I wrote this article about Northern Illinois University basketball coach Mark Montgomery for Sports Illustrated's website in 2011.
The basketball players at Northern Illinois University didn't get much sleep this summer because their workouts started at 6:30 a.m. The team also spent more time in the weight room than in years past, lifting four days a week instead of three. On Fridays, they joined the football team for quickness and agility drills.
The Huskies' new basketball coach has a sign on his door that asks "What have you sacrificed to make yourself better?" That's the question he wants players asking themselves as they travel from their dorms to the weight room, from the treadmill to the gym, and from the showers to the classroom. Every player, freshmen included, is enrolled in summer school.
Antone Christian, a redshirt sophomore, hasn't played in a game yet for his new coach or even endured a preseason practice. But he's seen enough to say, "He's tough. He's hard-nosed. He's hands-on. He's very blue collar, and he's all about hard work."
If it sounds a little like Tom Izzo has set up shop in DeKalb, Ill., that's no accident. NIU's new coach is Mark Montgomery, who spent the last decade at Michigan State University as an assistant under Izzo, including the last four seasons as associate head coach. While at MSU, Montgomery coached in three Final Fours and recruited players such as current Los Angeles Laker Shannon Brown.
Now Montgomery is getting a shot at building his own program at Northern Illinois, a Mid-American Conference school located just west of Chicago's suburbs. Montgomery, 41, has already begun to apply Michigan State's blueprint for success in his new job, so it's no wonder he sounds a lot like Izzo.
"At Michigan State, we always said that players are made in the summer, and then the games are won in the winter," he says. "Now I tell the players [at NIU] that we're going to sacrifice in summer, we're going to pay the price, and then winning will come from that."
So NIU players, such as freshman guard Marquavis Ford, fight off soreness and restlessness, trudging to and from the Huskies practice gym on summer mornings. "I didn't think the team would work this hard," Ford says. "But you can see all Coach Montgomery wants is to win and be successful. And now I see all these guys really want to win, too."
Northern Illinois hired Montgomery in hopes that he can replicate Izzo's success. Izzo is 363-181 at Michigan State, where he won the 2000 NCAA title and has reached 14 straight NCAA tournaments -- including six trips to the Final Four. Montgomery is the eighth Izzo assistant to move on to a head coaching job, a list that includes Tom Crean (Indiana), Brian Gregory (Georgia Tech) and Doug Wojcik (Tulsa).
Izzo himself never built a mid-major program. His first head coaching job was at Michigan State, where he succeeded Jud Heathcote in 1995 after serving as an assistant for more than a decade, beginning in 1983. (Izzo was an assistant coach at MSU during Montgomery's All-Big Ten playing career there.) Izzo did spend several seasons as an assistant at his alma mater, Northern Michigan University, however, and he relishes a blue-collar approach that he considers very applicable to the challenges that mid-major coaches face. Izzo thinks Montgomery is prepared for the NIU job not only because of the decade he spent on the MSU bench, but also because of the time Montgomery spent outside the limelight, coaching four seasons (1997-2001) as an assistant at Central Michigan University.
"Sometimes when you've only been in a place that has everything, you don't understand what it takes," Izzo says. "[Montgomery] has been around a bunch of guys that I consider more blue-collar guys instead of big-time guys, and he's been through every situation."
Nonetheless, it's Montgomery's experience at Izzo's side that earned him the NIU job. Montgomery won a MAC title in 2001 at CMU while on Jay Smith's staff, but his mission at NIU is to get the Huskies to rebound, defend and run the floor like Izzo's teams. And if some of Izzo's Final Four magic has rubbed off on Montgomery, that would be fine, too.
What is the Izzo formula? Izzo craves toughness above all else, but he also believes that tough teams invariably have strong player leadership. In fact, Izzo told Montgomery that developing a strong leader will be more critical to building NIU's foundation this season than finding a strong scorer. Ideally, one player can fill both roles: at Michigan State, the prototype is Mateen Cleaves, the fiery point guard who led the Spartans to the 2000 NCAA title. But Izzo's defining leaders haven't always been stars, and Izzo credits forward Antonio Smith and guard Travis Walton with powering runs to the Final Four in 1999 and 2009, respectively, even though both players averaged less than seven points per game.
So Izzo has charged Montgomery with identifying a player such as Smith or Walton on the NIU roster and using him as a cornerstone.
"You've got to worry about each year because that's the nature of the beast, but you've also got to build the program the right way so that in years three and four you've got a solid foundation," Izzo says. "Then you'll have a program that will last, not a flash in the pan."
The next item on the Izzo blueprint is talent. Izzo's recruiting classes at MSU may rate a notch below those at North Carolina or Duke, but they are still stocked with elite prospects.
"To have [MSU-style] rebounding, or the running game, those things are built over time. You have to have the players and the talent to be a good rebounding team," says Dwayne Stephens, an Izzo assistant who coached with Montgomery in East Lansing the last eight seasons, and also played with him on MSU's 1990 Big Ten championship team. "Effort, though, can be there from Day 1. And I guarantee [Montgomery] will demand that effort."
Then come the Xs and Os and the challenges of steering a team through the ups and downs of a season. At MSU, Montgomery coached an underdog Spartan team to the Final Four (the fifth-seeded 2010 team that lost star point guard Kalin Lucas to injury early in the tournament), as well as the second-seeded 2009 squad. Izzo also thinks those experiences have taught Montgomery to win despite challenging circumstances.
"It's never easy [to make a Final Four], but it's a little easier to get there if you have a boat full of McDonald's All-Americans," says Izzo. "At Northern Illinois, you're probably not going to have that, but you still can win championships, and I think [Montgomery] knows how to win championships. I think there's a different mentality to winning games and winning championships, and he's been a big part of [cultivating a championship mentality at MSU]."
How will Montgomery's program diverge from the Izzo formula?
For starters, it will be a little more even-keel. That's not a strategic choice so much as a product of Montgomery's personality.
"I'm a little calmer [than Izzo], but just as intense," Montgomery says.
Izzo says Montgomery's steady approach might be a concern because "the biggest thing about the job is you've got to have passion for it. And then, if you've got passion, the question is how you display that. Every individual is a little different, and [Montgomery] has got to find his niche."
Stephens knows both coaches well, and while he agrees with Izzo's assessment, it got him laughing.
"It's true, [Montgomery] is a little more even-keeled than Coach Izzo. So are probably 99 percent of the coaches in the country," says Stephens. "[Montgomery] knows how to be intense. He has passion for what he does and that passion comes out in every workout and in every film session. He knows how to turn it up and show that toughness and that demanding style that Coach Izzo taught us."
Recruiting is a different story. There's little doubt that the process works differently in DeKalb than in East Lansing.
"At a high-major school [such as Michigan State], you can recruit fewer players, and it's not hard to figure out who the top five players in the state are -- it's already on the recruiting service," says Montgomery. "Besides, it's easy to walk into a gym and pick out the best player. [At a mid-major], your eye has to change a little bit. All of a sudden you have to find [players ranked] six through 20, and you have to be a little more selective."
To that end, Montgomery and his staff not only scout prospects themselves, but when potential NIU recruits visit campus, he relies on current Huskies to tell him which players have the skills to compete. Once Montgomery identifies an on-court match, he starts to dig deeper.
"We have to burn the phone lines a little more here [than at MSU]," Montgomery says. "Each assistant coach is going to take 10 to 15 kids and make sure they're bird-dogging them. They're going to make sure I get on the phone with [the recruits]. And then we're calling [a recruit's] high school coach, his AAU coach, his parents, we'll even call other schools [the recruit has played against]."
Montgomery has an advantage in his culture-building efforts because Northern Illinois is located only about an hour west of Chicago, where many of his players went to high school. That proximity allows him to not just build a familial feeling among the players, but actually to involve their families and hometown friends. The idea is for Interstate 88 to become a Chicago-to-DeKalb prospect pipeline similar to the one Izzo benefited from at MSU when he recruited players from Flint such as Mateen Cleaves, Morris Peterson and Charlie Bell. That paved the way for other players from that area, such as Jason Richardson and Draymond Green, to come to East Lansing.
"The culture you build is best when the players you recruit become your best recruiters," Izzo says. "I think that can happen if [Montgomery] can choose the right guys out of Chicago -- guys who are playing with each other and for each other. That's part of the culture."
Northern Illinois hired Montgomery in March to replace Ricardo Patton, a veteran coach who had twice taken Colorado to the NCAA tournament before coming to NIU. Patton managed only a 35-83 record in DeKalb, including a 9-21 mark last season.
Montgomery quickly reeled in a seven-player recruiting class last spring that included two top prospects from Chicago, Abdel Nader and Andre Henley. Henley came first; Montgomery had been following him on the recruiting trail while at Michigan State and thought of him as a Big Ten-level prospect. Indeed, it was Henley's commitment that persuaded Nader that Montgomery was building something special in DeKalb. And when Nader committed to NIU in May, the Chicago Tribune called it "one of the biggest recruiting scores in Northern Illinois history."
So it was a major disappointment to NIU fans in early September when Montgomery dismissed Henley and sophomore Nate Rucker from the team. (NIU didn't specify why the players were dismissed.
In removing Henley and Rucker, Montgomery made the sort of decision that can be good for a program's long-term health, even if there's a substantial short-term cost. Izzo worked through similar situations at MSU in recent years when he dismissed players Chris Allen and Korie Lucious, and Montgomery responded similarly at NIU.
Stephens was impressed.
"I was talking to [Montgomery] the other day, and I told him, 'I feel like I'm talking to Coach Izzo," Stephens says. "It's funny, because once you take that next step and you cross over [to the head coach's position], you're looking at things from a different standpoint."
Despite losing Henley and Rucker, Montgomery still has five freshmen on campus -- including Nader -- and he's trying to lay the groundwork for a strong season.
Northern Illinois' first game is Friday, Nov. 11, in a gym Montgomery knows well -- Mackey Arena in West Lafayette, Ind. The Huskies will face Purdue, and NIU will be serious underdogs.
When the Huskies crash the boards or apply stifling defense, Montgomery will take the next step in applying the blueprint established by his old boss.
Regardless of the outcome of that game, Izzo is sure that Northern Illinois chose wisely: "I'll be shocked if [Montgomery] is not only good but real good."