Photo by Mike Schumann / The Daily Hoosier

OPINION: Whatever the details, IU could have handled Dane Fife situation better

When he was hired last March, Mike Woodson was asked about the importance of having former IU basketball players involved in the program.

As someone who was hired because of his own status as a former player, it wasn’t surprising to learn Woodson placed a great deal of value on the concept of unification.

“I will bring them all back and bridge this gap that’s so desperately needed,” Woodson said a year ago.

“I’m going to try to tie it all together to make it all work, and we will all be one big family and win basketball games.”

Woodson took it a step further and hired a former Indiana player to join his staff a couple weeks later.

Irrespective of his IU ties, Dane Fife was an easy hire to understand.  He worked for ten years under Tom Izzo, played for Bob Knight, was a former head coach himself, and he had a pretty good track record as a recruiter in the Midwest.

He checked every box.

Indiana Director of Athletics Scott Dolson talked on that same day last March about the joy he feels in seeing former IU basketball players succeed in life.

“One of the things that’s always been interesting to me and something I take a great deal of pride in is that our fans get as excited about seeing a former player at a game or reading about a former player’s success in life as much as they do about their success on the court and I love that part of Indiana Basketball,” Dolson said.

It is hard to reconcile those sentiments expressed a year ago with what we saw go down this past week.

Assistant coaches are fired routinely in college basketball.  We saw that during the Archie Miller era when he moved on from assistant coach Ed Schilling.  When Miller made that move he took the high road, noting Schilling’s dedication to the IU program.

“His contributions were extremely beneficial to what we are trying to accomplish,” Miller said of Schilling in 2019.

While one could certainly draw their own conclusions, there was nothing from IU suggesting Schilling had been fired, because, well, there is really no reason to do that.  No reason to kick someone on their way out the door.  Instead there was a release from IU that included a quote from Schilling, leaving the impression there was a mutual parting of ways.

When it came to Fife, however, the message from Woodson was unilateral and clear.

“The fit must be right” and “change is necessary.”

For whatever reason, Woodson wanted you to know without a doubt — Fife was fired, and he didn’t fit at IU.

Let’s be clear, Woodson didn’t write the release, but the buck stops with him.  The idea that it goes further — that Woodson is out there pushing a smear campaign against Fife?  No, that’s just silly.

But IU Athletics is full of people who, for whatever reason, like to spread gossip.

And after an awkward release on Fife rather than a mutual “do what’s best for IU approach,” a flood of rumors fueled by the chatty types filled the void and hit the message boards.  They painted Fife as insubordinate, disrespectful and out of touch.  To be sure, no one actually published anything substantiating those rumors, and that should tell you something about the validity of what is circulating. Even message board posts have been mysteriously deleted, although countless screen shots will live on forever.

The real story is a bit more basketball related than what is out there.  But the damage was done.  And it was completely unnecessary.

Suddenly, one of the program’s best-liked former players is being smeared left and right.  Dane Fife was the heart and soul of IU’s last Final Four team, a team he played a central role in keeping together when Knight was fired in 2000. He was the 2002 Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year following a stellar senior season.  He had nothing but love for his alma mater, and uprooted his family after 10 years in East Lansing.

And now his reputation has been tarnished, both in the eyes of many IU fans, and in the coaching profession.  You just don’t allow your icons to be kicked to the curb like that.  You aggressively protect them.  They are the face of your program, the people fans hold near and dear for decades.

That gap Woodson said he wanted to bridge just got a little wider this week.  To be sure, this isn’t a Bob Knight, Texas Tech situation where you can expect a subset of fans to choose Dane Fife over IU.  But none of this is healthy for a program that doesn’t need turmoil after 22 years of chaos on repeat.

Let’s be clear — Mike Woodson has every right to hire and fire whoever he wants, and that includes former IU players.

He can and he should make the staff decisions that he feels best serve the program.

But Dane Fife should be held in a higher regard than your average assistant coach.  And he deserved better than what went down this week.

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