Dane Fife remembers the countless nights spent with Dusty May in the basement of Assembly Hall.
May served as a student manager for Indiana men’s basketball from 1996 through 2000, overlapping with Fife during the first two years of his accomplished IU career. But their relationship really took off when Fife was a grad assistant at IU and May was an administrative assistant under Mike Davis.
May, technically, was Fife’s boss. And he gave him responsibility, naming him video coordinator. They plugged away working relentlessly in that cramped space in the legendary arena, and Fife admired May’s work ethic, character, and persistence. In those two seasons, May showed Fife the drive it takes to succeed as a college basketball coach.
He likened May to one of college basketball’s greatest coaches. But not the one you might think of.
“He reminds me a lot of Tom Izzo, in the best ways that Tom Izzo can be, Dusty reminds me of him. He’s that good. He’s that astute,” Fife said. “He’s humble. This whole thing, it hasn’t changed him, and it won’t change him. Just an outstanding coach and an ambassador, really, for the game.”
It’s those traits, and more, that have allowed May to thrive at Florida Atlantic. His Owls have flown to historic heights this season, amassing a program-record 35 wins and reaching their first-ever Final Four.
May, 46, left Bloomington in 2005 for an assistant coaching position at Eastern Michigan, followed by quick stops on the sideline for Murray State and UAB. He went to Louisiana Tech on Kerry Rupp’s staff in 2009, stayed on when Mike White took over in 2011, and then followed White to Florida in 2015. He landed the FAU job, his first head coaching position, in 2018.
His first four seasons in Boca Raton were unremarkable; each with overall winning records, but no NCAA Tournament bids, and first-round losses in a CIT and a CBI. But that period set the groundwork for this year’s breakout.
Fife has spent time with May in Boca Raton, both seeing his friend in action and seeing what he had to work with. He said FAU’s facilities were about what he expected, with a nice locker room and an adequate gym.
But through his own coaching experience — including a six-year stint as head coach at IPFW — Fife knows how difficult it is to have success at that sort of mid-major program.
“When you take into account NIL, I don’t know anything about their tradition, Boca Raton … there’s so many things working against programs like that, before you even get on the court. But I think once you roll the ball out, I mean, the court is the same size,” Fife said. “But it’s hard to even fathom what they’ve done.”
One of the strongest parts of May’s personality, to Fife, is his strong communication ability. He said people are drawn to May’s honesty, genuineness, and sense of humor.
May is fond of nicknames — he doles them out frequently to people he likes. He refers to Fife as shortened versions of general Norman Schwarzkopf, because of Fife’s family military background.
But May doesn’t joke around when it comes to basketball. He carries himself with a humble confidence, which endears him to many. And he simply wants to win — not just for him, but for the people around him. And Fife said May would do whatever it takes to make that happen.
But what may top all of those attributes, to Fife, is May’s loyalty to his family and his friends. Fife said that despite the extreme time demands of being a college basketball coach — especially for being a successful one — May manages to have a work-life balance that’s uncommon in that field. He’s always done that, dating back to his early days on IU’s staff.
And Fife said that during some of his darkest days, both as a coach and a person, he’d get a call from May out of the blue to check in.
“He does that for a lot of people,” Fife said. “Because I think, like coach Izzo, there’s that sense of giving back. That was passed on to him from Jud Heathcote. And coach (Bob) Knight was the same way. You give back to the game, you give back to the coaches.”
May’s national profile has grown as his team’s continued through this NCAA Tournament run. College basketball’s coaching carousel is well underway, but he was quickly becoming the type of candidate who’d be at the top of many schools’ lists.
As CBS Sports reported Thursday, May is set to cash in on this successful season. But he’s doing so in Boca Raton, as he’ll sign a long-term deal at FAU after the Final Four.
But first, he’ll try to pull off what would be one of the most improbable feats in college basketball history: winning a national championship at Florida Atlantic.
Fife said May has asked him questions about what to expect from a moment like this, and feels he’ll be ready for it.
“In situations like this, Dusty is going to do his homework. He’s probably been on the phone for hours, with different people, asking them what to expect, what to do, what did they do, what are their experiences,” Fife said. “Of all the new guys in the Final Four, there’s not going to be one more prepared than Dusty.”
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