Some day every spring there is a knock on Tom Izzo‘s office door in East Lansing. In comes the youngest of his assistant coaches, Dane Fife, a man he holds in high regards ever since he recruited the once blue chip prospect out of Clarkston, Michigan, in the late nineties. Izzo probably can‘t help himself but smile at the sight of Fife because he knows that year after year the two are having the same conversation. It is a brief yet important conversation that usually starts with a question from Fife. A rhetorical one that is.
“I always ask him in the spring if he still sees value in what I bring to this team,” Fife smiles. “I then tell him that I still see value in being on this coaching staff and well, then it‘s back to work.” That same routine is now going on for eight years, ever since Fife left his first head coaching job at Indiana University Purdue University Fort Wayne (IPFW) and joined the Hall Of Famer in 2011 at Michigan State. The two have a relationship that goes back way further and taking a look at Dane Fife‘s career and his life in basketball, it is easy to see why Tom Izzo keeps the conversation about his value short every season.
Dane Fife was born into a world where sports and basketball always meant a little more. He is the son of legendary Clarkston High School coach Dan Fife, who is the third winningest coach in state history, accumulating 703 victories over the course of 36 seasons and who won two state titles with the Wolves in his final two seasons before leaving the post last year to spend more time with his family. Both of Dane‘s older brothers played in college – Jeremy for Niagara and Grand Valley State and Dugan played for the Michigan Wolverines during and after the days of the “Fab Five”. Father Dan also donned the maize and blue as a college student and started every game during his four year career before he went on to a brief Major League Baseball career and later found himself on Johnny Orr‘s UM staff in the eighties.
While Dane is greatly thankful for his upbringing in a universe that centered about plays, games and scores, he remembers that it wasn‘t always easy. “There were a lot of fights, a lot of learning and being the baby in a highly competitive sports family was kind of tough,” the 39 year old recalls. Yet he‘s also quickly to remind everyone that those days to a certain extent have made him what he is today: “Even if I had to put up with a lot of stuff and my brothers really never wanted to take me along, I still learned so many things during that time. Sports in general teaches you so many things that can help you later on in life.” For Fife, later on in life meant later on in the world of sports for he himself quickly became a star on the gridiron and more importantly on the hardwood.
Fife was a standout high school quarterback and the gritty leader for the Clarkston basketball team. His father always felt it was important to play more than one sport so the young Dane followed his advice. “I always liked when the kids played football because they would learn to understand pain,” Dan Fife says. “You always want your players to be competitive and to understand pain.” When his youngest son‘s recruiting process took off in 1996 and 1997, this kind of mindset along with his basketball talent endeared him to some of the best college basketball coaches in the country. Soon the likes of Bobby Knight from Indiana or Mike Krzyzewski from Duke were calling the later McDonald‘s and Parade All American regularly and in between there were also the first conversations with a Spartan he would later in his career call one of his biggest mentors.
But it wasn‘t yet time for Dane Fife to hear Tom Izzo‘s call, the pull of the legendary Coach Knight, IU‘s storied program history and a certain movie were a little too much to overcome. “I always wanted to play for Bob Knight and I always wanted to play basketball in Indiana,” Fife says about his college decision that landed him in Bloomington. “And it might sound a bit superficial but the movie ‘Hoosiers’ was so gripping and had such a big impact on me that it kind of helped my pick, too.” It is hard to compete for the real Jimmy Chitwoods of the world going up not only against a larger than life coaching figure in Knight but also the best sports movie ever made. Especially if you are just coming into your own with your team like Izzo was at the time. “Our program wasn‘t quite there yet to get these types of McDonald‘s All American players,” Izzo recalls of his early days as the MSU head man. “But I already had a great appreciation for him then and also for his family. His Dad was tremendous and his mother was one of the best mothers I ever recruited. So I still followed Dane even after he went to IU.”
Izzo witnessed Fife making a name for himself at Indiana even after the eventual controversial firing of Bob Knight in 2000. Under Knight‘s successor Mike Davis Fife reached the 2002 NCAA Championship game but lost with the Hoosiers 64-52 against a Maryland Terrapins team loaded with future pros. In 131 college games (71 starts) the 6-4 guard scored 5.6 points per game and earned Co Big Ten Defensive Player Of The Year honors as a senior. But after a year playing professionally in the CBA it was time for Fife to change to the sidelines for good. He joined Davis as a gradutate assistant on the Hoosiers‘ bench and only two years later he was hired as a 25 year old to be the head coach of the IPFW Mastodons, a program that just had jumped to Division I a few seasons earlier.
It was a job offer he probably never would have gotten without Tom Izzo, a man he stayed in contact with and from whom he learned ever since he was recruited by him at Clarkston. “At 25 years old there are a lot of variables when you try to become a head coach,” says Fife who at the time was the youngest leading man in Division I basketball. “But I had the full blessing of Coach Izzo, he made countless calls and he put his reputation on the line for me. I wasn‘t surprised because that is the type of thing he does for someone he believes in. It is pretty safe to say that I don‘t get that job without Coach Izzo.”
While excited and thankful for the early career opportunity, Fife soon found out that things at a smaller school are a lot different than under the historic lights of Assembly Hall. He had to fundraise for every investment and go out on his own to get cars for his assistant coaches. The Mastodons played in front of mostly empty arenas and travelled commercially all the time. To some games they even took the bus, one time the ride was twelve hours one way. Yet Fife channeled the work ethic he had known from an early age, developed the IPFW program and increased the win total every year. His best season came in the 2010/2011 campaign (his sixth) when his team finished 18-12 competing in the Summit League. While a tremendous achievement, it proved to be his last in Fort Wayne when his phone rang and Tom Izzo was on the other end.
Izzo once said about Dane Fife that “any time he‘s out of a job I‘ll either be helping him to get one or looking to hire him myself”. In 2011 the latter part of that quote came to fruition as Izzo looked for someone to replace Mark Montgomery (who got the head coaching position at Northern Illinois) on his staff and turned to the former Indiana star. Fife immediately found his footing and developed a reputation as a tremendous recruiter, someone who was great at keeping contact with players and on top of that a very good, excitable and enthusiastic basketball coach. A coach who thrives on keeping a connection to his players, many of whom credit him for making them go beyond their limits on and off the court.
He installed a lot of the defensive principles he learned during his time under Bob Knight, the more open offensive approach of Mike Davis and of course according to him about “85 percent of basketball knowledge” from his father. Dan himself, even as a Michigan grad, was and still is extremely grateful for the chance that Izzo gave his son: “Nobody recruited him harder in high school and we knew right then that Tom Izzo is a special man. He‘s been absolutely great to our family. As a father you can be happy, even if your son loses with a man like that, because of his high character values and because he is such a good person.”
The work as an assistant coach for a national college basketball powerhouse can still be very taxing though and Fife knows it can be a struggle at times. Especially today‘s recruiting landscape offers a lot of challenges. “You invest so much and when you lose a recruit it feels like an upset on your home floor,” the two time father explains. “It‘s a deep, dark feeling. You get concerned for the program and ultimatively for your job, too. But in the end it‘s never as bad as you think it‘s going to be.” Fife also mentions how hard it is to work for Tom Izzo and how the Hall Of Famer demands a lot from his fellow coaches. But according to Fife he “wouldn‘t want it any other way.”
The two have certainly formed a special relationship over the years and it‘s one of the big reasons why Fife enjoys his work in East Lansing as much as he does. He credits Izzo with a lot of his personal growth and is certain that there is plenty more to accomplish. “He‘s been everything to me,” Fife says and gives a reason why he had spurned top assistant positions for Tom Crean (Indiana), Matt Painter (Purdue) and John Beilein (Michigan) before joining the Spartans. “In terms of my coaching career I‘d say he‘s the one guy who‘s always been there for me. He‘s always been a friend, a mentor and a big supporter.” Izzo‘s friend Steve Wickens even likened the personal bond between Izzo and Fife to the relationship the former had with his predecessor Jud Heathcote.
One day Fife could definitely be on the short list of men to follow in Izzo‘s footsteps. He could also hope for a new opportunity elsewhere, especially since he feels that he‘s ready “for another head coaching job” and that whenever “one of only 350 Division I head positions open up, you have to atleast look at it.” For now though, he‘s perfectly happy in East Lansing and continues to enjoy the experience of working for a man that he respects with all his heart. “There‘s a lot more to learn from Tom Izzo, I‘m working for a great boss and I can tell you that it‘s going to be really hard to get me to leave,” smiles Fife.
Whenever that day might come when his position or adress changes, you can be sure that he will knock on Tom Izzo‘s office door once again, just like he has done in years past. And then the two will surely have a little longer conversation...