Chris Fite is still cutting stone.
Fite is no longer an assistant basketball coach at IUP, but he still prescribes to the tried-and-true mantra he learned while coaching the previous seven seasons under Joe Lombardi, the Crimson Hawks’ head coach.
“Only about three or four times a week,” Fite said when asked if he preaches the mantra of sticking to the process as the head coach at Shippensburg.
Fite, who turns 44 next week, is a head coach for the first time during a career that includes an 11-year hitch as a pro player in Europe. He was hired in June at Shippensburg, which is about 40 miles south of Harrisburg.
“I love it. Susan and Grace and I couldn’t be happier,” Fite said of his wife and 2-year-old daughter. “I love being a head coach and love being able to put my own touch on a program and influence these young men. I couldn’t have better guys as far as solid individuals on and off the court. They’re good students and good people and hard workers, and they’re going to battle each night. They’re competing and trying to get better, and that’s all you can ask as a head coach. It’s challenging at times, when you’re used to have the success we had at IUP, coming into a situation and not winning, but you have to keep reminding yourself and the guys that you have to take it one day at a time and eventually the results will take care of themselves.”
Shippensburg is only 1-5, the lone win coming Nov. 30 at Chestnut Hill, 70-64. The Raiders have a tough road trip this week, playing at Pitt Johnstown today and visiting IUP at the Kovalchick Convention and Athletic Complex on Wednesday.
IUP plays host to Millersville this evening.
As an assistant from 2006-07 through last season, Fite helped lead the Crimson Hawks out of the 2007 NCAA sanctions, which were handed down for violations by the previous coach, and back to the national elite. IUP has won three of the last four Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference championships, four straight PSAC West titles and has earned five consecutive NCAA tournament berths during five straight seasons with more than 20 wins. The most successful and sustained run in the school history includes an appearance in the NCAA Division II championship game in 2010.
“I’m excited to see Chris living his dream and glad that I could be a small part of that by just giving him the opportunity here,” Lombardi said, “but 95 percent of his success goes back to his hard work and commitment. No one gave him that opportunity to be a head coach at Ship; he earned it from Day One in helping this program be successful. He never thought about himself during that time; he just thought about helping the players become better players and me become a better coach and the program become a better program. When you put your nose to the grindstone and do those things, your personal success takes care of itself. Chris is a testament to that.”
Fite got a late start at Shippensburg. By the time he was hired June 20, the pool of recruits was running dry. Then, during preseason conditioning workouts, the Raiders lost Dylan Edgar, a 6-foot-10 senior and one of the top centers in the conference, to a season-ending knee injury.
“You’d like to have some time to recruit and be a little more selective in who you’re signing and pursuing,” Fite said. “That said, I’m happy with the few players we did sign. The other major issue is that the first week of conditioning Dylan Edgar tears his meniscus and is out for the season. We went from having one of the best big men in the PSAC East and building around him to all of the sudden having that void. That was the biggest blow. I was happy with the guys we signed and felt confident we could compete with everybody, and then to lose a player of that caliber is definitely a big blow. But that’s athletics, and you have to deal with that.”
Joe Lococo, a sophomore guard who averaged double figures last season, and Abe Massaley, a freshman guard from Imhotep Charter High School, are combining for 33.3 points per game, slightly more than half the team’s average. There are no seniors other than Edgar on the roster and only two juniors.
“We’re young,” Fite said. “Freshmen and sophomores are playing the majority of our minutes. They’re a great group of young men, and they’ve been working their butts off for me. I like to say it’s a process, and we’re gradually taking steps forward. We have some talent, and we’ve shown that in small spurts. We’re just working on becoming more consistent and putting together 35 or 40 solid minutes as opposed to 20 or 25. We’re trying to not beat ourselves.”
“The job opened up because there were a lot of struggles there, and he’s not going to fix that in a couple months,” Lombardi said, “but he has some good, young players he can start building a program on as he moves forward and gets better and better over each year down the road.”
Fite took the mantra and some of IUP’s offensive playbook with him to Shippensburg.
“Some things carried over and some things I put in myself,” he said. “Coach Lombardi is one the best X-an-O guys I’ve ever been around, and he runs a very complicated system with tons of sets, and my mind doesn’t work that way necessarily. I don’t have the capacity to implement that much. I’ve tried to scale it down and put my own little twists on things.”
Preparing to play IUP, though, is a difficult task for anyone.
“Coach runs so much stuff, and I know what they do, but you can only go over so many sets in a week before it becomes detrimental to what you’re trying to do,” Fite said. “That’s the beauty of Coach’s system: He doesn’t care if you know what he’s doing because they do it so well, and you just have to hope to guess right.”
Fite concedes a daunting task awaits Wednesday night, and he knows it’s going to be an odd feeling when he walks onto the floor as an opposing coach.
“I’ve got to approach it as just another game,” he said. “It’s going to be odd. Even watching film and the guys on tape and the arena and the atmosphere, it’s surreal. It’s going to be weird being on the outside and playing them. But I have to approach it as just another game and can’t allow my guys to think it’s anything different as far as me and that we just have to come in and try to compete against one of the best teams in the country.”