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Jud Heathcote, who coached Michigan State to NCAA title, dies at 90

Men's College Basketball, Michigan State Spartans

Jud Heathcote, who led Magic Johnson and Michigan State to the 1979 NCAA championship, has died. He was 90. 

The school says Heathcote died Monday in Spokane, Washington.

Heathcote won three Big Ten titles and appeared in nine NCAA tournaments during his 19-year career at Michigan State. He got his start as a college head coach in 1971 at Montana, where he spent five seasons. 

Heathcote's Spartans squad led by Johnson won it all in 1978-79. Spartans coach Tom Izzo was hired by Heathcote and was promoted to replace him when he retired in 1995.

Izzo said the basketball world is a sadder place because of Heathcote's death, and no one cared more about the welfare of the game than his mentor. 

"He was a coach's coach and a mentor to many," Izzo said. "Our hearts are filled with sadness and deepest sympathy for his wife, Beverly, and the Heathcote family."

Izzo helped the Spartans win their second NCAA basketball title in 2000 and often leaned on Heathcote for advice, counsel and humor.

"Without a doubt, he was one of the most influential people in my life, giving me a chance when no one else would," he said. "Any coaching success I've ever had is because of him. 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."

After he left coaching and moved to Spokane, Heathcote embraced retirement.

He enjoyed golf -- he lived across the street from his county club -- at some of the area's top courses. He also played handball with a group of friends -- and often went out for beers afterward -- until his mid-70s, when his health began to fade.

He said he needed time to grow comfortable with the adjustment.

"The first couple years [of retirement], I'd go to games and I'd sit there and second-guess the coaches on why they were doing this or weren't doing this," he told ESPN in 2014. "I think it was kind of a hard transition."

He also remained tied to the coaching fraternity.

For years, he had a monthly lunch date with Gonzaga coach Mark Few at Jack & Dan's, a Spokane bar formerly owned by Jack Stockton, the father of Utah Jazz legend John Stockton.

"Jud was first and foremost a good and loyal friend to me," Few said in a statement later Tuesday. "He was also a great mentor to me and a large number of coaches who leaned on him in good times and tough times. He taught me that you could win at the highest level and still abide by all the rules and keep your core values intact.

"He was a fierce guardian of our game and stood for what was right. He also had an incredible sense of humor and delivery that could capture a room, and it is all those laughs together that I will remember the most!"

Throughout his retirement, Heathcote attended the bulk of Gonzaga's home games and watched Michigan State's games on TV. Heathcote said Izzo allowed him to remain connected to the program, even when he was challenged by his predecessor.

"I was always a good Monday morning quarterback in football and basketball," Heathcote said three years ago. "I'd sit there and second-guess Tom, naturally. We talked every week during the first couple of years [of retirement]. Ever since then, I probably talk to him every two weeks now. Tom has kept me involved in the program. He calls and asks my opinion on what we're doing. I'm still kind of a Spartan coach far removed."

Three years ago, Heathcote also told ESPN that retirement hadn't diminished his passion for basketball.

"It's different," Heathcote said of his retirement. "I don't think you ever take the coaching out of the coach. I think you adjust to your situation and that's what, maybe, I've done."

Michigan State athletic director Mark Hollis, who was a student manager for Heathcote, said he was one of his best teachers.

"Reflecting on my career and life, Jud was among the most influential people in regards to my preparation for both," Hollis said. "He will be missed, yet his memory will be seen through the many different people he impacted."

One of those people is South Florida coach Brian Gregory, who started his career as a graduate assistant for Heathcote and was promoted within the program before moving on to lead Dayton and Georgia Tech.

"For the first time since I was 25, I won't get a birthday card from him and won't get a call from him after a game, and that really bums me out," the 50-year-old Gregory said in a telephone interview Monday night.

"I'll miss a lot of things, including his humor. It was almost a badge of honor if he ripped you because he was testing you. He was old school, and that's how he showed he cared, ripping you in some way that he thought could drive home a point to make you look at some part of your life."

Heathcote had legendary gatherings with coaches on Friday afternoons -- and sometimes evenings -- during Final Four weekend for two-plus decades before health problems prevented him from traveling.

"It was known as 'Jud's party,' and it became Final Four folklore," Gregory said. "He'd get up in front of everyone and tell a bunch of jokes, holding court for high school, junior college and big-time coaches. They all came to see him. The younger coaches would just be in awe of how he could command a room with that many coaches in it."

During Heathcote's farewell tour during the 1994-95 season, many schools gave him a retirement gift. At Minnesota, he was presented with a stool similar to the ones that coaches would sit on alongside the raised court at Williams Arena.

"I was pleasantly surprised to see that it had three legs," Heathcote joked.

Services will be held Saturday in Spokane. They will be open to the public. 

ESPN's Myron Medcalf and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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