How Steve Fisher Has Reinvented Himself and Taken San Diego State to New Heights

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How Steve Fisher Has Reinvented Himself and Taken San Diego State to New Heights
USA Today

Steve Fisher's career was all but dead when he was hired to be head basketball coach at San Diego State in 1999.

Now he has resurrected not only his coaching career, but his entire reputation. As the fourth-seeded Aztecs (31-4) prepare to face top-seeded Arizona (32-4) in the West Region of the NCAA tournament, Fisher has not-so-suddenly reappeared on the national scene with the grace of a beloved and wise grandfather who relates unusually well with the young folks he has been charged to guide.

He has related well enough that this is the second time in four years he has coached his team from the Mountain West conference to the Sweet 16.

That's not bad for someone so old-school that he still has one of his first coach's practice plans in his possession. That would be the one drawn up by his own father when Steve was playing for his pops on a Catholic grade school team.

"[I have it] on a yellow legal pad," Fisher told USA Today's Nicole Auerbach recently. "I don't know when or where or how I got it, but it was a practice plan that I felt would be neat to keep. I have it in my file cabinet somewhere."

James Snook-USA TODAY Sports
Fisher directs his players during a timeout.

Fisher's father no doubt would approve—and be proud of how his son has reinvented himself at San Diego State over the last decade-and-a-half. Quite frankly, Steve Fisher's professional resurrection is nothing short of amazing.

It had at one time seemed Fisher would be most remembered as the coach who didn't get through to Chris Webber the fact the Wolverines were out of timeouts in a huddle just prior to Webber attempting to call one in the closing seconds of a loss to North Carolina in the 1993 title game. That cost Michigan a technical foul and possibly the game, along with the national championship that came with it.

Folks tend to forget that, according to ESPN.com, Fisher could clearly be heard yelling to all of his players as they returned to the court, "Remember, no more timeouts!"

It seemed Fisher was forever doomed to be remembered as the coach who recruited the Fab Five of Webber, Juwan Howard, Jalen Rose, Ray Jackson and Jimmy King to Michigan, only to have them fail to win a national championship and later be stripped of their back-to-back Final Four appearances because of NCAA violations.

Although Fisher was eventually cleared of any wrongdoing by the NCAA, he was fired by Michigan for his alleged role in what became known as the Ed Martin scandal involving the Fab Five in general and Webber in particular. Martin, a prominent UM booster, had been making cash payments to Webber and other players in exchange for free tickets and other favors in what CBS Detroit listed as one of the worst scandals in the history of college sports.

Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
Fans have never forgotten Chris Webber's timeout gaffe in the 1993 title game against North Carolina.

Fisher paid dearly. And when the Michigan program was stripped of those Final Four appearances and placed on probation by the NCAA, no one could really blame the school's administration for sending him packing for basketball purgatory.

It turned out Fisher had to stay there only one year, serving as an assistant coach for the NBA's Sacramento Kings, before San Diego State came calling.

But at the time, taking the job at San Diego State hardly seemed an escape from the prison sentence dealt him when Fisher was forced out at Michigan. The Aztecs were making the move from the old Western Athletic Conference to the Mountain West and wanted to hire someone that somebody had heard of, but they hadn't been to the NCAA tournament in 15 years.

Other than the wonderful weather, it didn't seem like a great place for a disgraced basketball coach to seek professional redemption.

In his first season, the Aztecs won five games and lost 23. By his third season, though, Fisher coached his new team to the Mountain West tournament championship. It came with an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. The 2006 team went 24-9 and marked the beginning of a streak of nine consecutive years with 20 or more victories that remains ongoing.

Steve Fisher's career coaching record at San Diego State
Season Record Postseason
1999-00 5-23
2000-01 14-14
2001-02 21-12 NCAA First Round
2002-03 16-14 NIT Second Round
2003-04 14-16
2004-05 11-18
2005-06 24-9 NCAA First Round
2006-07 22-11 NIT Second Round
2007-08 20-13 NIT First Round
2008-09 26-10 NIT Semifinals
2009-10 25-9 NCAA First Round
2010-11 34-3 NCAA Sweet 16
2011-12 26-8 NCAA Second Round
2012-13 23-11 NCAA Third Round
2013-14 31-4 NCAA Sweet 16 vs. Arizona

Sports-reference.com

Fisher has long said that San Diego State's sustained success is the direct result of the emphasis he and his coaching staff place on the basic tenets of defense and rebounding. His current team surrenders an average of just 56.6 points per games, second in the nation to Virginia.

"What do you want to build your program around? You've got to be able to guard. You've got to be able to rebound. We preach that," he said in January, via Auerbach. "We have emphasized it, which is the important thing. Not just talk about it. We've made it a point of emphasis in practice, maybe more than anyone else in the country."

And it started from Day 1, even when the dearth of talent at the time made it too difficult for Fisher to attain tangible results in the win-loss column. After that five-win first season in San Diego, it seemed unlikely he'd still be around, much less making annual NCAA tournament appearances, when he was approaching his 70th birthday.  

Remember, though, this isn't the first time Fisher has defied the expectations of others to send his career soaring. He first got the Michigan job only when Bill Frieder, then the team's coach, announced during the last week of the regular season in 1989 that he would be leaving at the end of the season to head up the Arizona State program.

When then athletics director Bo Schembechler denied Frieder's request to coach the Wolverines through the NCAA tournement, Fisher, who had been Frieder's assistant, suddenly was in charge as the interim head coach.

It wasn't supposed to last. But then, Fisher wasn't supposed to coach that Michigan team to the national title in the tournament that year.

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

He did, and that forever changed his life—until it was forever changed again eight years later by the Ed Martin scandal.

Now Fisher has added another long chapter to his coaching life. He's been at San Diego State 15 seasons, has won 20 or more games in 10 of those and 30 or more twice (this season and in 2010-11, when the Aztecs also made the Sweet 16 en route to a final record of 34-3).

This is San Diego State's fifth NCAA tournament appearance in a row and the fourth consecutive year in which it has won at least one tourney game.

Fisher is 69 years old now, and as he ages, he's even starting to physically resemble John Wooden, the old UCLA coach who won 10 NCAA titles. Fisher's players all seem to love him and relate well to him, even as he struggles to keep up with certain aspects of their generation such as learning how to use his new iPhone.

This is Fisher's basketball legacy now, bathed in a positive and wonderful light. He's done plenty to deserve it.

 

Joe Menzer has written six books, including one about college basketball entitled Four Corners, and now writes about college hoops, golf, NASCAR and other sports for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @OneMenz.

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