Fife seeks to help rebuild culture around IU basketball

When he was asked why Indiana men’s basketball has failed to reach its potential, Dane Fife wasn’t afraid to name names.

One, in particular, stood out to the 41-year-old former Hoosier player, who spent the last decade on Michigan State’s staff.

“We beat them last year because Rob Phinisee didn’t hawk the ball like he did,” Fife said. “I say that with a smirk, but I like their team. … To me, they were an NCAA tournament team.”

Phinisee, in Fife’s mind, is an NBA-caliber defender. If he’s the head of the Hoosiers’ snake defensively, and Race Thompson and Trayce Jackson-Davis are anchors underneath, IU wins a few more games. Maybe the Hoosiers beat the Spartans, who rallied at Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall and sent IU spiraling into a six-game losing streak to end the season.

For whatever reason, the Hoosiers lacked the confidence to get the job done.

But in a wide-ranging press conference Tuesday, the newly hired IU assistant both expressed a feeling that the Hoosiers were close, while at the same time indicating there are some larger issues he wants to remedy. He wasn’t pinning everything that ailed the Hoosier program on one player. Or even just the team.

He mentioned the boos that fans rained down on the Hoosiers at the Big Ten tournament, alluding to a fair-weather sentiment he observed. He called out the media, saying it was upsetting to see people “picking at” the program, creating an “avalanche” of criticism that buried Archie Miller. There is a culture, inside and surrounding IU basketball, that Fife doesn’t feel is working.

Yes, there were boos in his day. But those same fans came back, in full support, the very next game.

“We’ve been booed up 20, walking off the floor with Coach (Bob) Knight. It seems like people forget, but I think it’s a good time for me to be here to remind people,” Fife said. “I’m not afraid to lecture a few people, because this is my program. This is your program. This is Coach Woodson’s program. And if anybody has a right to criticize or stick up for it, it’s us.”

Fife readily displayed passion and flare as he discussed the challenges of rebuilding IU’s program under Mike Woodson, another Hoosier alum. It’s not just about finding the right pieces in the transfer portal or recruiting the right players to fit a former NBA coach. Those are important pieces, but not everything.

Rebuilding IU men’s basketball is a more holistic task, in Fife’s mind, that will involve barnstorming small towns around the state, building better relationships, and providing a more optimistic view of what IU can be.

It’s hands-on work, but Fife is invested. He acknowledged his first effort was to get the head-coaching job at IU. After a decade under Tom Izzo, helping lead a perennial contender, he certainly felt prepared to aim high.

“My second objective, if they get a former player I like and respect — change is good,” Fife said. “And 10 years is a long time to be somewhere. Coach Izzo agreed with that.”

While he made sure to not frame it as a criticism of Miller, Fife said he’s always believed IU’s program needed former players in a coaching role. They can sell the program with just a little more passion. When they lose to Purdue — as IU did every time under Miller — it hurts a bit more.

“I always said I want to come back and coach at Indiana because of the passion for basketball,” Fife said. “I’ve always felt Indiana basketball, the Indiana basketball job, should, by and large, be coached by somebody who played here or coached here or spent a lot of time here.

“I think Coach Woodson’s perfect at this time. I think Coach Woodson had in mind that he was going to bring in others who had the same passion that he did.”

Fife and Woodson have common roots, both former Knight recruits who joined IU basketball because it was founded on ideals like hard work and being coachable. Those principles, they believe, should transcend time.

At the same time, Woodson, Fife, and assistant Kenya Hunter admittedly have an adjustment to make coming together as a staff. Woodson has to learn the ins and outs of this level, while Fife has to learn what types of players fit Woodson’s style, on and off the floor.

“I still tend to think character matters with a player,” Fife said, “but maybe it’s someone like Coach Woodson who can turn around a kid’s life … maybe Coach Woodson’s someone who can take someone who has questionable character but is a great basketball player. The great thing is we do have choices here in college.

“We’re not relying on a GM to just throw us some players. We have choices. But I have to figure out which are the best players for Coach Woodson, that fit his system.”

What encourages Fife is Woodson’s willingness to listen.

“The great thing about it is he doesn’t have an ego,” Fife said. “He should, but he doesn’t. We are sitting here in a staff meeting, we’ve been in a few of them, it’s really neat to say something and he’s like ‘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 talking Xs and Os and it’s fascinating to see how advanced it is at that level. The flipside, we get more primitive here in college basketball. Like, coach, you have to think back to when you raised your two daughters and they were 16, 17, 18, and what would you have said then.

“There’s give and take.”

Fife has started meeting with players, and he wasn’t afraid to outline goals for them. He wants Phinisee to establish himself as a defender again, comparing it to “How Stella Got Her Groove Back.” He wants Jackson-Davis to up his rebounding, joking he should wear a face mask like Thompson did late in the season because he’s mixing it up so much. Fife even talked about a conversation with freshman Anthony Leal about looking out for teammates who are struggling mentally.

Fife, personally, wants to be very involved with his players. Even with the people who are in the ears of his players. He wants to be out in the community, being an ambassador for IU basketball.

That’s just as important as what happens on the court next season.

“I couldn’t tell you how good the Big Ten or how bad the Big Ten will be next year, but I can tell you when we get out in these communities, my two daughters, they are going to see what Indiana basketball is all about,” Fife said. “If we go down to Louisville, we still expect people to be in their candy stripes and come up to say ‘hello.’

“That’s how you build. That’s how you rebuild this culture that was so strong when I was here.”

15 comments

  1. Not to rail on Archie but he never invested in the culture around him. I don’t think he understood IU basketball beyond a winning tradition. Crean did……some. But he didn’t reach out to the high school coaches and get them on his side. I grew up in Bloomington but have lived in Iowa the past 40 years. People here say “Indiana is a basketball state.” They have no idea what that really means. A few friends have moved to Indiana and and when I see them they say they had no idea what it meant to be a basketball state. They were shocked. Archie was too.

    1. I agree with you Hoosieriniowa. Toward the end, I felt Archie was clueless and overwhelmed with and by the fan base. I NEVER understood why he didn’t bring the team back out when Knight came back; to me that would have been a bridge moment. Keeping them in the locker room denied them an experience from the past to build on——and he blew it.

  2. Fife’s speech and attitude suggest that he expects to be IU’s next head coach when Woody retires. In the mean time, I’m guessing he now appreciates that there’s a lot that he can learn from Woody. Love Fife’s confidence, passion and straight-forward communication. I’m betting that he coaches like he played.

  3. Excellent article Jon.
    Best line of the whole article: “There is a culture, inside and surrounding IU basketball, that Fife doesn’t feel is working.”
    Amen brother.

    1. I liked the line where he talked about the “culture” going out and signing autographs or watching small school basketball games from the stands. Rebuilding the culture from the foundations and not just from “social media”. I have no doubt that RP will improve this year and I was impressed with Coach Fife’s passion and determination.

  4. Lightly used MSU Thomas Kathiier hits the portal. 6’8″, highly ranked out of HS. Could he help? Fife would no doubt be the decider.

    1. I saw that. 3 star when he came out of high school. 3 years at MSU and mostly a reserve. A possibility for sure but I think we could find better and bigger.

  5. Easy and popular things to say…politicians staple…I’m sure
    D. Fife means and intends to do the things he says…comes from coaching family background…kinda a parallel to Tom Allen…D. Fife and Woodson actually IU players.

  6. Former players make great coaches? Maybe. I wonder what the history says on highly successful coaches who were former players…? Were they mostly star players, role players unlikely to ever play beyond college…or bench warmers?

    Coach K, Bobby, Mark Few, Roy Williams, Bill Self….Tom Izzo, Jay Wright, Porter Moser, John Beilein…? These guys seem like they could have played for the Washington Generals basketball team. Current trend is to give the actual Globetrotters and “stars” a shot at college coaching.

    Maybe college coaching was akin to the Augusta Golf Club….? We’re finally allowing black guys to be members. Can one even imagine Augusta didn’t allow a black member until 1990? I wonder when Teri Moren will be allowed membership? On a somewhat related topic, it seems Dan Dakich has got himself into a bit of hot water again…(or maybe it was swimming pool temperature water).

  7. Makes one wonder if we even have the right to call any coach from the past one of the “greatest ever” ….if the playing field was never anywhere near level?

  8. Didn’t somebody on Scoop recently say the grass wasn’t necessarily “greener on the other side” when referencing to Franklin going to a so-called (implied) depleted Virginia? It appears Bennett just picked up another….and it’s the type of guy who would have been a perfect fit for our needs.

    https://dailyprogress.com/sports/virginia-mens-basketball-team-adds-touted-east-carolina-transfer-jayden-gardner/article_514ff528-9be5-11eb-8748-97a4d21be330.html

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