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Fife coaches 'mental toughness'

Dane Fife talks with players. Photo provided (click for larger version)
October 27, 2010 - BY PAT MURPHY

Special to the Clarkston News

Going into his sixth year as head coach in a NCAA Division I basketball program, Dane Fife expects his team to be mentally tough, a trait he says will help players win ball games and be successful in life.

"I want opponents to know they better play their best game," said the former Clarkston High School and Indiana University standout, "or they're in for a long night."

Fife talked about mental toughness — and basketball — Friday at the first practice for the IPFW Mastodons, now in their 10th year as a Division I school and fourth season in the Summit League that includes Oakland, Oral Roberts and North Dakota State Universities.

The first practice wasn't a hyped-up session of hoop hysteria or midnight madness. There were no 3-point shooting contests or slam-dunk competition. It was a hard nosed session with wind sprints, nonstop movement and demanding drills. Few fans and no cheerleaders were on hand, just the coaches, support staff and an occasional television camera or newspaper reporter.

"We want practice to be as tough as anything they will see in a game," explained Fife.

At a conditioning drill earlier in the week, Fife seemed pleased when several of the players got sick during the strenuous workout — on the theory that players who vomit together stay together over the long and demanding season.

Fife was the youngest Division I head coach in the country in 2005, when at the age of 26 he named to the top basketball job at IPFW. Last year was his most successful as a head coach, when the Mastodons finished 16 and 15 overall — the school's first winning season as a Division I School. The team was 9 and 9 in the Summit league. The season ended with a 71 to 58 loss to the Oakland University Golden Grizzlies in the league tournament.

IPFW brings three starters back from last year, and they'll be supported by three players now eligible after transferring from other teams. Among them is Jason Smeathers, who played at Arizona Western College.

Fife is a demanding coach, said Smeathers, from Greenwood, In. "But his pedigree speaks for itself," he said, referring to Fife's playing days at IU, where he scored 736 career points, set the school's all-time steals record with 180 and was named Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year for the 2001-02 season.

"He played under (Bobby) Knight," said Smeathers, "and we know he's been there. He's done the things he wants us to do."

Fife is the first to be critical of a player, said 6-foot, 8-inch junior, "But he's also the first to bring you back up."

Fife expects his team to be better this year, and possibly compete for a berth in the NCAA Tournament. But the Summit League is competitive, he said, and players will need to be mentally tough — a trait he said was a trademark of Bobby Knight.

"I learned my basketball from my dad," he said, referring to Dan Fife who played basketball and baseball at the University of Michigan and is now athletic director at Clarkston High School. "But Coach Knight was a master of winning at the college level," said Dane Fife, in part because of the discipline and mental toughness he required of his players.

"Much of my coaching style reflects that," Fife said.

He's always been pleased at the support of his family and friends. "I expect 150 or 200 people for our first home game (Judson University on Nov. 27)," he said, and more than a few for an exibition game against Olivet, Nov. 6. "It's always great to see old friends and teammates."

Perhaps the most rewarding challenges in his life, said Fife, is Quinnly, the daughter he and wife Blair had 10 months ago. "But Quinnly is also a lot of fun," he said.

So, will the coach expect mental toughness from his daughter? Definitely, Fife said. But her mother — a native of Kokomo and a former IU student — is already mentally tough. "I had a hard time getting a date with her," he said.

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