Some of us retire before we are ready. Some of us retire because we have to. Some of us will never retire.
Some of us retire when we’re ready and never look back: the money is solid. Regrets are minimal and anything beyond the horizon is fine.
It’s a blessing when that happens. Mike Garland knows he is blessed.
They had he was ready to quit coaching basketball. More importantly, he knew he wouldn’t miss it.
“I had that experience,” said the longtime Michigan State assistant basketball coach. “Right now, it’s time for me to experience things with my grandchildren and my children… I missed a lot of things. As you get older, you start to think about these things more.
Garland just turned 68. He has been coaching for almost 40 years. And though he will miss stepping into an arena with his guys for a Final Four, and the Breslin Center when the Big Ten title is on the line, and the relationships he’s built each season with every player, manager , staff member and coach, he won these things he didn’t miss so much that he was starting to miss playing with his grandchildren in the garden.
Sometimes it really is that simple. Sometimes you’re just ready. Not tired. Not worn. Not afraid of potential industry-wide changes. Just…ready.
And grateful. And humiliated.
That’s what Garland has been for the past few days, every time he picks up his phone and sees another text, or another player calling him to tell him what he means to them.
Not congratulatory calls so much as testimonials of the difference he made as the bestower of MSU basketball wisdom. No one will miss it more than Tom Izzo.
The Spartans head coach fell in love with Garland’s old school cool as soon as he met him. They shared a room across the road when they played basketball in northern Michigan in the 1970s.
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“Words can’t quite express what Mike Garland meant to me,” Izzo said in a statement last week. “We’ve been friends since we met on the first night in college and lived the rest of our professional lives together.”
That’s probably how Izzo feels, leaning on Garland like fire leans on wood. But it took a while before the two worked together after college.
Garland never wanted to be a coach.
“The furthest thing from my mind,” he said late Sunday afternoon, speaking on the phone from a Cleveland Clinic waiting room. “I had no intention of coaching.”
He got into the landscape after school. Eventually he got into the road building business, and if not for a phone call from the principal of Belleville High School in the early 80’s, he could be retiring from that business now. .
This principal was Garland’s football coach in Belleville. He wanted someone to coach the junior boys’ varsity basketball team. Garland refused. The principal insisted.
“He had done so much for me when I was a student, and even after college,” Garland said. “He told me he really needed my help.”
He agreed to coach for a year. He’s been in the game ever since.
He went from JV coach to college assistant coach to college head coach. He spent nearly 16 years in Belleville before Izzo called him and asked him to join his team at MSU in 1996. Along with a three-year stint coaching Cleveland State from 2003 to 2006, he’s alongside from Izzo since.
Talking in basketball offices. On the phone. In the plane. On the bus. Through family deaths and Big Ten titles and years when nothing quite went right.
He was Izzo’s confidant. His adviser. His mediator with the players. His friend. Always his friend.
“He’s my guy,” Izzo once told me, “he’d walk in front of a ball for me.”
Izzo would do the same for him. He did it in a sense three seasons ago, when point guard Cassius Winston lost his brother to suicide and the team was slipping off its emotional axis. But Izzo told his old friend to go take care of his own son, Ray, who was waiting for a new heart, and take all the time he needed.
Garland knew he had to be with his son. But he also knew what he meant to the kids on the team, who were also like his sons. It was not easy to get out of it. The night Winston discovered his brother; it was Garland he was looking for.
The team was staying at the Kellogg Hotel and Conference Center, as before home games. Izzo called Garland to tell her. He sped towards Winston’s room and the two met in the hallway. Winston collapses in his arms.
Garland retained hundreds of players in the 26 years he coached alongside Izzo. He listened to them. He shared with them stories from his own life. They talked about hoops, class, politics, social justice, movies, and whatever gamers wanted to talk about.
He barked at them when he needed to, and he pushed them when they needed to, and he knew their families, love interests, and friends. He loved recruiting because he loved getting to know them, and he loved nothing more than finding a player no one else was watching.
He loved being the only coach at a high school or AAU game. Not only did this mean MSU might have a better chance if the rookie blew up before committing, but it meant he could see things not everyone else could.
He will miss it.
Of course, he will miss it. He will miss walking into the offices and training ground and hearing “O!!Short for “original gangster”, but also short for “original garland”, which should be abbreviated simply: “Original”.
He won’t miss it too much though. As he said, he had a life of it. He has helped change lives for four decades. Those connections will always be there. Trophies too.
“What else can I do?” He asked. “I can understand why guys keep looking for him, wanting him more and more.”
But for him?
He wants to go to Cleveland to spend time with Ray and not worry about leaving his basketball family behind. (Ray had a new heart last year and doctors are hopeful.)
He wants to spend time in Dearborn with his daughter Simone, and his children, and do the same with his son Quentin, in Atlanta, and his children.
“My wife and I plan to live with them for a few months each,” he said.
He’ll even hang out in Ann Arbor – gasp! — with his sister, a nurse. He wants to soak up the everyday experiences with his family like he did with his family of basketball players.
“I’m a relationship guy,” he said.
It’s his legacy at MSU. That’s why he’s retiring.
“I love basketball,” he said. “But there are other things in life.”
Contact Shawn Windsor: 313-222-6487 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @shawnwindsor.