Jud Heathcote, 90, Dies; Coached Michigan State to Basketball Title

“I’m not stupid,” Heathcote recalled telling him. “I know basketball, and you will never be a center at Michigan State.”

Heathcote’s elation was palpable when Johnson selected Michigan State. The Spartans were 25-5 and won the Big Ten title in their first season with Johnson. The next year, they won the N.C.A.A. national championship over an Indiana State team led by Larry Bird in what remains the highest-rated televised title game ever.

The Magic-Bird rivalry, which extended into their careers in the National Basketball Association, brought more fervor and interest to a tournament that soon became known as March Madness.

Photo

Mr. Heathcote, right, in 2009, holds Michigan State’s 1979 championship trophy with former team members Terry Donnelly, left, and Magic Johnson during a 30th anniversary celebration.

Credit
Al Goldis/Associated Press

“When we won,” Heathcote said in a video interview that appeared on the Michigan State website, “it was not just a euphoric feeling, but also a feeling of relief that it’s over and we did it after our success the year before.”

Soon after the victory, Johnson announced that he was leaving Michigan State to turn professional. Heathcote responded in earthy fashion.

“I thought of two things,” he said at the time. “Vomit or suicide. And I might still do both.”

The Spartans never won a title or reached the Final Four again under Heathcote. He usually coached good teams, but never again one like the 1978-79 Spartans, with Johnson and the forward Greg Kelser, who was the team’s top scorer.

“Sometimes we didn’t have as good players as the other teams,” Heathcote said in the Michigan State video. “The Big Ten has too many good teams, too many good players and too many good coaches. You don’t…

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