As President Obama and millions of fans tune in to the NCAA Men’s basketball tournament this week, Consumers Energy employee Brandon Smith also will be watching and cheering on former Michigan State University coach Tom Izzo.
While Obama picked MSU to go all the way, Smith is part of Spartan lore. He played basketball at MSU, where he was a member of three consecutive Final Four teams (1999-2001) and helped the Spartans win the 2000 NCAA title.
“This time of year brings back extremely fond memories,” said Smith, who joined Consumers Energy in 2010 and works in cyber security and information technology. “I think what you remember most are the fans, how excited they were, and all the hype surrounding the tournament.”
Smith, 36, was a reserve point guard for Izzo’s teams featuring stars such as Mateen Cleaves, Charlie Bell and Morris Peterson. Those players established the Spartans — one of the favorites in this year’s tournament — as a national powerhouse.
Though he played sparingly in games, Smith was a vital member of the scout team that prepared MSU’s starters to face the best opponents in the rugged Big Ten Conference and beyond. That meant going toe-to-toe with the legendary Cleaves each day in practice and leading the second team in countless intense scrimmages. The backups pushed their better-known teammates fiercely, even defeating the starters just days before MSU won its national title.
“Those practices were the most intense experiences of my life,” Smith said. “Nobody backed down. Everybody had a will to win and thought they were better than everybody else.
“Everybody can’t be the star. You buy into the team concept and hope you get your opportunity. I know I gave it my all when it came to performing my role.”
Smith, a native of upstate New York, earned a microbiology degree at MSU, and later a law degree from Cooley Law School. But the lessons he learned on the court are equally important to his daily work at Consumers Energy.
“The two most significant people in my life are my father and Coach Izzo,” Smith said. “They both preach ‘if you’re going to do something, do it the right way.’ That discipline translates to the business world. You work until the job is done, no matter how long it takes. I’ve gone through the best leadership training you can go through.”
Michigan State, a No. 4 seed facing Delaware in the first round, isn’t the only state school in this year’s “big dance.” The University of Michigan, a No. 2 seed that reached last year’s title game, plays Wofford and Western Michigan, a No. 14 seed, faces Syracuse. All three schools open play March 20.
How does Smith evaluate Michigan State’s chances?
“This team is a lot like our 2000 team — they can win it all,” he said.
But . . .
“They don’t play any defense!” Smith said laughing. “At least not up to our standards. We lived and breathed defense. But then again, we couldn’t score like this team. They have a great opportunity.”