Spartan assistant and Texas Tech coach connected by Bobby Knight
The red Pantones differ by exactly fifteen shades — PMS 186 for one, and PMS 201 for the other. It would take 16 hours to traverse the 1,070 miles between Assembly Hall in Bloomington, Indiana and United Supermarkets Arena in Lubbock, Texas.
But for Michigan State assistant coach Dane Fife, when he watches video of the Texas Tech Red Raiders play on the offensive side of the ball, he may as well be back on the court in Bloomington.
Fife was entering his junior season at Indiana in September 2000 when legendary coach Bob Knight was fired after video surfaced of him choking a player years before. Knight took a season off before resurfacing at Texas Tech, where he hired a young Chris Beard as an assistant.
Fast-forward 18 years later, Beard has brought the Red Raiders to the first Final Four in school history, and Fife is an assistant on Tom Izzo’s eighth Final Four team.
Though he only played two seasons under Knight, Fife recognizes everything that Texas Tech does offensively.
At Indiana, Knight became famous for perfecting the motion offense, where the ball is passed around the perimeter and post players set screens in hopes of freeing a teammate for an open lay-up or jump shot. It was an effective system — Knight retired in 2008 as the then-winningest coach in the history of NCAA Division I, with 902 victories.
“Knight’s teachings have spread so wide,” Fife said after an MSU practice. “The motion, the screening, the execution of motion-type screening, down screens, back screens, playing in rhythm, playing in sync, all that stuff was really generated by coach Knight’s motion teachings.”
Though the motion offense is considered obsolete in some circles, Beard still runs a system very similar to the one he learned in seven years as an assistant under Knight albeit with some slight differences.
“We didn’t run a lot of ball screens when I played,” Fife said. “It reminds me of Steve Alford’s (a former Indiana player under Knight) offense when he was at Iowa. There was a lot of motion, but there was some quick hitter sets and some ball screens. The tough part is incorporating the ball screens into the motion offense.”
Ball screens, where a post player sets a screen for the person with the ball rather than a player cutting for a pass, are a relatively modern idea. Knight did not embrace them, but Beard’s offense utilizes them at a higher rate.
Beard called MSU coach Tom Izzo on Monday morning to congratulate him on making the Final Four. Izzo said they spoke briefly about the journey Beard took to this moment.
“We talked about our mentors a little bit, and talked about Bob,” Izzo told reporters Tuesday. “I talked about (Izzo’s MSU predecessor) Jud (Heathcote) a little bit, and just what a thrill it is.”
Speaking during a teleconference, Beard said Knight has been a big supporter of his program.
“I have not talked to Coach Knight personally to date, but I have heard back from several people that he sent his congratulations,” Beard said. “As always, Coach has been very supportive. He’s really been great the past three years since I’ve been back to Lubbock. Just this morning, I was talking to (ESPN analyst and college basketball personality) Dick Vitale… Dick talked to Coach Knight and said Coach was really pleased with the way we’ve been playing.”
The motion offense only works when you have five unselfish, team-first players on the court, Fife said. Knight was known for demanding absolute commitment to the team over self.
Beard said though Knight and Izzo have different offensive philosophies, he recognizes the dedication to winning in Izzo’s program that he remembers from Knight.
“We have so much respect for his program,” Beard said. “We’re a program ourselves that try to be blue collar and rebound and play defense and try to be as tough as anyone. In my opinion, that’s Michigan State basketball.”
Though Fife said he doesn’t know Beard personally, he appreciates the success of another member of the extended Bob Knight fraternity.
“I know he’s a tough-minded coach, hard-nosed, and he certainly learned a lot under Coach Knight,” Fife said. “I see a lot of things that Coach Knight would be proud of. I see a lot of Coach Knight in Texas Tech.”