(Entering 2016-17 Season)
Steve Fisher has guided the San Diego State basketball program to unparalleled heights. In 17 seasons, he has taken a program that regularly missed out on the conference tournament, to one which has become one of the elite programs on the West Coast and is respected nationally in all college hoops circles.
SDSU is not slowing down either. Fisher and his staff continue to bring in high-level talent, which has translated to 11 straight postseason appearances, an average of 26 wins over those 11 years and a Mountain West-high 10 conference titles.
When Fisher arrived on the scene in March of 1999, he took over a basketball program that wasn't good enough to be called average. The Aztecs had suffered through 13 losing seasons in 14 years. Members of the school's last NCAA team were in the early stages of middle age. The expectations were set; The Aztecs were expected to lose. The year before Fisher's arrival on campus, San Diego State won just four games.
Now those days are a distant memory. Fisher guided the Aztecs to the greatest season in school history in 2011 when they won 34 games, spent a majority of the year ranked in the top 10 and won the program's first-ever NCAA tourney games en route to the Sweet 16. Then after two more NCAA bids, including a third-round appearance in 2013, Fisher nearly led SDSU to an even better season in 2014 with 31 wins and a Sweet 16 berth.
In between Sweet 16 appearances, Fisher led San Diego State to the 2012 NCAA tournament following its second straight Mountain West co-regular-season title. Then in 2013, SDSU won 23 games, earned an at-large berth to NCAAs and advanced to the third round for the second time in three seasons.
In 2014, Fisher, who was named MW Coach of the Year, helped San Diego State bring back memories of 2010-11. The Aztecs won 31 games, which included a 20-game winning streak, captured the MW regular-season title outright and reached the Round of 16, a game in which SDSU led for 33 minutes.
Over the last two seasons, San Diego State continued to dominate the MW, winning its second and third straight regular-season titles, including an outright championship in 2016. In 2015, the Aztecs won 27 games and reached the third round of NCAAs before following with 28 victories and an appearance in the semifinals of the 2016 NIT.
The Aztecs have appeared in the NCAA tournament in six of the last seven years and have reached the postseason seven other times under Fisher (NCAA: 2002, 2006; NIT: 2003, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2016). During his tenure, the Aztecs have also produced 12 20-win seasons, including eight straight with 23 or more victories, two of which were 30-plus-win efforts.
The ingredients for a successful basketball program seemed to have arrived at San Diego State at approximately the same time Fisher did.
Viejas Arena, formerly Cox Arena, was one of the glaring athletic upgrades on the west side of campus, and its opening signified the new-placed emphasis on basketball in the Aztec athletic department. The program moved from the aging San Diego Sports Arena on the west side of the city to an on-campus home.
After the arrival of Cox Arena, one important ingredient was lacking.
On March 26, 1999, SDSU announced its arrival on the basketball scene when it introduced Fisher as its new coach. Fresh from a stint with the Sacramento Kings and with three appearances in the Final Four and a national championship in his pocket, he rolled up his sleeves and went to work. The task looked to be daunting and yet the man with one of the highest winning percentages in NCAA tournament history had no reservations.
"We have everything here that we need to be successful at the highest level," Fisher said at the time. "We have a great campus in a great city. The arena is as good of a facility as you can find. Our league is very good and getting better. Who wouldn't want to play here?"
Coming off a 4-22 season, not much was expected in the new coach's first year. The Aztecs finished 5-23, but never stopped working. The last game of the season was a near upset of UNLV in the first round of the MW tournament. The eventual champions bested the Aztecs in the final minutes.
"We worked hard, but we just weren't good enough," Fisher said of his first group of Aztecs. "They tried to do everything we wanted, but we spent the year dodging bullets."
It was year two (2000-01), when Fisher and SDSU served notice that better days were ahead and some, in fact, had arrived. The Aztecs were one of the nation's most improved teams, finishing 14-14 and in the process, ended several less-than-flattering losing streaks.
And then came year three. An indifferent start gave way to a downright slow beginning to conference play. But the Aztecs then unveiled a trait that has become synonymous with Fisher teams. They played their best when it mattered most.
The Aztecs roared down the stretch, winning eight of their final 10 and climbing to .500 in MW play, a major step for SDSU basketball.
Then came March, a month that has always been magical for Fisher.
The Aztecs headed to Las Vegas and picked up three straight wins to claim their first MW title, including victories over top-seeded Wyoming and home-standing UNLV.
The season ended with a 21-12 record and continued the upward surge of the program. San Diego State reached 21 wins for the first time since 1984-85 and returned to the NCAA tournament for the first time since that same '84-85 team.
However, it is what lies ahead and not the past that continues to drive the energetic Fisher.
"I have never said I wanted the program in a certain place by a certain time," he said. "You just work hard, prepare well and try to get lucky. We have probably done a little bit of each."
The Aztecs proved that they were more than a one-hit wonder in 2002-03 by returning to the postseason and claiming their first postseason victory in 33 seasons at the Division I level. SDSU concluded its third straight season with a .500 or better (16-14) and advancing to the second round of the NIT. Along the way, the Aztecs played before two sellout crowds en route to shattering the home attendance average (7,172).
Although SDSU struggled the following two seasons, Fisher and the Aztecs enjoyed one of the best seasons in school history in 2005-06. Expectations were high from the outset as the conference media picked SDSU as the team to beat in the MW, something that had never happened in the Scarlet and Black's Division I history. In addition, the league media also bestowed on SDSU the titles of player of the year (Marcus Slaughter), first-team all-conference (Slaughter and Brandon Heath) and newcomer of the year (Mohamed Abukar).
And that was just the beginning. San Diego State won a then-Division I school-record 24 games, the regular-season conference crown and the league tournament title en route to a bid in the NCAA tournament. At season's end, Heath was named an AP honorable mention All-American, the MW player of the year and a first-team all-league selection, while teammates Slaughter (MW tournament MVP, first-team all-MW) and Abukar (second-team all-conference) also garnered attention.
The success from the Aztecs' magical year continued in 2006-07 as SDSU went on to win its first eight games, marking the best start to a season by a Fisher-coached team, and posted its second straight 20-plus win season (22-11), something that had not been accomplished on Montezuma Mesa during its time as a Division I program. In the process, SDSU earned a spot in the NIT and captured its first Division I postseason road victory.
In 2007-08, the winning trend was carried on by a junior-laden team that finished 20-13 and earned another appearance in the NIT. The Aztecs became the first team in the school's Division I history to record three straight 20-win seasons and three consecutive postseason berths.
Then came 2008-09 when those aformentioned streaks were extended to four after Fisher led SDSU to a 26-10 record and an appearance in the semifinals of the NIT. The 26 victories represented a new school record.
Despite losing 4,291 career points from the 2008-09 squad, Fisher and the 2009-10 Aztecs made it a point to not have a drop off, even with six newcomers. San Diego State finished at 25-9, won the MW tournament title and advanced to the NCAA tourney for the first time since 2006. SDSU was led by freshman Kawhi Leonard, who became the first freshman in league history to be voted onto the all-conference first team, all while being named league freshman of the year and MW tournament MVP.
All of the hard work from the aforementioned seasons paid off in 2010-11 when the Aztecs made the nation pay attention as they rattled off 20 straight wins to start the year.
SDSU had never been ranked prior to the season and it opened the campaign in the preseason AP top-25 poll. After five weeks, the Aztecs vaulted into the top 10 and earned a season-best ranking of No. 4, even garnering three first-place votes in the ESPN/USA Today Coaches' Poll.
When the dust settled, SDSU won the MW regular-season and tournament titles and earned the West Region's No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament. The Aztecs won in the tournament for the first time in school history and advanced to the Sweet 16 before falling to the eventual national champion. Fisher guided San Diego State to a school-record 34 victories and finished the season ranked sixth in the AP and 11th in the Coaches' poll.
Leonard became an All-American and was drafted in the first round of the NBA Draft. Seniors D.J. Gay, Malcolm Thomas and Billy White, meanwhile, earned all-conference honors in leading San Diego State, which sold out 13 home games and set a school record for attendance, to one of the finest seasons in college basketball.
Personally, Fisher was recognized for his team's success as he was named the Naismith and NABC Coach of the Year, MW Co-Coach of the Year, USBWA and NABC District Coach of the Year, and was the recipient of the Adolph Rupp Cup.
"In my 40-plus years of teaching and coaching, I have never enjoyed a season more," Fisher said. "I believe that could be said for anybody who was involved in any aspect with our team. From every coach, to every player, to our students, to our alums and to the community, it was truly a season to remember and to reflect on with great pride. Everyone knew that something very significant and special occurred and everyone benefited."
And Fisher was right.
The six letterwinners who returned in 2011-12 certainly benefitted from the earth-shaking 2010-11 campaign as they defied public opinion and finished with a record of 26-8 after claiming a share of the MW regular-season championship.
The Aztecs were led by sophomore Jamaal Franklin, who played just 22 games and averaged 2.9 points as a true freshman, and the lone returning starter in junior Chase Tapley. Franklin wound up earning AP All-America accolades, while Tapley picked up all-league honors. SDSU eventually earned its third consecutive NCAA appearance and a final AP national ranking of No. 22.
For his efforts, Fisher was named MW Coach of the Year and garnered district coach of the year honors from the USBWA, NABC and Basketball Times.
Just to show how far the program had come, one needs to look no further than the home attendance figures for 2012-13. The Aztecs sold out the entire campaign before the season started. San Diego State went 23-11 and were led by NBA draft pick and two-time AP All-American Jamaal Franklin. The squad did something only the 2011 team did and that was win in the NCAA tournament.
In 2013-14, when the experts thought the Aztecs were in rebuilding mode, all they did was go 31-5, win the MW regular-season crown and advance to the Sweet 16.
Led by AP All-American Xavier Thames, San Diego State defeated a school-record four nationally ranked teams, including at Kansas. The senior ended up being named the MW Player of the Year and was an NBA draft pick for a team that was ranked as high as No. 5/5 before finishing the season ranked No. 13/12.
In 2015-16, Fisher helped the Aztecs to another 27 victories and a league title. For their efforts, SDSU earned an at-large bid to the NCAA tourney and reached the third round for the third year in a row before falling to the eventual national champion. At the end of the campaign, Fisher received the 2015 John R. Wooden Legends of Coaching Award.
Last season, San Diego State enjoyed a 11-0 start in the Mountain West en route to winning its league-best 10th conference championship by a three-game margin, which was tied for the largest in the history of the league. Fisher, for his efforts, was named MW Coach of the Year by his peers and the media. The Aztecs ended up in the semifinals of the NIT and finished with 28 wins.
Unfortunately for America, SDSU's winning ways do not look as if they will come to an end anytime soon either. Fisher is set to return another highly regarded squad, the school two summers ago opened the Jeff Jacobs JAM Center, which is the Aztecs' on-campus practice facility, and excitement is at an all-time high within the community.
Prior to arriving in San Diego, Fisher spent one season as an assistant coach with the Sacramento Kings. However, he is best known for his efforts at the collegiate level. He became a household name at Michigan, where he transformed a prominent program into a perennial national championship contender and winner. Returning to the college game was returning home.
"I enjoyed the NBA," Fisher said. "It was all basketball all the time. But I always felt I belonged in the college game. If I have a calling, it is as a teacher. I enjoy teaching basketball. I think it is what I do best."
That point would be hard to argue.
No head-coaching career, at any level, started quicker than that of Fisher. Six games into his head-coaching career he was undefeated and sporting a national championship ring. And the success didn't stop with the national title.
Fisher spent eight-plus seasons at Michigan, won an NCAA title and an NIT championship and carved out one of the most glamorous periods in college basketball history during the Fab Five years.
Under Fisher, the Wolverines won at least 20 games four times and finished among the top three in the powerful Big Ten five times. In 1995, Michigan set a league record by holding opponents to just 39.4 percent shooting from the floor.
Fisher raised the bar even higher in the postseason. His seven NCAA tournament teams combined for a 20-6 record on the court for a winning percentage of .769 in the national bracket. Three of his teams advanced to the Final Four.
Just seven head coaches have led schools to the championship of the NIT as well as the NCAA. The others to accomplish that feat are Bobby Knight, Adolph Rupp, Joe B. Hall, Al McGuire, Dean Smith and Jim Calhoun.