Fife, 26, is youngest Division I coach

Updated: November 11, 2005, 4:53 PM ET
Associated Press

FORT WAYNE, Ind. -- Dane Fife twirls a whistle as 16 players run sprints on the court. He did these drills countless times as a player.

Only this time Fife is making the calls.

He is the coach at Indiana-Purdue at Fort Wayne, and at 26 the youngest head coach in Division I basketball.

A look at Fife's basketball pedigree suggests he was headed this way all along. Basketball is part of his DNA: He is the son of a prominent Michigan high school coach, a pupil of Bob Knight's and an apprentice of Indiana's Mike Davis.

"I've been preparing for this for a long time," he said after a recent practice. "This is what I am, this is what I need. Behind the scenes, I'm learning things every day, and I think the best coaches will tell you they learn something every day, too."

Fife is nearly 4½ years the junior of Virginia Commonwealth's Jeff Capel, who until Fife was the youngest coach in Division I. Fife admits there's a lot to brush up on before the season opener Nov. 19 against Loyola-Chicago.

Until this season, Fife had never called a timeout, made a substitution or tracked players' class work. He'd never worried about recruiting budgets, schedules or hiring assistants. He'd also never been at a school that lacked a winning tradition.

None of that fazes Fife. He grew up in a basketball family and learned from one of the game's winningest coaches.

Brothers Dugan and Jeremy earned all-state honors in Michigan, and Dugan eventually started for the Michigan Wolverines. Dane took home the biggest prize, Michigan's Mr. Basketball title, in 1998. His father, Dan, is one of Michigan's top high-school coaches with more than 400 wins at Clarkston High School.

Fife played two seasons under Knight, becoming a fan favorite with his toughness and relentless defensive work. His feelings about Knight were so strong that he threatened to transfer after the Hall of Fame coach was fired in 2000.

But he finished at Indiana, helping lead the Hoosiers to the 2002 national title game under Davis. As an assistant the last two seasons, he watched Davis struggle as Indiana went 29-29.

Now Fife is in charge, running a team that jumped to Division I in 2001.

"He's a hard worker and a great coach," Davis said. "He's got a great feel for the game, he's competitive, and that's what you need."

IPFW athletic director Mark Pope, a lawyer with a business background, raves about Fife's work ethic and says his organizational skills are among the best he's seen.

"His first day of work was supposed to be April 1, but he showed up about 10 days early," Pope said. "He told his staff he wanted them to leave their families at home for 60 days because he wanted them to live together, eat together, work together and get it turned around. They got a two-bedroom apartment right next door here and they slept on air mattresses."

It was a page straight out of Fife's personal playbook.

As a player, Fife reveled when opposing fans jeered him. Nothing was off-limits when winning was at stake. He once bit an Iowa player who refused to let him get up during a game -- and says he'd do it again if necessary.

Now comes his biggest challenge: turning around a team that is 26-89 in its first four Division I seasons.

"I want to have a chance in every game, whether we're at Michigan State or Purdue, to win it at the end," he said. "Our goal is to compete as hard as we can till the end."

Fife puts his squad through a demanding regimen that players have embraced.

"The way he carries himself, he seems so much older," guard Quintin Carouthers said. "I think it's a good move for our program because when you're young, you're anxious."

Only two players, Carouthers and Justin Hawkins, return to the Mastodons with any significant experience. Together they averaged 12.5 points and 7.0 rebounds last year.

So Fife has relied on an old lesson: Win with defense.

"I think they'll be surprised how many points we can score off defense," Fife said. "Besides, our new offense isn't working worth a darn."

Fife hopes someday to take on his alma mater, maybe at the renovated 13,000-seat Memorial Coliseum in Fort Wayne. And win.

For now, he blows his whistle, sending players to their next drill, awaiting the chance to be called not the youngest coach, but just another college coach.

"Jeff Capel walked up to me and gave me a big bear hug and said, 'The pressure is off me,"' Fife said. "Now it's on me. That's a burden I'll just have to bear, hopefully not for too long."


Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press