Rod Oden still remembers pacing his kitchen more than a year ago, as he listened to Michigan State wideout Tony Lippett express his mounting frustration.
I haven’t done anything wrong. Why am I not playing? I’m at the point where I don’t even need to shower after games; I don’t even get the chance to go off.
Oden listened intently in September of 2013 as he wandered “all throughout the house.” Neither Lippett nor Oden, his mentor and former high school coach, knew Lippett would be heralded as the Big Ten’s best just one season later. Or that his turnaround would be sparked not by the weight room, the field or the film room -- but by this very telephone call.
“He was reminding me I was one of the most dynamic players he ever coached and that I could go out and play this game at a high level, if I had the heart and desire,” Lippett said. “He told me to build a bridge with my coach out here, Coach [Terrence] Samuel, and do the things they wanted to see out of me day in and day out.”
At the time, Lippett had caught just four passes in his first four games. He officially received no starts during that stretch. So, at Oden's insistence, the introverted Lippett reached out to his position coach soon thereafter. They shared breakfast, and Samuel challenged him around the bye week: Go watch film on MSU greats Plaxico Burress and Charles Rogers; then go look at film of yourself.
Lippett said he was forced to “look in the mirror and stop looking at everybody else.” He sat in the film room and studied Burress’ arm extension, he stared at Rogers’ hips and feet, and he marveled at their vision. Then the cut-ups were replaced with a player similar in stature but who was slow in his transitions and didn’t get off the press nearly as well. It was him.
Lippett again phoned Oden to let him know he took his advice to heart and to update him on the film review.
“He said, ‘I got to work,’ ” Oden remembered. “I told him, ‘Work starts today.’ ”
The transformation was slow -- but immediate. Lippett would linger after practice to chat with his position coach. He’d sit closer to Samuel on the flights, as opposed to several rows back. He’d hit the film room harder, gazing at defensive backs’ feet and scribbling down notes.
With the help of Oden and Samuel, his confidence grew in lockstep with the offense’s improvement. He started in 10 games after that phone call. And, in the final six games of 2013, he accounted for at least 62 receiving yards in every contest and saved his best for the Rose Bowl, where he caught the game-winning touchdown.
Looking back, even Mark Dantonio didn’t need to pause long when asked when the transformation started.
“I do think it flipped on, it flipped right after the Notre Dame game,” Dantonio said earlier this month, alluding to September of last season. “He started catching the ball very well, and he’s such a confident player right now.”
That change might not have come without that phone call, or without Lippett’s relationship with Oden. The two still talk several times a week -- sometimes, Lippett will even phone during a Friday night halftime -- and Lippett still returns about a dozen times a year to train on mismatched barbells and an uneven track to chat in-person with his old coach.
They never seem to talk about how far he’s come -- but about how far he has to go. Even now, as Lippett leads the conference with 111.1 receiving yards per game and nine touchdowns, he’s not satisfied. He’ll acknowledge this is a good year but, in the same breath, he’ll wax poetic on how Alabama’s Amari Cooper has dominated.
But, every week since September of 2013, he’s also grown more determined that he can reach that level. He's more focused. And, above all, thanks to Oden, more confident.
“I feel like me playing confident is the biggest intangible I’ve improved upon because I’m still the same size, probably a little faster,” he said. “But heart and desire and confidence has risen in me a lot. And that’s what really shows.”