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Beloved former Michigan State coach Jud Heathcote dies at age 90

Michigan State announced Monday night that former coach Jud Heathcote has died. (AP)

The architect of Michigan State’s basketball program has passed away.

The university announced late Monday night that beloved former coach Jud Heathcote has died at the age of 90.

“The basketball world is a sadder place today with the passing of Jud Heathcote,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said in a statement. “No one cared more about the welfare of the game than Jud. He was a coach’s coach and a mentor to many.

“Long after he left Michigan State, he was still one of the first people I would call when I had a tough decision in coaching or life.”

Heathcote is best known for guiding Michigan State to its first national championship. In a celebrated title game pitting future rivals Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, the Spartans cruised past Indiana State to win the 1979 championship.

While Heathcote went on to make nine NCAA tournament appearances in 19 years at Michigan State and capture three Big Ten titles, his accomplishments as a defensive tactician and strong motivator were sometimes obscured by his rollicking press conferences or distinctive on-court demeanor. Anytime one of his players would miss a box-out or fail to get a hand in the face of an outside shooter, Heathcote would twist his face into a contorted frown or slap himself in the forehead.

When Heathcote retired in 1995 after a year-long farewell tour, the love his coaching peers had for him was evident in their tongue-in-cheek farewell gifts.

From Minnesota, Heathcote received a stool in recognition of all the times he complained about the set-up at Williams Arena, where players and coaches sit three feet below the court. From Illinois, Heathcote got a football helmet with a face mask, a not-so-subtle reference to the time he threw a ball at the floor in frustration only to have it bounce straight back up and nearly break his nose.

Heathcote’s success as a mentor to other coaches is as much a part of his legacy as any victories his teams at Montana and Michigan State achieved.

Izzo spent nine years as an assistant to Heathcote before building on his success. Mike Montgomery and Kelvin Sampson were two other coaches who worked directly under Sampson and credit him for help launching their careers.

Heathcote also had considerable influence at Gonzaga after he retired to Spokane. He attended many Zags games and frequently offered input to Dan Monson, Mark Few and their staffs during regular lunches or phone conversations.

“Coach Heathcote had an impact on so many people,” Michigan State athletic director Mark Hollis said in a statement. “He was among the best teachers I had the opportunity to be around.”