Spartan Nation Exclusive Interview With Michigan State/Tom Izzo Super Assistant: Dane Fife!
Hondo S. Carpenter, Sr.: Assistant Coach at Michigan State, Big Ten ICON, great father and an even greater husband, the great Dane Fife. What do you love most about the game of basketball?
Coach Dane Fife: I think the spirit of the competition is what excites me the most. I’ve always felt like sports are great in general. I’m a huge football fan, love to play the game even now. I love to get in the backyard and throw the football around. I love to get with the guys on Thanksgiving. I don’t do that really much anymore, but… I think the spirit of the competition is what really excites me the most. Growing up I didn’t really think I loved the game of basketball. What I really, really loved was competition. And as a result of that I worked at the game…I played and worked hard at it.
HONDO: When you see guys who have all the physical talent in the world but don’t have your heart, is that the hardest part about coaching?
FIFE: I think it’s frustrating as a coach. I feel like I want you to be better than you understand. So it does get frustrating, but looking back I think I was certainly in the same boat with my coaches and their frustrations with me. The main issue is that they don’t have the experience that we have. If they did, we wouldn’t be making those kinds of statements and we wouldn’t have those strong feelings. I really think it’s just part of the maturation process, Hondo, and part of growing up. Some cases are more extreme than others. I do think all in all, especially with our group… We’ve got a group that they work in various degrees, but nonetheless they wanna be good. They’re at different phases of their of lives, different phases in terms of their work ethic. But nonetheless, we’re fortunate to have a group of guys that are pretty motivated, and some are in an impressive way, motivated to an extreme, and it’s certainly a pleasure to be coaching this group.
HONDO: Your biggest qualities as a coach are you’re a terrific teacher and listener. Where did you learn to be those?
FIFE: Hondo, I’m gonna make sure my wife is listening to this show. I’m gonna record it certainly, because I think she would disagree with you on the listening.
HONDO: Wouldn’t all wives?
FIFE: Yeah, I guess that’s fair. You know what, Hondo, I would just say my ability to coach and the things I learned, I’ve been pretty fortunate. I played for a really, really good high school coach and played for a couple of great college coaches. And then obviously I’m working here under a Hall of Famer. So I would consider what I’ve learned, and my experiences growing up, I would consider that I certainly would have been afforded to have the ability to be a little bit ahead of the curve and in my knowledge because of the experiences and the people that I’ve worked for. I would just say that the people I’ve worked for… My parents certainly allowed me to gain tremendous knowledge in this business and really in life. And I don’t claim to be better than anybody else, but I’ve certainly been very fortunate with the people I’ve been able to serve under, have helped me gain this knowledge as I worked along the way.
HONDO: I think you have a great family. Would you talk about them?
FIFE: Well, Hondo, that would be something that I’m much more comfortable with. When you think about not being a braggart or not being someone that likes to talk about themselves, I certainly am very comfortable bragging about my family. Growing up…my parents are high school sweethearts. They’ve been together seems like forever now. As I eluded to earlier, I’ve been afforded the ultimate American dream where I’ve had two loving parents that loved me every day, good and bad. And two pretty good brothers. One beat the heck out of me, but I probably deserved it as a youngster. But I’ve been really, really lucky. To have two parents that have been supportive of me the way they have, I don’t think everybody gets that. I try to live my life in a way, especially around our guys, that would show them the way. I think it’s important that our players see coaches nurturing our own families, nurturing our wives, nurturing our kids and loving them endlessly. I hope our guys can see us in that light as opposed to the constant teacher/coach atmosphere. Like I said, the things I’ve learned and the family has been afforded and been fortunate to be a part of is certainly grateful. And I do really consider myself lucky because I do look at, especially in recruiting, I look at some cases where family structure is disheartening and heart breaking, in some circumstances. I wake up every day thankful to God that I’ve been given such a great and wonderful, full life.
HONDO: Your wife is as sweet as she is beautiful. Do you ever look in the mirror and realize that you wouldn’t have her if you weren’t a basketball star? Because you’re not an attractive man.
FIFE: I’ve told her that before, “Honey, I’m not a handsome man. I don’t claim to be. But I am nice and I am loyal. I do work hard and I”ll be a good dad.” So I should feel pretty lucky in that light for sure.
HONDO: You were raised by an elite coach in your father, played for one in Bob Knight and work for one now in Tom Izzo. For a coach to be elite, I think one of the things most of them have in common is being a good father. You love being a dad. Would you talk about that?
HONDO: I really do. I don’t consider myself any more loving than most fathers. I just remember as a kid growing up… My dad sacrificed a lot for us, as most dads do. He was a rising star in this business, in the college basketball business at Michigan. He sacrificed literally quitting being a college coach because he didn’t have enough time for his son. That really kinda showed me that here’s a guy that’s family first. My responsibility to my kids is to be there. In this business you can’t always be there for the important things, like my daughter’s preschool graduation. Which in the big picture is no big deal, but it’s something that was important to me…it’s the nature of the business. But Coach Izzo said something to me when I took this job because… It’s extremely demanding, and rightfully so. I said to him, “Will I have time for my kids?” in the interview process. He said, “You know what, you’ll never have the amount of time that you actually want and need. But the question is, is when you’re with them what are you doing? Are you with your kids or are you with your phone? Are you with your kids or are you with the game on television? What are you doing when you’re with the kids? I told my wife when Quinley was born…Quinley’s our 4 year old…I said I cannot believe that I could ever love something so much. And you hear that so often from parents, but it’s very, very true. It’s an amazing feeling. It’s an amazing feeling, Hondo, when you get home and those two little girls are screaming your name. ‘Daddy!’ I get emotional talking about it; I’m sure you’ve experienced the same thing with your children. There’s not a better feeling. We could win a championship, we could win a lot of things in this business, but there’s no better feeling than walking through the door and your kids are greeting you with a smile and a big hug.
HONDO: Yeah, they don’t care if you lose a game or miss a recruit. They just don’t care, do they?
FIFE: Well, maybe not in the recruiting business, but you know Quinnly’s starting to feel it as a 4 year old. She was pretty happy when we beat Michigan in the Big 10 Championship. I’ve still got it recorded on my phone and I listen to it every once in a while. It’s so funny and cute. But she’s starting to get into it a little bit. I see fellow Assistant’s DJ Stephens’…his daughter’s right around 9 years old. It’s funny to see her start to get wrapped up in the emotions of the game and the post games, the wins, the losses. I think that’s neat for kids to see and certainly shows them how to deal with successes and failures, because they ride the waves when they get old enough…along with the wives…they ride the waves with you and it’s emotional. Because these games have so much riding on them, at least in our minds.
HONDO: If you are talking to a recruit or player going anywhere in college, how difficult is it for them to understand there’s Dane Fife the coach, and then Dane Fife off the court…who’s gonna love you and push you like a dad? It almost puts coaches at a disadvantage nowadays when there’s not a lot of dads around, because they don’t have that in their mentality like you do with your own dad. Am I wrong?
FIFE: No, and that’s a great assessment, Hondo. I think we do see a lot of circumstances where there’s just one parent working their tail off to raise their child. I would say by the numbers, more often than not, the dad is the parent that there’s a void in the life of the recruit or the child. So I think we as coaches do put a lot of responsibility, even though technically it’s not our problem, it’s not our issue, it’s not our responsibility. But I think we do put a lot of responsibility in our hands to fill that void in our recruits, and essentially they become like our own children. We put a responsibility in our hands to help our players, and even our recruits, help fill those voids in their lives that are very apparent in what they’re missing. And then draw back on our experiences that we took from our own fathers and mothers, and help them with the nurturing/growth aspect of growing up. I think it’s a very essential ingredient to what we’ve done at Michigan State and in our success of our guys who move on. It’s an essential ingredient. I think as you kind of eluded, the most important thing is not how much money our guys make when they graduate from Michigan State, it’s the kind of parents, the husbands, the fathers, and overall how they treat people and deal with people and learn to work with people, is what makes us most proud. I know Coach Izzo talks about that all the time and would feel the same way. My Dad says, when he talks about his sons, he could care less about how much money they make, their success. What makes them most proud is the fact that we are great husbands, at least in his eyes, and great fathers, in his eyes.
HONDO: Because you were raised in a Michigan home, does it make the Michigan/Michigan State rivalry even more fun in your family now because you’re a Michigan State coach and proud of it?
FIFE: I hate to say it, Hondo. It was a pretty remarkable adjustment for me. The blow was softened because I did go to Indiana and I kind of lost that depth and that love for Michigan, but certainly not the appreciation…as you said, what Michigan has done for my family. I can remember the days of standing outside that tunnel at Michigan stadium and waiting for the Jamie Morris’s to come out for those autographs. It was a really important part of my childhood. Opening Michigan’s first game we’d get together for a party. I looked forward every year to going to that Michigan football game that we always went to. I was there for the Hail Mary Colorado. I was there for Desmond Howard’s catch in the end zone against Notre Dame. So a lot of great memories that I have at the University of Michigan. But as I said, I think that I wanted to create my own path and get away from the Michigan tradition. But more importantly, I wanted to play basketball for Bob Knight down in Indiana. But you know what, I was always impressed with how Coach Izzo was very kind to my family and very helpful, always willing to help out even though both myself and my brother Dugan decided not to play here at Michigan State. It really taught me a lot because I’m always an eye for an eye…if a kid doesn’t want to play for me, then I don’t really have any use for him. Coach Izzo really showed me a lot and taught me a lot. I don’t work that way anymore and I think it’s a tribute to Coach Izzo and how he’s helped me learn that you can’t take that stuff personal. People make their recruiting decisions for a reason. I know I’m rambling here, Hondo. Ultimately, it’s an honor to be at Michigan State. I told Coach Izzo in the hiring process that it would be an honor to be here. I’ve always had great respect for Michigan State and certainly the people here. It’s only been strengthened since I’e arrived here. What a great place to be. What a great group of people to work with. I just love how motivated the people are here at Michigan State. I think we do have a little bit of a chip on our shoulder, not necessarily for Michigan, but around the state as we want to be the top dog. I don’t think it’s always been that way, at least in the trail of the way people feel around the state. But I think we’re certainly think we’re there now. We feel that way and we’re proud and we’re gonna stay there.
HONDO: If you were talking about yourself to an Athletic Director, what would be your greatest strength as a coach?
FIFE: You know what, Hondo…I would really like to say that if I had to compare myself with coaches around the country, honest to gosh…if you watched Tim Miles…Tim would be a guy that I would really compare myself to. I’m kind of a melting pot of a bunch of coaches. I’ve got some Knight in me and I certainly have some Izzo in me, I’ve got some Dan Fife in me. I think in this business I wanna kind of show the world that…I don’t wanna take myself too serious. I wanna be able to be on edge in the business. But I also wanna be able to go home at night and be able to sleep, be able to relax. I don’t take myself too serious. I am kind of a happy-go-lucky guy. I’ll make a joke before I’m serious. I know there’s a place and time in teaching and practice and games. I know there’s a point in time when you do have to be serious. You do have to set the tone in that light, in that fashion. This business can get stressful and I try not to take myself too serious and try to understand that there’s so many ways that you can ride in this business. I think the term “even keel“ has to be applied in this business.
HONDO: What is Dane Fife’s biggest weakness as a coach that you’ve gotta improve?
FIFE: Well, as I watch the successful coaches, I think he’s got a certain fire that burns inside him where he exudes to the rest of the people that work for him and the people that help Michigan State stay at the top, that has to be applied. I think that he has the tremendous ability to be tough on people when it’s necessary, and back off when he knows he’s pushing them to a limit, or to their limit. It’s a very, very fine line when trying to get the best and most out of people. So I would say that I don’t, or I need to get better at pushing people, to get the most out of them and to get the best out of them without crossing that line. I don’t even think… I need to develop a better understanding of how to push people to get the most out of them. And I think that Coach Izzo is very, very good at doing that and not crossing the line. His ability to motivate is quite impressive. He does it with his players and he certainly does it with his staff. It’s a craft that is very difficult to emulate and develop, and certainly is a master of his craft.
HONDO: I think the NCAA is tyrannical. I don’t support it. I’m not gonna ask you about that specifically, but if you were given a magic wand and you were told you could change anything at all about college basketball, what would you change?
FIFE: I think you hit it on the head, Hondo. I think there’s a simple route here, and I know it’s gonna cost schools money…a lot of money. But everything costs money and the best usually costs more money. If you wanna be with the elite… My wife and I were trying to find a leaf blower the other day, and the lower end products they don’t give out as much power are cheaper. The higher end products that give out more power are more expensive. It can be equated to college basketball and this and that, but if you wanna compete for that trophy, unfortunately you need money. And if you want the best players, in some cases, you need money. In reality, the facility… I mean, it’s the truth. If you want the best players, you typically have to have great facilities. By great I mean top of the line in this business, comparing to other schools you have to have what is considered some of the best facilities. You have to have clothing, the school has to have great academics…all that stuff. We want the best professors, the best professors cost the most money. The best of everything costs money. So what we’re doing is we’re spending huge amounts of money on all these immaterial things, and the material things, but we’re not spending money to keep these kids with a little money in their pocket. I know that when I was in college 12 years ago if it wasn’t for my parents I would be living day to day. Not to say that I’d be homeless, Hondo, but each kid in reality needs more money. To think that they can work a job when they’re already working two jobs is completely farfetched. I do believe… I don’t agree that it should be free market and you should be paid necessarily. What I think that these kids need to be given more of is pay. They need to have more money given to them in order to make sure things match up with the situations that they… It doesn’t add up. I know there’s an imbalance here. They need to have more money in their pockets. I don’t think it needs to be an excessive amount, we don’t need to make it free market. But I do think that there needs to be more money given to them.