Big Ten basketball coaches know Michigan State’s success isn’t all about Tom Izzo, even if he is a Naismith Hall of Famer.
A survey of at least 20 league coaches by Stadium.com ranked Izzo’s longtime lieutenants Dwayne Stephens and Dane Fife as two of the top three assistants in the conference.
[ 25 years of 'Mr. March': Order our new Tom Izzo book today! ]
Stephens, a former MSU player from 1989-93, was rated as the top assistant in the polling, which was done by college basketball writer Jeff Goodman. The Ferndale native has been with Izzo since 2003 after spending four years at Marquette with Tom Crean, who also was an Izzo assistant early in his career.
“Dwayne has been a staple with the Michigan State basketball program for a long time as he has done an outstanding job recruiting and is constantly in Coach Izzo’s ear during in-game play,” a Big Ten assistant said anonymously.
More: The hard, abrupt goodbye to Dwayne Stephens Sr., lost to COVID-19
More: Mike Garland and the untold story of Michigan State's basketball season
Izzo, who recruited Stephens in high school, told Stadium the 48-year-old “will be an excellent head coach someday soon.”
“DJ has the unique ability to fit in with everyone,” Izzo said. “He has great people skills, but in all honesty, he is underappreciated as a ‘basketball mind.’ He is very good being my right-hand man on the bench in game situations.”
More: Michigan State, Tom Izzo and the 'grumpy old men' who helped shape him
Fife, who played at Indiana from 1998-2002, is ranked third in the five-assistant poll. The 40-year-old Clarkston native and son of legendary high school coach Dan Fife joined Izzo’s staff in 2011 after six seasons as head coach at Indiana-Purdue Fort Wayne. He also spent two seasons as an assistant at his alma mater under Mike Davis.
“(Fife) has a wealth of Big Ten experience as a big-time player and as a long-time assistant,” another anonymous Big Ten assistant said. “His defensive mindset is clearly implemented in the toughness that has been a staple under (Tom) Izzo at Michigan State. His relationship with players is clearly one of the reasons they do such a great job in recruiting every year and remain as consistent of a program as there is in the country.”
Fife — the 1998 Mr. Basketball — decided to play for Bobby Knight out of high school instead of MSU, but Izzo said he “was excited when we had the chance to bring him here, and that hasn’t changed in nearly 10 years.”
“He’s a terrific coach, a great recruiter and knows the game,” Izzo said. “He has had a great impact on our success and I appreciate the commitment he’s made.”
Ohio State’s Ryan Pedon ranked second, while Indiana's Tom Ostrom and Maryland's Orlando "Bino" Ranson rounded out the top five.