EAST LANSING — Dan Fife had rehearsed in his mind for nearly his entire life as a Clarkston resident what this day was going to be like.
But as it happens so often when lifelong dreams come true, the reality of it all is more surreal than even he could have possibly imagined.
After almost 60 years as a Clarkston resident, which has featured being a prominent baseball and basketball player while in high school, more than 20 years as athletic director and now 35 years as the head coach of the boys basketball team, Fife finally was able to be coach in a state championship basketball game Saturday when the Wolves met Grand Rapids Christian for the Class A state title.
Not only did the Wolves get there for Fife, they delivered him a long-awaited state championship with a 75-69 victory.
“It’s really unexplainable right now,” the 67-year old Fife said of what was the best of his 677 career wins. “I don’t know how to put it. All I know is I’ve been through three high school gyms at Clarkston during my tenure.”
It was a culmination of a lifelong journey that has resulted in him becoming a beloved face of Clarkston and high school basketball, the best coach in the state in the eyes of many, and lots of setbacks along the way — especially in the quarterfinal round of the state tournament — to make Fife and the Clarkston community wonder whether they would ever live to see a day like Saturday.
But all the joy on the court afterward was not just a celebration of the state championship outcome, it was a celebration of what it took to get there.
Many coaches preach about “the process” to their players instead of outcomes.
Fife sure had quite a process to his dream.
Coal miner’s son
Fife’s father was a coal miner in southern Illinois before deciding to the move the family to Clarkston in 1957 to improve the quality of life for his family.
“I had a funny accent moving up here so all the kids made fun of me,” Fife quipped.
While in Clarkston, Fife became such a standout in basketball and baseball that he earned a chance to play basketball for Michigan and eventually was drafted to play both sports professionally.
Fife never made it to the NBA, but he did make it to the big leagues, starting seven games in 1973 for the Minnesota Twins before a shoulder injury halted his baseball career.
Fife went on to become an assistant for Johnny Orr at Michigan in the 1970s. And in 1983, he was named head coach of the Clarkston boys basketball team.
All three of his sons, Jeremy, Dugan and Dane, not only played for him but were some of the best players in the state during their high school careers.
Dugan finished as the runner-up in the Mr. Basketball voting in 1992 to Kenyon Murray of Battle Creek Central before playing at Michigan.
Dane won the Mr. Basketball Award in 1998 before embarking on a college career at Indiana. He currently is one of Tom Izzo’s assistants at Michigan State.
“When I went to Clarkston, he was a legend there,” said former Michigan and NBA player and current analyst Tim McCormick, a 1980 graduate of Clarkston. “He always had a really strong community influence and was a mentor. He’s impacted thousands of people.”
Maybe the most important creation for Fife was the McGrath League, a youth league in the community conducted on Saturdays during the season that is named after Fife’s former high school coach, Bud McGrath.
Created by Fife in his first year as head coach and the same year Bud died, the league is for kids in grades 3-8 and is his primary feeder system.
Clarkston’s varsity players are heavily involved with the program, coaching and officiating games throughout the season.
Once players get to high school, they know his offense and expectations.
Such continuity is a big reason Clarkston each year is among the state’s top programs and has won or shared 10 straight league titles.
North Farmington coach Todd Negoshian has known the Fife family virtually his entire life because his father, Tom, coached against Fife. Todd also became friends with Dane through playing AAU basketball together.
In fact, Negoshian was texting Dane Fife throughout Saturday’s game while Negoshian was watching on TV.
“One, he’s a great X’s and O’s guy,” said Negoshian, who coaches against Fife twice a year in the Oakland Activities Association Red Division. “But I think the whole thing with coaches is that you don’t get what you coach, you get what you demand. I think he really demands a lot from his kids. It shows up in how well they execute.”
Before this year, Clarkston and Fife was primarily associated with playoff heartbreak.
Between 1998 and 2008, Clarkston went to the quarterfinals seven times and lost them all.
The first of those defeats came to Detroit Central and current NFL tight end Antonio Gates in 1998 when Dane was a senior. The last one was a double-overtime loss in 2008 to Draymond Green-led Saginaw. The Wolves took a five-point lead in overtime, but Saginaw rallied and ultimately won a second straight state title.
In between those quarterfinal defeats were five straight quarterfinal losses, two of which came in overtime, another by two points after a game-winning three-pointer at the buzzer rimmed out, one by seven points and another when Clarkston managed a measly 30 points.
In 2009, Fife and Clarkston finally got to the semifinals with a three-point win over Flint Northwestern, and there was a line of dozens on the court who wanted to shake Fife’s hand and congratulate him over getting over that quarterfinal hump.
But Fife’s first trip to Breslin didn’t last long. Clarkston was routed by Kalamazoo Central in the semifinals.
The Wolves didn’t get to the quarterfinals again until 2015, when they lost by two points to U-D Jesuit on a lay-up at the buzzer by current Michigan State player Cassius Winston.
Arrival of Loyer
There are two main reasons this year turned out different for Fife.
One, the traditional basketball powers in Detroit, Flint and Saginaw that used to be Clarkston’s big roadblocks come tournament time have been weakened by population and enrollment losses.
The second reason was the arrival in town of Foster Loyer, a superstar player who doesn’t come around that often, even to a successful program like Clarkston.
A junior point guard on this year’s team who is committed to Michigan State, Loyer came to Clarkston when his father, John, got an assistant coaching job under Lawrence Frank for the Detroit Pistons.
The family was looking for both a literal home for themselves and a basketball home for Foster. The family was sold on Fife and Clarkston through research and meeting with him.
John Loyer eventually spent time as Pistons interim coach after Maurice Cheeks was fired, but there was a little concern about the Loyers’ future in Clarkston after Stan Van Gundy was hired as Pistons president and coach in 2014.
But the Loyers decided to stay in Clarkston for the same reason they came in the first place: Dan Fife.
“It was not something myself or my family considered,” Foster Loyer said of moving. “For us, being able to win this championship today really solidified what a great choice that was.”
Loyer scored 29 points in Saturday’s title game.
Much like Chicago Cubs fans last October who always wondered what it would be like to see their team win a World Series, Fife and his family, and the Clarkston community as a whole, finally experienced what it was like to win a state basketball title.
Once it was evident Clarkston was going to win it, the student section didn’t hesitate to chant “Dan Fife! Dan Fife!” in the final seconds.
All of Fife’s children and grandchildren were in attendance and you practically could have robbed a bank in Clarkston with how many in the community flocked to East Lansing.
In the waning minutes of the game, when Clarkston held a double-digit lead, Jeremy and Dugan joined Dane behind the Clarkston bench and hugged each other as the team was celebrating.
Earlier in the week, Jeremy flew in from Dallas with his wife and four kids. Dane was described as being a “wreck” on the bench.
“They call them the Fife shakes,” Dan Fife said.
Before the trophy ceremony, Fife sought out his wife of 45 years, Jan, and his grandchildren in the stands and waved to them triumphantly.
This was a dream for Fife’s former players as well.
“We’ve had kids fly in from Chicago,” Fife said. “We’ve had them fly in from everywhere. It’s been amazing the kids that have come back.”
Last August, Fife retired as the athletic director, so he’s not around the building as much and won’t be going forward when the state championship trophy is displayed in the hallway.
It was a long process for Fife and Clarkston to get there, but judging by the tears of joy on the court, in the stands and in the community afterward, the outcome produced couldn’t have been more worth it.
“I finally accomplished a goal I had when I first moved to Michigan when I was 7 years old,” Fife said. “I wanted to win a state championship. It’s a great place to coach. We were able to withstand the early years and go through all those things that you went through, including the heartbreaking losses that we have had. This time, the stars were aligned.”