Before IPFW made Dane Fife the youngest head coach in Division I basketball nine years ago, school administrators peppered the 25-year-old former Indiana standout with questions that probably didn't come up during interviews with older candidates.
One asked Fife whether they should worry that he'd go out drinking with his players. Another asked if they should be concerned that he'd date a cheerleader or student.
"It was a firing squad," Fife, now a Michigan State assistant, recalled Wednesday. "People weren't real kind with some of their questions and some of their statements in that interview room. I can remember some pretty tough questions that put me on the spot and probably could've incited some anger if I wasn't careful."
If Tyler Summitt didn't face the same inquisition prior to being named Louisiana Tech's new women's basketball coach on Tuesday, the 23-year-old son of legendary ex-Tennessee coach Pat Summitt surely will have to overcome other challenges as he tries to prove himself in his new position. Those who have held college head coaching jobs in their early-to-mid 20s say the perception they were too young for their positions forced them to work harder to earn the respect of defiant players, influential administrators or skeptical parents of recruits.
Though Summitt is only two years removed from college and barely a year older than one of his projected starters next season, his age didn't faze Louisiana Tech athletic director Tommy McClelland during the hiring process. McClelland himself has enjoyed remarkable success in his industry at a young age. becoming Division I's youngest athletic director at age 26 when McNeese State promoted him in March 2008.
Conversations with more than 30 people who know Summitt persuaded McClelland he was the right coach to rejuvenate a Louisiana Tech program that reached 13 Final Fours prior to 1999 but has since fallen on hard times.
McClelland learned Summitt was mature beyond his years because he began coaching at club teams before he even graduated high school. McClelland learned Summitt was a relentless recruiter who had shown a knack for identifying talent in two years as an assistant at Marquette. And McClelland learned Summitt had a sharp coaching mind honed by playing under Bruce Pearl and Cuonzo Martin for two years at Tennessee and by being around his mom's program since he was in diapers.
"With any search, you must develop a set of criteria and identify an ideal candidate," McClelland told reporters at the news conference. "As I began to visit with [Summitt] more and more and as I began to research him more and more, his philosophies and what he wants to do in life, that ideal candidate began to have a face and have a name. That name was Tyler Summitt."
It's rare for anyone to receive a Division I head coaching job in their early-to-mid 20s, but some who have started young have enjoyed instant success.
Bob Knight was 24 when he began his first head coaching job at Army in 1965. Pat Summitt was 22 when she launched her head coaching career at Tennessee nine years later. More recently, Fife built IPFW into a competitive lower-level Division I program before leaving in 2011 because the opportunity to coach under Tom Izzo was too great to pass up.
The first challenge for young coaches is to figure out how to become an authority figure for players born as little as a year or two after them.
Vassar College's B.J. Dunne, the youngest head men's basketball coach in any division last season, said learning how to discipline his players was an adjustment for him. Whereas he regularly texted with the players as an assistant coach the previous season and was part of their inside jokes, he consciously avoided that in year one as a head coach and tried instead to establish boundaries.
"Early on, that was tough," said Dunne, who led Vassar within one win of the Division III NCAA tournament. "The guys were like, 'Who's this guy yelling at me? Who's this guy blowing the whistle and getting on me?' Once we got more comfortable in our roles, it was smooth sailing after that."
Young coaches also sometimes lack the experience to design offensive and defensive schemes well-suited to their players or to make important strategic decisions late in close games. Some will hire a seasoned assistant with head coaching experience to help alleviate those issues. Others will lean on mentors for whom they've either played or worked.
One advantage coaches in their early 20s have is that it's often easier for them to relate to both current players and prospective recruits than it would be for someone a generation or two older.
Stephanie Agger, who at 24 took over the women's program at Division III Penn State Abington a year ago, turned her youth into an asset last summer while replenishing a roster that only returned two players from the previous season.
"Of the kids I've recruited, every kid who committed said, 'I've connected with you better than I've connected with anyone else who is recruiting me," said Agger, a former standout player at Division II Philadelphia University. "I think that's because of my age. I can relate if they break up with their boyfriend. They're going to be upset about it, but I can tell them it's not the end of the world. I can also tell them I've been in their shoes as a player because it wasn't very long ago that I was."
Of course, the other side to that is it can be harder for a coach in their early-to-mid 20s to win over the parents of a top prospect. Fife recalls losing a prospective recruit or two during his IPFW days because their parents weren't certain they wanted their sons to play for a coach young enough to be their older brother.
"You certainly have the ability to talk music and current events with your recruits, but you really have to do a good job selling their parents," Fife said. "Parents are leery and skeptical of someone right around their son or daughter's age trying to convince them they're going to be a good role model and maintain the professionalism coaching entails. That's the hard part to sell."
Wes Miller, a former North Carolina guard, became Division I men's basketball's youngest head coach in late 2011 when UNC Greensboro promoted him at age 29. All the responsibility has been challenging enough for Miller that he cringes at the thought of Tyler Summitt carrying that burden at age 23.
"I can't imagine that at 23," Miller said. "I'm such a better coach today at 31 than I was at 29, and I'll be a better coach next year and the year after. That's a tremendous responsibility at that age, but there are qualities Tyler must have that make him prepared for that. And if there's one thing I know, it's that he'll be much better prepared a year from now and a year after that."
Being the son of a legend in his sport will surely give Summitt instant credibility some of his fellow young coaches have to earn. It also probably won't hurt that Summitt is both married and deeply religious, which would seem to reduce the chances of him falling victim to off-the-court behavior that is both typical of a 23-year-old yet unprofessional for a college head coach.
Summitt did not let the elephant in the room linger long during his introductory news conference, leading off his speech with a joke about his baby-faced looks.
"I'm not 15 years old even though I look it," Summitt said with a chuckle. "I'm 23, and if that's my biggest weakness, that's great because inevitably, no matter what I do, that's going to change."
As an AAU coach in high school, Summitt routinely coached players a year or two older than him.
So in some ways, Summitt is stepping into a challenging situation. In other ways, he's tackling a job easier than ones he has held before.
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