May 3, 2013
By Steve Grinczel, MSUSpartans.com On-Line Columnist
But the one taken Wednesday of Nix in a cap and gown is why Izzo is affectionately calling the former Spartan center "the miracle on Birch Street" these days.
This isn't to suggest that Izzo never envisioned Nix graduating with a sociology degree and walking in commencement ceremonies just four years after showing up for his first practice at 1 Birch Road, the Breslin Center's mailing address.
It's just that given Nix's academic background before arriving at MSU, his initial indifference to the importance of a college education and a few well-publicized disciplinary issues that caused embarrassment to the team, school and himself ...
Well, let's just say there were times the 6-foot-9 Nix was greatly at risk for not having to be measured for an extra, extra long green gown.
Now that Nix has become his family's first college graduate, the sense of accomplishment is reflected in his smile.
"In the beginning, I didn't ever see this day coming," Nix said while standing, appropriately enough, in the lobby of the Clara Bell Smith Center, home of Student-Athlete Support Services. "But as time went on, I just knew I could do it and I pushed to the finish. A lot of athletes go to school and don't get a degree, or decide not to go back to school after they're done playing.
"But I just hung in there and decided to stick around the guys, stick around the team, be a positive influence and get it done. It was tough, but like Coach says, when you get a degree no one can ever take it away from you, and that means a lot."
The fact that every one of Izzo's four-year players has made it to a Final Four is an impressive tradition, but no more so that the growing club of players who have left Michigan State with their diplomas - now at 38 with the addition of Nix and counting since 2000 - and are pictured annually in the media guide.
"It's an incredible accomplishment for a kid with his background to come this far," Izzo said. "To only have one this year, and for it to be Derrick, is special. He's a guy that, with maybe a couple others in the past, a lot of people would have bet wasn't going to graduate from college.
"When guys like this do make it, both on the court and off the court, you kind of appreciate why you don't give up on people."
Along with revamping his attitude and dropping 70 pounds to become a steady inside force for the Spartans his final two seasons, which featured Big Ten regular season and tournament championships in 2012 and a 16th consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance this year, Nix became a familiar face to SASS director and associate athletic director Jim Pignataro and academic coordinator Kristen Reinhart.
"When you start in school, you don't sometimes understand what a degree means," Pignataro said. "What Derrick has done is come to understand the importance of an education, and that's been his motivation. This is a tremendous success.
"A lot of students come to us from high school not even knowing what this experience is all about, and they're trying to figure it out along the way. A lot of it has to do with maturity, a lot has to do with discipline and time-management, and the reason Derrick's been successful is because he learned that through this process. He got better as years went on."
As the end of Nix's playing career closed in on him, he confessed to being "scared" about what the future held for him. So far, things, such as hiring an agent, have been falling into place.
Since the season-ending loss to Duke in the Midwest Regional semifinal, Nix has continued to work out with the hope of catching an NBA team's eye as a draft choice or a free agent.
"I've lost about 11 pounds since the end of the season and I'm back down to 277," Nix said. "I'm sad now because I've only got a few days left in East Lansing, but I'm excited about graduating and having this experience. It's kind of getting fun.
"Coach helped me through the process of finding an agent, and I appreciate that a lot. I'm going to head to Chicago Sunday after I graduate just to work out and try to get invited to the NBA combine, and make some moves. If I don't get drafted, I'm mature enough to know I still can play. I love basketball and whether I play it here in the NBA or somewhere else, I'll be fine."
Although Nix said he hasn't given a lot of thought to using his degree to find a 9-to-5 job once his playing days are over, he mentioned sports broadcasting as one of his fields of interest.
Whatever Nix ends up doing with his life, Izzo takes comfort in knowing that he's prepared to make the most of what life has to offer.
"If he keeps working and gets in the shape I think he needs to be in, I think he's going to for sure be able to play in Europe and who knows from there," Izzo said. "If not, then he's going to have to join the real world, and that's going to be hard for him as it for all these guys who live in Disneyland, which college athletics is sometimes because there are so many people helping them accomplish things.
"Then, all of the sudden it's dog-eat-dog, as I tell them, because everything's on their own. But I think he's proved by graduating that he has the discipline to accomplish that. To see it get done is a great tribute to him, to Jim Pignataro and his group and to our administration and athletic department for the work they put into tutoring, the money they put into it and the commitment they make. All I got to do is drill them and get them to class. They do all the work."