Schuckman: Coaching camaraderie that brought Izzo to town helps create fervor for QU season

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Michigan State coach Tom Izzo, left, and Quincy University coach Steve Hawkins entertain the crowd with a question-and-answer session during Sunday's tip-off banquet in QU's Pepsi Arena. | Matt Schuckman photo

QUINCY — Logistically, it didn’t make sense. Tom Izzo didn’t care.

Steve Hawkins needed the right person to headline the Quincy University men’s basketball program’s first tip-off banquet, and the Michigan State Hall of Fame coach willingly obliged, despite the whirlwind schedule it created.

Izzo boarded a plane from East Lansing, Mich., to Quincy early Sunday afternoon, got back on that plane for the flight home Sunday evening and was scheduled to leave at 4:30 a.m. Monday for a recruiting trip. Not exactly how the 68-year-old coach typically spends his Sundays.

Then again, there is no normal schedule once basketball season arrives.

Although neither the Spartans nor the Hawks play a game that counts against their record until November — both are about five weeks from playing an exhibition game or two — the coaches are knee deep in preparation for the upcoming season and beyond. Therein is the reason Izzo was heading out on the recruiting trail.

Before doing so, he entertained, engaged and enlivened a basketball-loving crowd he hopes supports his friend and his team this winter.

“I have an appreciation for what Hawk is going through and what he’s trying to build,” Izzo said Sunday before doing a question-and-answer session with Hawkins in front of a crowd of nearly 400 people inside QU’s Pepsi Arena. “I think, unfortunately with the transfer portal and the NIL, coaches aren’t as close as they used to be

“I’m still old school in that way. It still matters to me. That’s why I do it.”

Izzo and Hawkins became friends during the current QU coach’s 20-year stint at Western Michigan University. They’ve maintained a loyalty and camaraderie with each other despite their diverging paths. So when Hawkins called, Izzo was quick to answer.

“It’s what you do for a friend,” Izzo said.

Hawkins is heading into the second season of his second stint with the Hawks and is coming off a 14-15 campaign in which the Hawks went 10-10 in the Great Lakes Valley Conference and took top-seeded Indianapolis to double overtime in the opening round of the GLVC Tournament.

The Hawks haven’t enjoyed a winning season since the 2016-17 team went 25-7 and played in the NCAA Division II national tournament, but they’re inching closer to being back on that level. Izzo suggested one thing that could make a difference.

Community support.

A coach who has won 686 career games, 10 Big 10 Conference regular-season titles and the NCAA Division I national championship in 2000, Izzo told the Quincy crowd how the Michigan State fans probably win his team two or three games per season because of the atmosphere they create in the Breslin Center.

And he implored the QU fans to back the Hawks and turn Pepsi Arena into a home-court advantage.

“When the entire community gets involved, it’s special,” Izzo said.

From the fans wanting to shake his hand, snap a picture or get an autograph during the meet-and-greet, to those enthralled by Izzo’s stories of his youth on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, a theme developed that many of us who the Gem City home recognize.

Basketball matters to this community.

It’s why coaches from Quincy High School, Quincy Notre Dame and John Wood Community College attended the event. It’s why several former QU players made the trip home. And it’s why an event in its infancy nearly sold out.

Plans already are in the works for next year’s event with Illinois coach Brad Underwood having committed to be the guest speaker. Hawkins wants the tip-off banquet to become part of the tradition and the culture for a program many believe is on the rise.

The true testament to where the Hawks are headed comes this winter on the court, and if the fervor bringing Izzo to town created carries over, they will be playing in front of sizable, vociferous crowds inside Pepsi Arena.

It’s a special vibe this community creates — Izzo experienced it and Hawkins followed it back here 18 months ago — and it’s a vibe the Hawks hope to embrace.

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