EAST LANSING – It is still strange to watch Dane Fife prepare Michigan State’s basketball team to beat Indiana.
Fife, as I first got to know him from afar, embodied Indiana basketball. He was a Michigan Mr. Basketball at Clarkson High School turned Hoosier transplant, among the last to play for coach Bob Knight, finishing his career as starter on the 2002 Mike Davis-coached team which lost in the national championship game.
Fife came back to the Hoosiers in 2003 as an administrative assistant and then, in 2005, became the youngest head coach in Division I basketball, taking over the IPFW Mastodons at age 25.
He left IPFW in 2011 to be an assistant coach for Tom Izzo at MSU. In nearly five years since, Fife, now 36, has endured the highs and lows of MSU’s recruiting and experienced the end of Draymond Green’s career through the final days of Denzel Valentine’s.
Q: Among your reasons for leaving your head coaching job at IPFW in 2011 to be an assistant at MSU, you said you wanted to experience winning big. What have you learned that you didn’t know when you arrived at MSU?
Fife: From a head coaching perspective, there’s a certain way to manage a program. Sometimes with vigor, sometimes with a tender touch. But nonetheless, a coach has to have the pulse of his program. In fact, a coach has to have the pulse on every aspect of his program — from the managers, to the secretary, to recruiting, to how people view his program, to how his players’ parents view his program. And that pulse is important. It allows you to make adjustments. And it’s become CEO-like. That’s really how I view coach Izzo, he’s a CEO. He’s the ultimate manager of the program. Oh yeah, and then he has to coach, which has made this level so difficult to be successful at. Because there are so many different things. But he manages it, because he has a pulse. And what that takes is time. Time, time, time. And somebody suffers. It’s usually him.
Q: When you look back on your time at IPFW, do you think, I handle that differently knowing what I know now?
Fife: I think settling (in recruiting). It’s so much harder recruiting (there). We would lose to nobody sometimes. ‘Ah, I don’t think I’m going to play basketball.’ But recruiting, it’s so important, getting the guys, getting the student-athletes that represent what you want your culture to be, what you want your program to be.
Q: Are you glad you coached at IPFW? Does it make you more well-rounded having lived that low-major experience?
Fife: No question. We had to fundraise for everything. I had to go out and find cars for my staff. We’re out at the (student) union begging students to come to our games. I think we got one or two of them to come. We’re playing at an 11,000-seat arena with, the box score says it was 1,200 people, I think it was more like 600 people. Empty arenas. We’re traveling commercially. We’re traveling 12 hours by bus one way. We’d drive out to the Dakotas and come back — both ways by bus. A lot of bus trips. The salaries at that time … my top assistant was $32,000. Second was $30,000, third was like $20,000.
Q: You were a fairly big-time recruit coming out of high school …
Fife: I wouldn’t go that far.
Q: Were you an easy recruit?
Fife: Yes, very easy. Low maintenance. In fact, my dad at one point just said (to coaches), ‘Hey guys, look, you guys have done what you need to do. You don’t have to make these unannounced trips … we know you guys care. We’ll sort it out, we’ll weigh the pros and cons and let you know on this date.’ My brothers went through it. My dad was courteous. It wasn’t really about him. It was about getting it right. I assume that was a very easy recruitment, with the exception that I waited all the way to the signing in November, which is a pain. Because you’re all in generally, and you’ve lost out on your Plan B and C.
Q: Were you surprised by how much of a headache some kids can be as recruits? Did you have a sense of that when you were playing?
Fife: I didn’t. I didn’t understand and I didn’t understand how involved parents were. I didn’t understand how much politics played into it. You’ve got to stroke this person, but you’ve got to be careful because you can’t stroke this person when they’re going to be with this person, because they don’t like each other. Different kids have different groups of people around them. It’s usually a puzzle. You’ve got to be able to fit the pieces together perfectly.
Q: How different is it here versus IPFW?
Fife: There’s a lot more at stake for kids generally at this level. And they’re a lot more under the microscope. I feel bad for the people that work with these kids. Because they know that there’s a lot of … people are trying to make a buck off of them, so they’re very apprehensive. Very mistrusting. I think what we try to do is be as honest and up front as possible. We pick the people that we think are generally going to be easy recruiting from the standpoint that we’re not dealing with people who are generally going to ask us for money or ask us to circumvent the rules. For me, I’m pretty fortunate because that’s not what Michigan State does. The stuff we’re describing is out there. Michigan State doesn’t deal with it. And if it starts to occur, we remove ourselves.
Q: When you come into a program like MSU do you feel a pressure to deliver kids in recruiting?
Fife: Absolutely. It’s high pressure. Our kids are our lifeline. We have to be able to deliver the players that make Michigan State special, the student-athletes that make Michigan State special.
Q: So when Tom Izzo is taking criticism for missing out on the Chicago kids and Tyus Jones a couple years ago, as an assistant, when those kids are’t coming, what is that feeling like?
Fife: It’s a deep, dark, low feeling. It feels like your team was upset on your home floor. It’s a dark place in the world of college basketball at this level to lose a recruit, or the group of kids that we lost. The whole world knows it. You’re embarrassed, concerned for your program, concerned for your job. It’s just like a loss. It’s a deep, dark, low feeling. It’s depressing, no question. But, I think that worked out pretty well. We’ve turned out OK. And that’s what you don’t realize — it’s never as bad as you think.
Q: How has your relationship with coach Izzo changed in four years?
Fife: He’d always been a friend and a big supporter, a mentor. His friend Steve Wickens describes it as, my relationship with coach reminds me of his relationship with Jud. For all intents and purposes, it was described as tough love. Is it easy working for Coach Izzo? No. It’s not supposed to be easy. It’s supposed to be extremely hard. If you want to win at this level, you have to bring it every day. And Coach drives it home to us every day. But I think in the end, you know he gives a damn about you. He’d go to the end of the earth to help you. It’s a very good working relationship. Is it easy? No. And I don’t want it to be. In fact, I remind him sometimes to teach me, help me, help me learn. If you see me doing something wrong, don’t sit back, drive it home, make sure I’m doing it right. Because I want to be able to coach at the level that he is. In fact, coaching is one thing, winning is another. I want to be able to win at the level that he does. And I’ll take some good, some bad away if I ever get my own program again.
Q: Have you gotten what you wanted to yet out of this experience and are you ready for another head coaching gig?
Fife: I think I have absolutely gotten what I wanted. There are so many different things to learn from coach Izzo. … I’m certain there’s a lot more to learn. I came here to ultimately become a better coach. I think I have become a better recruiter, I think I’m a better manager. And hopefully I get my chance. Do I think I’m ready for another head coaching job? I do think I’m ready. Am I ready to leave Michigan State? No. But if the right opportunity comes, obviously I’d have to look at it because there’s only 350 Division I head jobs in the world. I think if any of us get the right opportunity, we’ve got to take a look at it.