. An imploring letter from his high school coach got Izzo the chance to walk on to the basketball team. Mariucci got a partial scholarship to play football, nearly quit after his first few weeks, redshirted and found himself buried on the quarterback depth chart. He and Izzo roomed together. They worked harder, ran more than anyone else to prove themselves. In 1974, Mariucci's first active season on the team, Northern Michigan went 0--10, and he threw 69 passes, completing 37. The next fall he got his shot when the three quarterbacks ahead of him were injured. In 1975, in the greatest turnaround in NCAA history, Mariucci led the Wildcats to a 13--1 record and the Division II national championship.
On the court Izzo hustled his way from walk-on to team captain and became an All-America. At team banquets and New Year's Eve parties, "we didn't ever bring dates," Mariucci says. "We just kind of went ... together. That got back to Iron Mountain and raised some suspicion about our sexual orientation. Swear to God: I was asked, 'Hey, listen, I gotta ask, are you and Tom...?'"
After graduation they stayed on at Northern Michigan as grad students and assistant coaches. They bought a series of trailers, sleeping in bunk beds and renting out the spare room, then bought a house and renovated it themselves. After teaching, coaching (for a year Izzo worked at nearby Ishpeming High) and taking classes until 10 p.m.-- Izzo was studying health and Mariucci education--they would cut paneling or paint until 2 a.m., pass out in sleeping bags and wake up covered in sawdust. On a greaseboard hung in the family room they broke down basketball and football plays and charted the future. They made a bet on who would work at Notre Dame first. In truth Izzo figured he'd be coaching at some small school in Michigan, sticking at Northern if he was lucky. In 1980 Mariucci broke away to be a Division I assistant, at Cal State-- Fullerton. Izzo thought, Well, I've got to leave too.
Izzo admits that an is-he-passing-me-by insecurity gnawed at him, especially since it took three more years for him to break in as a Division I assistant, at Michigan State. But mostly he felt that Mariucci's move had broadened the possibilities for him, too. "The more successful one of them is, the more successful the other one will be," says Tom Clarke, who was one of their basketball coaches at Iron Mountain. "That goes back to grade school."
While at Fullerton, Mariucci met Gayle Wood. They wanted to get married, but, she says, Steve told her "if Tom didn't approve of me, I was out." She flew into Iron Mountain, "and afterward," she says, "I knew he was telling the truth." Two days before the Mariuccis' July 1982 wedding the best man broke his jaw playing softball; the doctor wired it and warned Izzo against flying, because airsickness could cause him to choke on his vomit. Izzo made the trip and gave the traditional toast, mumbling through his teeth while another guest tried translating.
In 1990 Izzo met Lupe Marinez. She passed muster with Mariucci, and Izzo married her in '92, with Mariucci as best man. They are godfathers to each other's children (the Izzos have a son and a daughter, the Mariuccis three sons and a daughter) and consult each other on investments, media relations, aging parents. When Mariucci interviewed for the Lions' job in early 2003, Izzo drove the 75 miles from East Lansing to Detroit that night, arriving at midnight, and the two friends talked until 4 a.m. In 1999, when Izzo was en route to his first Final Four, Mariucci sat in the stands with Lupe, holding her hand; it wasn't clear who was more nervous.