"There isn't a major thing I would do without talking to him," Izzo says. "Marriage, my kids are born, an NBA job, championships--anything that's happened, he's been part of it."
Mariucci isn't quite so effusive, but then, that's not his way. On the surface the two men don't seem much alike. Aside from a five-week stint at Tulsa, Izzo has spent his entire career in Michigan, and his aw-shucks demeanor and Upper Peninsula (U.P., or "Yooper") accent make it easy to label him as authentic. Mariucci has lived in 17 houses, and his speech has been flattened by a career spent mostly in California. He's more contained, careful. Where Izzo seems incapable of an insincere word, Mariucci can come across as slick.
But the fact is, their background--each has a father of Italian descent and a mother whose lineage is French--and interests are nearly interchangeable. It's not for nothing that each man seems capable of stepping into the other's shoes. With his high-energy, rah-rah coaching style, Mariucci would be right at home (some would say even more at home) on a college campus, and Izzo's passion for football is almost childlike. He went out for football at Northern Michigan in the spring of '76--his squad beat Mariucci's in the spring game, he wants you to know--and, though he left to devote himself to hoops, he would travel with Mariucci and the Northern coaching staff for kicks, charting down-and-distance in the press box. Three times Izzo has suited up his Spartans hoopsters in shoulder pads and helmets and ordered them to go at it in rebounding drills. "He should coach football," Mariucci says.
Izzo doesn't disagree. "I want to get on his staff someday," he says, referring to Mariucci. "My dream is to be some kind of assistant--call me quality-control guy, call me a piece of s-----and to be in Lambeau Field against the Packers, in my parka, when it's snowing big. You know why I'd love to see Steve win the Super Bowl? A lot's because of him, but a lot's because I love football so much. I could live it."
The 2006 Super Bowl will be played at Detroit's Ford Field. Despite the fact that the Lions have won one playoff game since 1957, Mariucci says he intends to win the NFL championship. "Why not? Somebody's got to," he says.
Izzo has never been to a Super Bowl. He was set to fly to San Diego had Mariucci's 49ers beaten Green Bay in the '97 NFC Championship Game, but that was his last sniff. Tickets and travel won't be a problem this time, but proximity has nothing to do with it: If Mariucci's not on the sideline, Izzo won't go. That's part of the code. Tommy-and-Steve built their identity as much around loyalty as hard work; no matter how many wins they amass, they're still most comfortable thinking of themselves as two-of-a-kind, Yoopers forever proving themselves. Both men become uneasy when told that they've reached the summit, but it gets truly awkward when you point out the reason: Mariucci because he thinks he hasn't, and Izzo because he has. Told that Mariucci uses his success at Michigan State as a spur, Izzo visibly stiffens.
"In every relationship, there is a tint of jealousy...," he begins, and then he veers. "He can say what he wants. I don't think he feels a bit of it, and I don't either." For him to admit otherwise, of course, would be too much to ask. Then Izzo would have to admit that he's a success, admit that he's gone someplace his best friend hasn't, admit that the "ambition we're living," in Mariucci's words, has reached a fork that neither of them planned on. Instead, Izzo does something predictable but nonetheless astonishing. He finds a way to make himself the underdog.
"You know what's funny?" he says. "He got a national championship ring as a player. He was the Man. He's got something I can't ever get. You know what else? I've had chances to go to the NBA. He had more courage than I did: He took the jump [from college ball to the NFL]. If he won the Super Bowl, would I be saying, I've got to win the pro championship in basketball? I've got to get to that level and win the whole thing? Maybe. Maybe he'd drive me."
Izzo relaxes, smiles: That was close.
"GO, MOOCH, GO!" The voice rings out in the Premiere Center ballroom just as Steve Mariucci is about to speak. The crowd laughs--it's only one voice, after all. Located a 480-mile drive from Detroit and only 90 from Green Bay, Iron Mountain is still, despite Mariucci's current position, Packers country. Mariucci says he's converting the townspeople "slowly but surely," but tonight is not about that. His father, who introduced wrestling and bocce to the Upper Peninsula, is being inducted with nine other men into the U.P. Sports Hall of Fame, and with each man's husky speech about his roots (pronounced ruts), the night grows into a two-hour tribute to the U.P.