Jud Heathcote, 90, Dies; Coached Michigan State to Basketball Title

“I’m not stupid,” Heathcote recalled telling him. “I know basketball, and you will never be a center at Michigan State.”

Heathcote’s elation was palpable when Johnson selected Michigan State. The Spartans were 25-5 and won the Big Ten title in their first season with Johnson. The next year, they won the N.C.A.A. national championship over an Indiana State team led by Larry Bird in what remains the highest-rated televised title game ever.

The Magic-Bird rivalry, which extended into their careers in the National Basketball Association, brought more fervor and interest to a tournament that soon became known as March Madness.

Photo

Mr. Heathcote, right, in 2009, holds Michigan State’s 1979 championship trophy with former team members Terry Donnelly, left, and Magic Johnson during a 30th anniversary celebration.

Credit
Al Goldis/Associated Press

“When we won,” Heathcote said in a video interview that appeared on the Michigan State website, “it was not just a euphoric feeling, but also a feeling of relief that it’s over and we did it after our success the year before.”

Soon after the victory, Johnson announced that he was leaving Michigan State to turn professional. Heathcote responded in earthy fashion.

“I thought of two things,” he said at the time. “Vomit or suicide. And I might still do both.”

The Spartans never won a title or reached the Final Four again under Heathcote. He usually coached good teams, but never again one like the 1978-79 Spartans, with Johnson and the forward Greg Kelser, who was the team’s top scorer.

“Sometimes we didn’t have as good players as the other teams,” Heathcote said in the Michigan State video. “The Big Ten has too many good teams, too many good players and too many good coaches. You don’t sneak up on anybody.”

Heathcote was a character on the sideline, wearing blazers of various green shades and slapping himself on the forehead when things went wrong. He did not often look happy — appropriate for a coach who focused more on what was wrong with his players than what was right.

“His face is a jigsaw puzzle of discontent,” Jack McCallum wrote in Sports Illustrated late in the 1995 season, Heathcote’s final one, “pieces all over the place, mouth going one way, nose another, eyes rolling toward the heavens.”

Heathcote coached his last game soon after — a first-round loss to Weber State, an underdog, at the N.C.A.A. tournament.

“I knew it was going to be over when it was over,” he said that night. “I just didn’t think it would be this soon. We had a goal to win the Big Ten, and that slipped away. We talked about Seattle,” where the Final Four was held that year, “and it all slipped away tonight.”

Heathcote retired as the winningest coach in Michigan State history, with a record of 336-224. But his win total would be surpassed by Tom Izzo, his former assistant, who succeeded him.

In a statement on Tuesday, Izzo said: “No one cared more about the welfare of the game than Jud. He was a coach’s coach and a mentor to many.”

George Melvin Heathcote was born on May 27, 1927, in Harvey, N.D. His father, Marion, was a coach and teacher who died in 1930 of diphtheria, an illness that also killed one of Jud’s brothers. About two years later, his mother, the former Fawn Walsh, also a teacher, sent her three children to live with their grandparents in Manchester, Wash. She joined them a year later.

When neighborhood kids started calling him “Blubber” — a corruption of “Bubber,” his brother’s mispronunciation of brother — his mother gave him a simpler, easier-to-pronounce new name, Jud, “out of the clear blue sky,” he wrote in his autobiography.

Heathcote’s ambition to be a coach like his father was embedded in him at a young age.

“All the time growing up, people asked, ‘What do you want to be?’ ” he said in the Michigan State video. “I wanted to be a teacher and a coach. I never wavered.”

After graduating from Washington State, where he played basketball, he coached for 14 years at West Valley High School in Spokane before returning to Washington State as the freshman coach and assistant to Coach Marv Harshman.

Heathcote was hired to coach at Montana in 1971, and four years later his Grizzlies came within three points of defeating U.C.L.A, the eventual champion, in a regional semifinal game of the N.C.A.A. tournament.

After the loss, Heathcote recalled, U.C.L.A.’s coach, John Wooden, said: “Don’t talk about how we didn’t play. Talk about how Montana played. We played pretty well and struggled to beat them.”

Heathcote was still unhappy with the loss 20 years later. “It wasn’t a moral victory,” he wrote in his autobiography, “despite what everyone said.”

His survivors include his wife, Beverly; two daughters, Barbara Cox and Carla Kerner; a son, Jerry; and three granddaughters. He lived in Spokane.

During the 1979 tournament, Michigan State played a second-round game against Lamar University, from Texas. The Spartans had an unusual motivation: Players from Lamar were mocking Heathcote’s hair, which he combed forward to hide his advancing baldness.

“When I looked at Earvin, we both nodded,” Kelser wrote in the prologue to Heathcote’s book. “Lamar’s players would have to pay dearly for their lack of respect. Jud was our coach and we were not tolerating any of that nonsense.”

Michigan State won, 95-64. And four victories later, they were champions.

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