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The Accountability Advantage

Updated: Mar 26, 2019

Basketball is Psychology XIV

‪"Discipline is the highest form of love. If you really love someone, you have to give them the level of discipline they need." ‬ ‪— Tom Izzo‬


Tom Izzo sent twitter into a frenzy during the first round game against Bradley for yelling at freshman Aaron Henry. Most tweets were along the lines of, “He crossed the line”, “There’s no place for coaches like that in basketball”, “His behavior is unacceptable, unnecessary, and inappropriate”, and “I would never let my kid play for him”.

Before we make any accusations about Tom Izzo verbally abusing his players, let’s examine why he was all over twitter last week.

When Kyle Ahrens went down with a gruesome ankle injury, Coach Izzo was there on the floor comforting him.

As Izzo walked back to the bench, he wiped tears away. Michigan State players took turns exchanging hugs with Ahrens before he was stretchered off the court.

This doesn't seem like a coach who only cares about winning.

The comradery within the culture Tom Izzo has built is undeniable.

He has a reputation of being tough, and that is instilled within every player who comes through his program.

Tom Izzo’s players are loyal, he is unaffected by the “transfer epidemic”, he has a bunch of 4-year players who love and respect him.


So how does a guy who talks to his players so harshly have such loyalty? Our culture seems to be of the belief that if you hold a player accountable like Izzo did, you’re going to hurt their feelings so bad that you should get the paperwork ready because they’re going to transfer.

The only reason why this works for Tom Izzo is because of the relationships he’s built with his players.

Many people believe accountability and criticism should be delivered in moderation, at a low volume, so there’s no conflict and no one gets offended. That can be disingenuous. Avoiding conflict and accountability actually minimizes the depth of a relationship. Accountability steeped in relationship is healthy.

Accountability breeds intimacy.

Accountability breeds comradery.

Accountability breeds toughness.

Accountability breeds trust.

Aaron Henry had a choice. He could either get offended and take it personally, or he could understand why he’s being yelled at and let it light a fire in him to go out and do better next time.

Tom Izzo’s program breeds tough players because he intentionally challenges them. He puts them in difficult situations on purpose because the measure of your toughness is how you respond to adversity.

Tom Izzo’s objective was not to humiliate Aaron Henry, Izzo was trying to challenge him and he wanted Henry to respond. Izzo sighted a series of mental mistakes as his reason for getting on to Henry. In the postgame interview, Izzo gave credit to Aaron Henry because he did respond, he made a couple big buckets and some big free throws.


This might be different in a high-school basketball setting, but in college, you get to choose your coach. This was not Tom Izzo’s first time screaming at a player, Aaron Henry knew what he was signing up for. He might not love being yelled at, but he wants to be tough. Cris Carter said it best, “Coach Izzo made a promise to that kid and his parents. When he sat down in their living room, he told them, ‘I’m going to be on your son and grow him from being a boy into a young man.’ That’s what Aaon Henry got last night. This coaching will always be effective.” Aaron Henry agreed with that statement. In fact, all the Michigan State players backed their coach, even Henry, although he was the one who got chewed out.

Sure, this is not the only way to get a point across, but this is Tom Izzo’s way, and for him and his players, it works. This only works because like Henry said, Coach Izzo wants what is best for him. Accountability doesn’t work without relationship.

He pushes his players because he cares about his players.

Michigan State is not for everyone. Pat Riley said it best, “The greats can take it. Great players and great teams want to be driven. They want to be pushed to the edge. They don't want to be cheated. Ordinary players and average teams want it to be easy.” You don’t have to like Tom Izzo’s coaching style, but there’s a reason why his players buy in. They want to be pushed and challenged, even if that means being yelled at on national TV. They know Coach Izzo has their best interest in mind.

Without a great relationship between the player and the coach, this would be out of bounds. There is a line between yelling at a player and bullying a player, but the difference is what goes on behind the scenes in their relationship. Evidently coach Izzo loves and cares out about his players which is why holding them accountable like this works. If the coach made no commitment to build the relationship with the player, the player would not respond to that style of coaching. Accountability starts with relationships.

This is not encouraging coaches to yell at their players. You don’t have to be Tom Izzo, be authentic. As Brad Stevens puts it, “Just be yourself, and if it’s not good enough, that’s okay.”

Embrace accountability, but more importantly, embrace relationships.


You can coach hard and push your players appropriately. However, there is a line, and it is not okay to cross it. There should be no tolerance for bullying regardless of your position. Recently NKU women’s basketball player, Taryn Taugher spoke out about the abuse taking place within the program while administration tries to silence these athletes. Shar'Rae Davis also confirmed the allegations in a Facebook video. Coaches need to be held accountable too.

Please read and watch:

"Behind Closed Doors: Abuse In Northern Kentucky University Women's Basketball Program"

Written by Julie Fournier

Founder & CEO


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