Clarkston's Dan Fife stepping down after 36 years, 703 wins on Wolves bench
When he first stepped on the Clarkston High School court as a precocious, 14-year-old freshman in the winter of 1963, he immediately began changing a program that he wouldn’t stop leaving his mark on — until now.
Dan Fife — or “Danny” as he was known then — became the first freshman to ever play varsity basketball at the school that winter, starting a 55-year connection with the program that lasted until today, when Fife let his players know of his decision to retire.
“It’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever done,” Fife said. “I had to keep talking to keep from crying. Saying goodbye to something that’s been such a big part of my life is really difficult. But I need to spend more time with my grandkids. I’m not seeing them as much as I want. I feel like I’m missing too many of their football games, soccer games, Little League games. If I can’t give 100 percent to this program, I know it’s time to go.”
When the Wolves take the floor on the road at Sterling Heights Stevenson on Nov. 30, tipping off their defense of back-to-back Class A titles, it’ll be the first time since the 1981-82 season that another floor general will be holding the big clipboard on the Clarkston sidelines.
Who that will be, remains to be seen.
But there’s no question he’ll be stepping into huge, enormous, oversized shoes.
“Coach Fife is a legend. … We’ve been honored to have him as our coach, and we’re going to miss him,” said Jeff Kosin, who had to step into similarly large shoes when he replaced Fife as Clarkston’s athletic director three years ago. “He really has become synonymous with the school. When you think of Clarkston, you think of Dan Fife.”
It will be odd, too, for Kosin — who considers Fife a mentor — not to see Fife around the office as much. But that happened somewhat after Fife turned over his administrative duties after 22 years as the school’s AD, too.
“It will be (odd). He was hit or miss at first,” Kosin said, admitting that Fife will probably never be completely absent, after being so ingrained for so long in the fabric of both the school, and the town. “It’s been amazing, watching him over the years … he’d do his camps, and — it might not be the first day, but by the third day, he’d know every camper’s name. That’s just the kind of person he is.”
And it’s been hard to get him very far away from the town where he grew up.
“The players you coach become like your family, this city feels like a big family. … It’s those relationships that sustain you and mean the most at the end of the day. Over the years, my players kept me young and kept me motivated. I’ve been fortunate to have great kids, great families and a great community to be a part of this entire time,” Fife said. “The town of Clarkston is truly one of a kind. It’s a special place in so many ways. I'll miss coaching there more than I could ever express in words.”
Drafted by both the Milwaukee Bucks in the NBA and the Detroit Tigers in MLB, Fife pitched parts of two seasons (1973 and 1974) with the Minnesota Twins, before returning to his collegiate alma mater, Michigan, as a basketball assistant for more than four seasons.
Then he came home.
He spent one season as the freshman coach (1981-82), before moving up to the varsity job the next year.
His resume in the 36 years since then? A total of 703 wins — third on the all-time list in Michigan, behind Roy Johnston and Lofton Greene — 29 league titles, 30 district championships and 13 regional crowns.
The Wolves won 20 games or more in 22 of Fife’s 36 seasons on the bench, including each of the last five, when they went 117-11. They went 97-6 over the four-year career of last year’s Mr. Basketball, Foster Loyer, whose No. 1 jersey was retired, along with his coach’s old 33.
Fife, who scored 1,589 points in his own prep career, coached three players who went over the 2,000-point mark in their high school careers: Loyer and his own sons Dugan and Dane (the 1998 Mr. Basketball), who did it before moving on to Big Ten playing careers.
But even with those elite players (and future NBA player Tim McCormick, who preceeded them), the program just couldn’t get over the hump to win a title until the last two seasons.
“We went from a good program to a great program these last two years and that means so much to me, to the players that were a part of it and to this entire community that has always supported us 100 percent of the way. Wherever we go from here, the benchmark these young men have set will carry on,” Fife said after the championship game. “The young guys coming up through the program, in middle school and elementary school, know we can get to the mountain top. They saw it happen.”
The program is a little further from the mountain top than it was at that moment, though.
All five starters from last year’s championship squad — Loyer (Michigan State), C.J. Robinson (Lake Superior State), Taylor Currie (Wisconsin basketball), Nick Wells and Chase Wasilk — were lost to graduation, along with six other seniors. Only current seniors Josh Luther and Jake Jensen, junior Matt Nicholson and sophomore Garrett Dellinger — the five-star football recruit — had eligibility remaining from that squad.
Standing 6-foot-11, Nicholson is expected to be another in the long line of college prospects from the program. Loyer’s younger brother, Fletcher, a freshman, could be another addition to the mix, too, as could classmate Keegan Wasilk.
After the run to the second championship in the spring, Fife was unsure of his own future, leaving the question of his retirement open, at the time. Even as late as July, after the summer season, he was coy about his thoughts.
Now, that decision has been made.
The question then becomes, who takes over?
Fife himself would like to hand it off to assistant and former player Tim Wasilk, who has been considered sort of a coach-in-waiting or heir apparent on the Wolves’ bench for the last several seasons, after a successful stint as the girls coach at the school.
“To have one of my former players replace me is my dream (for the future of the program),” Fife said. “Tim is ‘Clarkstonfied.’ He has his bona fides around here and I want him to take my place. He has a mind for the game, he has an outstanding demeanor on the bench, he connects with the kids. … He was a major part of these two state championship runs. I have total faith in his ability to do the job and do it at the standard we’ve set.”
There may not be time — considering how quickly the first date for practice is coming up — to do a full coaching search, so the Wolves may end up with an interim coach until that can be done. Or they could hand it off to Wasilk. Or someone else.
Kosin wasn’t tipping his hand, although one thing is for certain.
“Nov. 5 is coming up pretty quickly,” the AD said.
And that will mark the start of a whole new era of Clarkston boys basketball.
For the first time in forever.