Tuesday June 29th, 2010

IUPUIFW? A dreadful Scrabble rack, to be sure, but for Dane Fife, it's also a daily reminder of how far his developing basketball program still has to come.

Indeed, whenever the former Indiana star takes the elevator in the athletic offices at IPFW (formally Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne), he sees an inspection certificate that inadvertently blends his school with its better-known sister entity in Indianapolis (IUPUI, which itself looks like a Hawaiian island). It's hard enough to build a Division I program essentially from scratch, which is what Fife, now entering his sixth season, has been doing successfully in northeast Indiana. Trying to combat constant branding issues that stump even local maintenance workers makes it that much more difficult.

"This is a fight we have continued to try to fight," Fife said. "We get a lot of funny looks [when we're out in public]. Let's put it that way: I call them 'Shirtwatchers.' Coach K will get an extra stare; we'll get a double-take. [Our shirts are] the colors of Duke, but people are still trying to figure out the initials."

Call them what you will, but don't overlook how Fife has steadily built the Mastodons into a competitive program. Hired at the ripe age of 25, just a few years after leading the in-state Hoosiers to the national title game, Fife has taken a team that won a total of 10 games as an independent in the two seasons before he was hired and driven it to Summit League respectability. In their first three seasons in the conference, IPFW is a combined two games under .500 in league play and this past season's 16-15 overall mark was, according to Fife, the school's first winning season in a quarter century.

The journey has been far from easy, though. Ironically, the word "scrabble" means "to grope about frantically" or "to struggle by as if by scraping." There may not be a better word to describe the culture shock Fife encountered when he took over a program that just became fully established in Division I in 2002.

"I don't think anything can prepare you, or prepare me, to go from a top-five program in the history of college basketball [to a new Division I program]," Fife said. "Everything is in place [at Indiana]. You have two or three academic advisors, you have a DoBO [director of basketball operations], you have a film coordinator. Making the transition here, at the time there were two poorly paid full-time assistants.

"I'd never experienced the low-major part of college basketball," he continued, "so we came in here and I had all these expectations and the athletic director ... said, 'Whoa, hold on here, that's not the way we run things. We don't have that kind of money. A DoBO? What's a director of basketball operations? Summer school? We don't have [players go to] summer school."

When it was noted that he was familiar with low-major basketball while at Indiana, that those were the teams that came in and lost by 30 at Assembly Hall, Fife laughed. He then quickly noted that the tables have turned, as his program is responsible for bringing in $225,000 a year in guarantee-game checks.

Branding and scheduling aside, the next hurdle Fife must overcome is due to his own success. In his first half decade in Fort Wayne, the lack of pressure to win helped IPFW take, according to Fife, "the necessary steps, baby steps, in terms of growing our budget, improving our winning each year, not in major proportions, but relatively a steady pace of improvement every year." Now, expectations are larger and he must push a more established program to make the difficult leap from simply being competitive to consistent winning. While the caliber of players he's after may be better, Fife's mantra remains consistent with his humble start.

"We want to be a program that can sustain itself, that continually brings in top-tier talent in regards to this league," he said. "When we started ... we had a goal. Let's build our business, build our program, and not bring in best athlete with bad character and be a one-hit wonder."

In the context of the recent spate of young coaching hires, Fife is proof that you can succeed with an inexperienced young coach in an unlikely spot. And if the Mastodons' trend continues upward, who knows? Maybe the general public will start to associate IPFW more with 12-point wins than as an incongruous cluster of letters worth 12 points in a famous board game.

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