Dane Fife showed up for his first Zoom press conference as an Indiana assistant coach armed with jokes and wisecracks, self-deprecating and otherwise.
The former Indiana guard and 10-year assistant coach at Michigan State under Tom Izzo had crossed paths with enough of the media members on the call over the years to be able to deliver some playful cracks, and he did, calling out one beat reporter for the sunburn he’d developed on vacation in Florida and another for the hair spiking out above his visor, asking if it was real hair. A third, who is bald, joked that his hair was obviously real, and Fife suggested that Indiana needed better high-definition on its Zoom calls because he couldn’t tell how long it had been since the reporter shaved what little hair he had.
Fife also took digs at himself. When he was asked about what dining spots he missed in Bloomington, he lamented the closing of Opie Taylor’s, the downtown burger-and-wings joint that closed in October due to the pandemic, but also admitted that his favorite food is food that someone else has purchased.
“I’m just looking forward to mooching off of the program a little bit,” Fife said. “Leftovers, scraps. I was famous for doing that. I’m pretty cheap. I’ve got the alligator arms. I’ve been known to forget my wallet a time or two when it’s time to go out to dinner. But there’s no shame in that. I come by it honestly. I’m cheap and have alligator arms and pray to God every time that someone foots the bill.”
But Fife got serious, mostly, when it came to talking about Indiana basketball, why he wanted so badly to return and what he thinks has to happen for it to return to its once vaunted position atop the Big Ten and in the highest echelons of college basketball.
Fife has already been a head coach, leading the program at IPFW from 2005-11 as one of the youngest head coaches in Division I at the time, and he’s been to a pair of Final Fours under Izzo. But for years, he said, he’s had an eye on returning to Indiana as either an assistant or the head coach. He made clear this desire to Tom Izzo, and he was upfront with him again in March when the job opened up with the firing of coach Archie Miller and maintained his interest in making the move when Mike Woodson was hired as Indiana’s head coach.
“Coach Izzo has always known it was my dream to coach at Indiana,” Fife said. “I’ve never really shied away from that. So when this job came open, my first objective was tried to get the head job. I made no bones about it with him. But my second objective was, if they get a former player or a coach that I like and respect, change is good. Change is good for me. Change is ultimately good for most. Ten years is a long time to be somewhere and coach Izzo agreed with that. When Coach Woodson got the job, it really was an easy decision. I thought if he called and offered me the right position and the right description and the right responsibilities that I thought I’d earned and had a right to ask for, I was gonna do it. It was pretty easy.”
He wanted to work for Woodson even though the two have rarely crossed paths. When Woodson graduated from Indiana as an All-American in 1980, Fife was less than a year old. Woodson spent his entire post-playing career coaching in the NBA and Fife spent all of his in the college ranks. They ended up in the same building for a few basketball alumni events and knew each other and respected each other as part of that fraternity. But that’s about as close as they were.
However, Fife had always wanted to see an IU alum in charge at Indiana, whether it was him or someone else. So when it finally happened, he wanted to be a part of it.
“To me, Indiana is a really, really unique place,” Fife said. “It’s a place where it requires someone who understands the dynamic, the beast that it is, and is someone that understands the massive alumni base, the passion that they have. I’ve always said I want to come back and coach Indiana. Why? Because of the passion for basketball. Because people know basketball. It’s unlike any other place in the world. With that in mind, I’ve always thought the Indiana basketball job, by and large should be held by someone who played or coached here or spent a lot of time here. I think coach Woodson is perfect at this time.”
Fife said he thinks there’s a lot that has to change to get Indiana right. He pointed to everyone from fans to the media but also said it’s on the program to win and also to reconnect with the fanbase.
“I think this is a culture issue, not just with the program itself,” Fife said. “But with the fans, the media, the whole state. … The younger generation at Indiana is in wonderment of, where is this Indiana basketball that’s so great? They’ve never really been able to attach themselves to what makes this place so special. It seems like we have a bunch of Yankees and Red Sox fans that are fine when we win but are brutal when we lose. … What’s going on now is pretty superficial and fairweather fannish. I understand it. I really do. We have to get some stability here. I think Coach Woodson and the staff here is going to dig in and get out to these small towns and visit with these former players because we all have a responsibility.”
Fife, of course, has his own responsibility, which is to use his 10 years of Big Ten coaching and recruiting expertise to help guide a 63-year-old coach who is dealing directly with amateurs for the first time as a coach after 24 years in the NBA. Woodson has a sense for what he wants from his offense, what kind of players he wants and how to get execution out of grown men. Fife has to figure out how and where to find those players and help Woodson express his thoughts and requirements to teenagers and 18-22-year-olds.
Together they have to try to turn around a team that finished 12-15 last season and missed the postseason entirely. They maintain most of last season’s roster including All-American Trayce Jackson-Davis and they’ve added transfer point guard Xavier Johnson from Pittsburgh. However, they lost Armaan Franklin and Aljami Durham, their two leading perimeter scorers, and center Joey Brunk. They have two scholarships available for the 2021-22 season and are looking to add shooters to make Woodson’s proposed four-out, one-in NBA-style offense work.
“What I’ve gotta do is figure out the best players for coach Woodson that fit his system,” Fife said. “… And as much as I’ve got to adjust to coach Woodson, Coach Woodson is dealing with a whole new dynamic. He’s dealing with kids that are sometimes 17 and coming right from their parents’ homes. For the most part, at the NBA level, he’s dealing with men. Sometimes he’s dealing with 19-, 20-year-olds, but he’s dealing with men that have been on their own for a while. Now, he’s dealing with kids that still might look in the stands at their parents when something is going wrong. That’s not always the case, but there’s an adjustment that we have to help coach Woodson deal with too.”
So far, Fife has enjoyed the fact that Woodson has been amenable to the adjustment and welcomes outside input from coaches and staff members who don’t have his total amount of time invested in the game, but have been at the college level.
“The great thing about it is he doesn’t have an ego,” Fife said. “He should, but he doesn’t. When we’re sitting in a staff meeting, and we’ve been in a few of them, it’s really neat to be able to say something and he’s like, ‘Oh, Ok, I can see where you’re right on that.’ I’m really looking forward to learning what coach Woodson has to offer. I’ve been in a couple of meetings where he’s just taught X’s and O’s and it’s fascinating how advanced it is at that level. And on the flipside, we get more primitive here in college basketball. … There’s going to be a lot of blending here and it’s going to be a perfect scenario for our players.”
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