Has it been that long?
A little more than 40 years ago, Jud Heathcote took the men’s basketball coaching job at Michigan State. A little more than 22 years ago, he retired. Between those two points, he led the Spartans to 339 wins, three Big Ten championships and a national title.
On Saturday, Heathcote celebrates his 90th birthday. Counting down from 90 to one would be quite tedious, but in recognition of a Hall of Fame legacy, we have put together the nine biggest wins of the Heathcote era, one for each decade of a long life.
9. Michigan State 61, No. 8 Iowa 59
Date: Jan. 5, 1983
Significance: Spartans mark return to winning ways
After losing superstars Magic Johnson and Greg Kelser to the NBA, Michigan State stumbled through three straight losing seasons leading up to 1982-83. In the Big Ten opener, the 7-3 Spartans spoiled eighth-ranked Iowa’s unveiling of $17 million Carver-Hawkeye Arena. The 61-59 victory set the stage for a 17-13 year and a return to the postseason.
8. Michigan State 86, No. 2 Arkansas 71
Date: Nov. 27, 1991
Significance: MSU wins Maui Invitational
Early season games don’t often stand the test of time, but Michigan State’s Maui Invitational championship should be remembered fondly by fans. The Spartans handily took down an Arkansas team coming off a Final Four berth, 86-71, in little Lahaina Civic Center. Shawn Respert dropped in 22 points in the first big win of a memorable 22-8 season.
7. Michigan State 91, No. 6 Michigan 79
Date: Jan. 25, 1986
Significance: Scott Skiles goes off
There’s nothing like a big-time rivalry win, and Scott Skiles made sure his Spartans got one by scoring 40 points and dishing out 8 assists in a 91-79 upset of No. 6 Michigan at home. He hit 15 of 20 shots on the night, tying what remains the third-best single-game scoring performance in Michigan State history. The Spartans would take down the Wolverines once again later in the season.
6. Michigan State 84, No. 7 Ohio State 79
Date: Feb. 1, 1979
Significance: Putting a championship team on the right track
Magic Johnson and Michigan State had ambled to a pedestrian 11-5 (5-4 Big Ten) start before meeting the No. 7 Buckeyes at Jenison Field House. Johnson “severely sprained” his right foot but emerged from the training room upon hearing Ohio State had taken the lead. His heroics led the Spartans to an 84-79 win and kicked off a 10-game winning streak that would hand his team the Big Ten title. And the winning wouldn’t stop there, of course.
5. Michigan State 84, Ohio State 75
Date: Feb. 10, 1990
Significance: Heathcote’s record-breaking win
In a vacuum, there wasn’t much to this win. Michigan State was an 18-5 team going in and shouldn’t have surprised too many people with the victory. But it marks the night Heathcote became the winningest coach in Michigan State history, with his 232nd win to surpass Benjamin Van Alstyne in the record books. Heathcote’s understudy, Tom Izzo, has since passed him, and there’s likely no one he would’ve been happier to see do so.
4. Michigan State 80, Georgetown 68
Date: March 15, 1986
Significance: Spartans return to Sweet 16
You might not remember it as an upset, but technically it was. Georgetown came in as the fourth seed and Michigan State as the fifth. Despite using only seven players to the Hoyas’ 11, the Spartans comfortably beat John Thompson’s squad 80-68. Scott Skiles led Michigan State with 24 points, aided by a double-double from Larry Polec. Heathcote’s squad wouldn’t make it back to the NCAA Tournament for another four years.
3. Michigan State 72, No. 10 Purdue 70
Date: March 11, 1990
Significance: First Big Ten title since 1979
Did we say four years? That season, 1989-90, saw Michigan State’s winningest year under Heathcote. The 28-6 Spartans advanced all the way to the Sweet 16, but the biggest accomplishment remains the regular season. The Spartans went on a tear down the stretch, winning nine straight games (including five over ranked opponents) before meeting the 10th-ranked Boilermakers. A steal and score from now-assistant coach Dwayne Stephens gave the Spartans a 72-70 win over Purdue, which needed a win for a share of the Big Ten title. Instead, MSU took it outright.
2. Michigan State 101, Penn 67
Date: March 22, 1979
Significance: Michigan State advances to first national championship game
It wasn’t about the fact that Michigan State won. The Spartans were supposed to win against the tournament’s Cinderella, ninth-seeded Penn. It was about how they did it. They held the Quakers to 29.3 percent shooting while hitting 63.3 percent of their own field goals. Magic Johnson was brilliant, hitting 9 of 10 shots while posting a triple-double: 29 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists. Greg Kelser added a not-too-shabby 28 points, 9 rebounds and 3 assists as Michigan State advanced to its first ever national championship game. And you know what happened next.
1. Michigan State 75, Indiana State 64
Date: March 26, 1979
Significance: Michigan State wins national championship
The game helped make March Madness what it is. It garnered a ludicrous 24.1 Nielsen rating, which remains the highest for a basketball game at any level. If you fill out a bracket each year, you can thank, in part, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. But for Michigan State fans, it means so much more than that. It was the Spartans’ first national championship, presented to them via the play of Johnson and Greg Kelser. The two superstars combined for 43 of Michigan State’s 75 points as well as 15 of its 32 rebounds and 14 of its 15 assists. It was the last fans saw of them on the court for the Spartans, and what a way to leave a mark.