Remembering Jud Heathcote, the funniest coach who ever won it all
Published on Aug. 29, 2017
It’s quite possible the worst job of reporting I’ve done in 35 years in journalism was to not have a tape recorder running during four of the greatest hours of my life: the time I spent in a golf cart with Jud Heathcote.
I traveled a long way in September 2003 to attend Mark Few’s Coaches Vs. Cancer Golf Tournament in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, but I don’t think that was reason enough for organizers to have wasted the event’s greatest attraction on a lightweight like me. The retired Michigan State basketball coach should have been in a cart with some millionaire booster, because the show he put on that day was worth a fortune.
It convinced me, beyond argument, that Heathcote was the funniest person around who didn’t make a living as a professional comedian.
And he was funnier than a lot who did, too.
For instance: “I took my wife to the doctor’s office and he said she should get more exercise. I asked him: ‘What do you suggest?’ He said she should have sex three days a week. I asked: ‘Which days? He said Monday, Wednesday and Saturday.’ I told him I could get her here on Monday and Wednesday, but I play golf on Saturdays.”
It’s maybe a bit of shame that’s the first thing we remember now that we’ve lost Jud. He died late Monday at age 90 in Spokane, where he’d made his home following his retirement in 1995. We remember him that way because he spent the past 22 years filling the world with humor and joy, with a fair amount of wisdom mixed in. During his working life, though, he was a tremendous basketball coach whose excellence was not limited to winning the 1979 NCAA championship with Michigan State star Magic Johnson.
Heathcote spent 14 years as a high school coach and another seven as an assistant at Washington State before he got his break as a Division I head coach at Montana at age 44. He led the Grizzlies to two Big Sky titles and one NCAA Tournament before being hired to coach the Spartans in 1976, just as Johnson was entering his senior season at Everett High in East Lansing.
Heathcote won that recruiting battle, then together they won two Big Ten championships and the NCAAs in Johnson’s sophomore season.
“I love him so much because he pushed me to be great,” Johnson said on Twitter. “Coach Heathcote made me a better person, player and champion. He turned a young kid into a man.”
After a middling period in the early 1980s, the program was rejuvenated with the emergence of guard Scott Skiles in the middle of the decade. The 1986 Spartans lost a heartbreaker in the Sweet 16 when the clock malfunctioned in the final minutes against the eventual champ. They lost another in 1990 when Kenny Anderson helped Georgia Tech rally from four points down in the final 13 seconds — his regulation buzzer-beater maybe was late — to win in overtime.
And still Heathcote kept his sense of humor well enough to make this joke in his retirement:
“So I go into the cannibals’ butcher shop and I’m pricing out brains. First, I see the basketball coach’s brain, and it’s $2 a pound. Next, I check out the AD’s brain, and it’s $2.50 a pound. Finally, I check the university president’s brain, and it’s $25 a pound! I ask the butcher: What gives? He says: Do you have any idea how many college presidents we have to slaughter to get one pound of brain?”
Many of his iconic jokes are collected on a thread on MSU’s message board at 247Sports.
Heathcote was a star, as one would expect, when — because he was recovering from hip surgery — he appeared through Skype in 2010 at a roast of Hall of Famer Bob Knight.
“Most people don’t like Knight when they meet him,” Heathcote said. “But after they get to know him, they hate him.”
Upon moving to Spokane, Heathcote became a Gonzaga season-ticket holder. He already was friendly with Dan Monson, whose father, Don, was an assistant under Heathcote for two seasons in the 1970s. He soon became close to Mark Few, who succeeded Monson as coach and took the program from West Coast Conference power to national force. Few and Heathcote met for lunch every couple weeks at Jack and Dan’s, the tavern owned by John Stockton’s father, Jack, to discuss coaching and the game. They used to call it “Tuesdays with Jud.”
Heathcote’s connection to Few was unofficial, but his coaching tree also included 2000 NCAA champion Tom Izzo, 1998 Final Four participant Mike Montgomery, 2002 Final Four participant Kelvin Sampson, 2003 Final Four participant Tom Crean and such accomplished winners as Mike Deane, Brian Gregory and Skiles of the NBA.
On that afternoon in Coeur d’Alene, Heathcote must have ripped through more one-liners than I did golf strokes, and believe me, I hit that ball plenty. There was a woman from the American Cancer Society in our group, and she was not particularly accomplished at the sport. Jud just took her apart with every flubbed shot, and she reveled in it like she was the target of Don Rickles’ best (and longest) Vegas diatribe.
When he appeared publicly, though, a majority of his humor was self-deprecating — or marriage-deprecating — and his lovely wife, Beverley, handled her role as a comic target beautifully.
“My wife, Beverly, and I just had a strobe light installed in our bedroom,” Heathcote said once. “Now it actually looks like we’re moving when we’re having sex.”
She got him pretty good, too, now and then. According to the Spokane Spokesman-Review, when the NBA’s Seattle SuperSonics played a game in Spokane in Heathcote’s first year of retirement, former Spartan Eric Snow asked him if he wanted a couple tickets. He said he already some. They were in the second-to-last row. Beverly teased him: “It’s too bad TV can’t show where you used to sit — and where you sit now.”
Heathcote worked blue and he worked clean, although he always kept the language printable. He made fun of himself, and he filleted others. He wasn’t a comic, though.
He was a coach who made you laugh. No doubt that is how he would want to be remembered.