EAST LANSING – Matt Steigenga was just a teenager and neither he, nor any of his teammates, drank coffee.
That didn’t matter to Jud Heathcote.
The Michigan State coach was leading a team at the 1989 U.S. Olympic Festival in Oklahoma City and bought each player a coffee mug as a gift. Steigenga, one season into playing for Heathcote’s Spartans, recalled how each was picked out with a personalized message. His read “You know who loves you.”
“For me, I was coming off my freshman year,” Steigenga said, “and it really meant a lot to me that he gave that to me.”
Nearly three decades after he received the gift, Steigenga is still around the program as a radio analyst covering Michigan State games. And, he still has the coffee mug.
It was just one memory of plenty that came to mind for Steigenga on Saturday when Michigan State honored Heathcote during a 68-65 win against Purdue at the Breslin Center.
“I think the most telling thing that I’ll always remember about him is how much he loved his players,” Steigenga said. “He really did. I don’t think people realize that.”
Heathcote, who coached Michigan State from 1976-95, died on Aug. 28 at the age of 90. The two-time Big Ten Coach of the Year who led Michigan State to a national championship in 1979 posted a record of 340-220 and is second to only Izzo in all-time victories with the program.
The connection Heathcote had with his players was evident on Saturday. Steve Smith, who is Michigan State’s second all-time leading scorer and now a broadcaster for NBA TV and Turner Sports, didn’t get done with work until 2:30 a.m. Saturday. He flew out of Atlanta in just enough time to make it before tipoff and led a tribute to Heathcote on the Breslin Center floor at halftime.
“Every big, beautiful house has to have a foundation,” Smith told the crowd while standing among those who played for and worked with Heathcote, along with his family members, who were present for the tribute. “Jud Heathcote started that foundation.”
No. 4 Michigan State survived a physical 40-minute battle for a win against No. 3 Purdue to keep its Big Ten title hopes alive. Izzo said calling it an emotional day would be an understatement and the combination of a top-five matchup with a tribute to his mentor brought on a greater significance.
“Hell yeah, I wanted to win it for him,” Izzo said of Heathcote, while still wearing a green blazer as a tribute to him. “That was his kind of game.”
Former Purdue coach Gene Keady, who spent 15 years battling Heathcote’s Spartans in the Big Ten, was on the floor for the tribute. His replacement at Purdue, Matt Painter, also has a connection to Heathcote. He was recruited to play at Michigan State and almost signed with the Spartans before ultimately suiting up for Keady’s Boilermakers.
“Coach Heathcote recruited me to go to Michigan State and was just a great guy, a great man,” Painter said. “Obviously, he was known for his coaching – he won the national championship with Magic in ’79 – but he was a much better person than he was a coach. He was just one of those guys that got along with everybody, had an unbelievable sense of humor.”
Painter reminisced about Heathcote after his team dropped a heartbreaker, as Miles Bridges hit a step-back 3-pointer to break a tie with two seconds left in the game. As the Spartans were sewing up the win in the final seconds, Izzo stood in front of the bench at a raucous Breslin Center and looked up to the rafters.
“Because of Jud, I got to live a different life than most of my family,” he said. “I got to do things that my parents or my cousins or my sisters never got to do.”
Smith, who went on to spend 14 seasons in the NBA, spent a portion of his speech honoring Heathcote asking fans to cheer louder. When the game was over, he stood on the court and hugged each Michigan State player as they headed to the locker room.
While Smith raved about Heathcote’s knowledge of the game, it was his impact off the court that mattered more. Smith noted the seeds Heathcote planted at Michigan State more than 30 years ago and how they’ve grown. They are the same ones that brought him back to East Lansing on Saturday.
“Coaches can get you better on the court, but they can get you better off the court,” Smith said. “When you start to look at it, start to think about Jud and even me being a father, those are the things that truly mean a lot. I think that’s why you saw so many guys come back.”