BLOOMINGTON, Ind. – At the time when new Indiana basketball coach Mike Woodson first reached out to Dane Fife to talk about joining his staff, the mutual respect was already there, despite one obvious fact.
The two Indiana basketball stars from different eras had never met.
Woodson is 63 years old now, played basketball at Indiana from 1976 to 1980 and has been in the NBA as a player or coach ever since. Fife, who is 41 and was born the summer before Woodson' storybook senior year at Indiana, was in Bloomington from 1998 to 2002 and has been in the college game ever since.
Their paths have never crossed.
"I'm not even sure we've met. I've known him, and known of him, and I have a lot of respect for him, but this is something where even though we've never spent any time together, you're automatically connected,'' Fife said during an hour-long sit down with the media. "When you sit down and talk X's and O's with Coach Woodson, there are so many things that reflect what he learned, what we both learned, from Coach Knight.
"It's really neat to go back to what would be deemed primitive, but in the end, all the things Coach Knight would teach transcend time. What worked then, works now, and it's really just hard work, dedication, being all-in, being coachable and trusting the process, which nobody does anymore. ... It's on us to change that here. We all have a responsibility to do that.''
Those ties that bind are certainly strong, especially among the old-timers who have been part of Indiana basketball throughout the years. Woodson and Fife both make a short list of Bob Knight's favorite players, and now they're together in Bloomington, attached at the hip for the first time with one common goal – to make Indiana basketball relevant again.
Fife has spent the past 10 years as a top assistant to Tom Izzo at Michigan State, and they've all enjoyed tremendous success there. The Clarkston, Mich., native loved being close to home, with family all no more than an hour away.
But there's something about Indiana. That's always been the case for Fife, who's always wanted to coach at his alma mater, ''but this is the first time I've ever been offered a job to coach at Indiana.''
Coming home was easy, for the most part. Telling Izzo was hard, but the legendary coach understood, too. He knows what Indiana means, and he knows even more so how much Indiana means to Fife
"When Coach Woodson called and told me the job and the responsibilities, it was a pretty easy decision for me,'' Fife said. "But leaving East Lansing and that situation and everything that came with it, that was the tough decision, working for literally one of the best to ever do it in my mind.
"But to have a chance to work with Coach Woodson, and Coach Matta, and work with someone like Scott Dolson that I've known for 20 years, that's great. That's all great, to work with people that I've respected for a long time. It made it an easy decision.''
Fife packed up quickly after being hired last week and drove straight to Bloomington. His wife Blair and his two young kids will follow once school is over. And then, finally, nearly 20 years later, he will call Bloomington home again.
And he's thrilled about that.
"Now that I'm back, I guess on the right side, I can't wait to just go sit in the bleachers at Assembly Hall, sit in the chairs where the families would sit. So many stories come back to me, from being in there during practice with Coach Knight or Coach Davis.
"Assembly Hall, the COVID version happened last year. Not much has changed, and that's what's really unique about it.''
Fife was on the last Indiana team to make the Final Four in 2002, losing to Maryland in the championship game, but over all those years, the program has been sliding downhill. Fife's last coach, Mike Davis, never found that magic again, Kelvin Sampson's short era during into an NCAA sanctions disaster, Tom Crean built it back up but then let it slip again and Archie Miller made it worse, with four straight season without a winning record in the Big Ten.
During all that time, none of those coaches offered Fife a job at Indiana. Woodson was the first. He's thrilled to be working with Woodson, who had great NBA credentials, and it means a lot to be working with fellow assistant Kenya Hunter and former Ohio State coach Thad Matta, who was hired by Indiana athletic director Scott Dolson to be the associate athletic director in charge of men's basketball, a newly created position.
"I got to know Kenya when he worked at Nebraska with (former Hoosier) Michael Lewis, If he's good with Michael, he's good with me,'' Fife said. "He's a complete coach, a great X's and O's guy and a great recruiter. He'll be a great head coach some day. I don't think we'll miss a beat, especially where it goes with me and Kenya.''
Recruiting is going to be critical for those guys, and they know it. Fife is a nationally respected recruiter from his time at Michigan State, but he also freely admits that he recruited kids to fit Izzo's system. That changes now with Woodson, and they're learning on the fly with that now.
"You're supposed to recruit to your boss, and I'm used to recruiting for Coach Izzo,'' Fife said. "Coach Woodson comes from the NBA. What I've got to do is figure out which players are the best players for Coach Woodson, and the best players that fit his system.''
And it's all about rebuilding the program. Indiana hasn't even played in the NCAA Tournament since 2016, and hasn't won a game on the second weekend of the tournament since Fife did it in 2002. And that last national championship was now 34 years ago, when Fife was just a 7-year-old.
There's been a huge disconnect in the program since Knight was fired in 2000. But now that's changed. Dolson, the athletic director who was once a student manager on the 1987 title team, knew it was important to infuse that Indiana basketball history back into the program.
That's why he hired Woodson, and why they hired Fife.
Now the fixing can begin.
“I think that we will mend a lot of fences just by virtue of Coach Woodson being here, connecting the old with the young,” Fife said. “We got to talk about how special this place still is and should be.
“It’s so easy to get sidetracked, to get distracted with social media and people just constantly pecking at you if you don’t have your circle tight. But that’s on the staff, too. We’ve got to look for signs, we got to be investigators. We gotta be almost FBI to know what’s being thrown in these kids’ faces and going in their ears. But we have to get stability here, and we all have a responsibility in doing that.''
Being at Michigan State, Fife knows this Indiana roster very well. He's excited to work with them. "Last year, that was an NCAA Tournament team. Trayce Jackson-Davis, great kid, great player. Race Thompson, great kid, Rob Phinisee, great kid. The freshmen, great kids. I'm looking forward to coaching them.''
Not everyone who could come back did. Al Durham was out the door as soon as the season ended, and Armaan Franklin left last week for Virginia. On Tuesday, senior center Joey Brunk, who could have come back for one more year, chose not to.
Fife knows all about what goes through a kid's mind after a coaching change, becasue he was front and center at Indiana as a player when Knight was fired. He thought about leaving, thought about going home to Michigan State, but eventually stayed at Indiana, for one big reason.
"They were like my brothers, which was why I came back,'' he said. "I just got here, so I haven't had a lot of conversations with these kids yet. I didn't do a good job with Brunk, but I didn't have much time. It's a different time for kids now. They've changed. We've changed. People have changed.
"It's so easy to get sidetracked and distracted with social media, with people pecking at you. We need to know what's being through at these kids. If you're not plugged in (to what they're going through), especially at this time with the portal open, some of these kids, they're ripe for the picking. As coaches, you need to eliminate doubt.''
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