BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — It all sounded good at first. While new Indiana athletic director Scott Dolson was busy sweeping away all the stench from the Archie Miller debacle and all that had preceded it, he kept talking about how important it was to rebuild the Indiana basketball family with Indiana basketball people.
That's why he talked to Mike Woodson and Keith Smart and Dane Fife, all former Indiana legends from slightly different generations, during his quick search for a new head coach. Woodson was always his first choice, and Dolson got the deal done swiftly with Woodson, who is still the No. 5 all-time leading scorer in school history and a Bob Knight favorite.
And then it got even better.
Not long after Woodson was hired, he yanked Fife away from Michigan State, where he had been a fiercely loyal — and very successful — assistant to Tom Izzo for 10 years. First Woodson was coming home, and now Fife was, too.
Two of the most favorite shiny apples from the Bob Knight tree, sitting side by side.
But Fife didn't even last a year working for Woodson. Hired on April 5 a year ago, Fife was fired by Woodson on Wednesday. Indiana's news release didn't use that word "fired,'' just saying that Fife ''would not return.''
But let's be clear about this: Woodson, once reaching the conclusion that he couldn't work with Fife for a variety of reasons — and that list is pretty long, according to some reports — fired him.
"Would not return?'' Come on.
If it's not a firing and Indiana wanted to save some face, they simply would have remained mum and told Fife to go find another job first before anything was released. That happens all the time. They could have let this modern-day Hoosier hero leave with some dignity.
It did NOT happen here.
Fife won't have a hard time finding a job, because his resume is solid. We all know that. That's why we were so glad he came back to Bloomington in the first place, with wife and young kids in tow. And that's why it's hard when things don't work out with your own legends.
It is a generational thing, after all. If you're an Indiana fan in your 60s, for many of you, Mike Woodson is your all-time favorite Indiana player. In your 40s, that same phrase might be used for Fife, the 2002 Defensive Player of the year who made it to a national championship game.
Fife was also that last bridge to Bob Knight, which means a hell of a lot to this fan base. Probably too much, to be honest. But that's what is fact. And, facts are facts.
Indiana fans love Mike Woodson, and they love Dane Fife, too. And Wednesday's news of Fife's firing — I'm going to continue to call it that — forced a lot of people to take sides.
First reactions to the news favored Fife, with many wondering if the old man Woodson, who turned 64 years old on Wednesday, had lost it. This was supposed to be a marriage made in Hoosier heaven. Woodson was supposed to turn around the IU program and then hand over the reins to Fife three or four years down the road.
Dolson never said that Fife was the heir apparent, but that sure looked like the plan. And now it's blown up in Indiana's face. This is not a good look, and there's no good way to spin it, because someone has to be thrown under the bus for a failure that didn't even last 12 months.
As the night wore on, it was Fife who got thrown under the bus by the folks at 247Sports. It wasn't in their ''stories'' on the Fife dismissal, but on message boards, their lead Indiana basketball writer accused Fife of being disloyal, stabbing Woodson in the back with people outside of the program, failing in his recruiting responsibilities for the program, and talking repeatedly about his NIL and political beliefs that ran counter to the program's policies.
There was always very little interaction between Woodson and Fife on the bench on game nights. Fife was often further down the bench, talking mostly with the players than with Woodson.
That's not really all that uncommon in college benches, to be honest. There is often some good cop/bad cop stuff going on, but that doesn't look like the case here. Now that we know the outcome, it's likely that Woodson simply didn't want to hear anything that Fife wanted to say. He'd rather do things with Kenya Hunter and Yasir Rosemond, his two other assistants.
On a couple of cases during the regular season, I tried to engage Woodson into conversations about what he was learning about the college game from his assistants. After all, Woodson has been in the NBA for four decades, as a long-time player and then coach. The college game was all new to him.
He never really answered those questions with any specifics, always spoke in generalities and never mentioned Fife, Hunter or Rosemond by name.
Woodson also uses ''I'' instead of ''we'' when talking about coaching decisions. This is his program, and he's always very clear about that. That's why you never heard from any of the three assistants in the media all season. They don't talk about what's going on — Woodson does.Scroll to Continue
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And that's the way it goes.
That's an NBA thing, and Woodson certainly has brought that philosophy along with him. That was part of the reason behind my line of questioning during the season, because I remember back from five or six years ago, when I was writing our IU basketball book ''Missing Banners'' with my friend Terry Hutchens.
I was doing the 1980 chapters in the book. I have talked with Woodson about those years many times — we were classmates, both 1980 grads, and I covered his college career for two-plus years. But I wanted a fresh interview. Woodson was an assistant coach to Doc Rivers with the Los Angeles Clippers at the time, and I went through the Clippers to set up an interview.
I was told no, that Rivers doesn't allow his assistants to talk to the media. It didn't matter that I simply wanted to talk about a college basketball season that took place more than 35 years ago.
But those were the rules.
In this case, there is surely plenty of blame to go around. If those rumors about Fife are true — I cannot confirm them, but also have no reason to not believe them — then Fife is certainly to blame for this divorce. This IU ''brotherhood'' truly does go only so far.
Maybe Woodson could have handled the issues better, too, at least along the way. What's very clear by the firing — there's that word again — was that Woodson is true to his convictions in wanting to do this the right way, his way.
If it doesn't work, then fix it. Woodson has said repeatedly that this all isn't about him. It's about the players, he's always saying, and it's about restoring this Indiana program that he loves so much to the glory that we've all seen before.
If Fife was getting in the way of that, then bye-bye.
There were some people on Wednesday who wanted to accuse Dolson of forcing Fife on Woodson, but that wasn't the case. Woodson spent time with Fife before he hired him, had many long conversations and even said he liked the idea of Dane coming home, too.
Hiring Fife was a great idea in April. The fact that it didn't work out now doesn't change that. You don't re-write history. You just make the move, and move on. But it will be interesting to see the role that Dolson played in dealing with this Woodson-Fife dynamic during the year. He is, after all, the boss to BOTH of them.
If he could have fixed this along the way, he would have. But with how things played out on Wednesday, it's clear that fixing this fractured relationship was never an option. It had gone too far beyond fixing.
Woodson and Fife are both Hoosier legends, both massive fan favorites, so this is hard to watch. It's like watching twin brothers brawling in a fistfight. It's just not a good look.
I really thought that Dane Fife would be the head coach at Indiana when Woodson was ready to hang it up, whenever that might be.
There's no way that happens now. None.
So life goes on, and we move forward. It's going to be interesting to see who Woodson hires next. It will be even more interesting to see where Fife lands. He will have plenty of options, to be sure.
I'm on record for being thrilled that Woodson came back home. Same with Fife. I thoroughly enjoyed being around both of them all season.
It's a shame it didn't work.
It's a real shame that is was so bad that it led to this ugly break-up. They are Hoosiers. They are beloved Hoosiers.