(Entering 2013-14 Season)
Steve Fisher has guided the San Diego State basketball program to unparalleled heights. In 14 seasons, he has taken a program that regularly missed out on the conference postseason tournament, to one which has become one of the best programs on the West Coast and is respected nationally in all college basketball circles.
The best news for San Diego State fans is that the school extended Fisher's contract prior to the 2011-12 campaign, which will keep the national championship coach in San Diego for the foreseeable future.
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 tournament games en route to the Sweet 16. And what did he do for an encore in 2012? Fisher took SDSU back to the NCAA tournament after earning a share of the Mountain West regular-season crown for the second straight season.
And the train isn't close to stopping as 2013's effort proved. The 2012-13 squad won 23 games, earned an at-large berth to the NCAA tournament and advanced to the third round of the Big Dance for the second time in three seasons.
In addition to its four straight NCAA appearances, SDSU has reached the postseason six other times under Fisher (NCAA: 2002, 2006; NIT: 2003, 2007, 2008, 2009). During his tenure, the Aztecs have also produced nine 20-win seasons, including five straight with 23 or more victories.
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 located just steps away from fraternities and sororities.
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 a 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 of the Aztecs 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, the 2000-01 campaign, 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, ending several less-than-flattering streaks, including a long road losing streak, a long conference losing streak and an overall losing streak. Attendance jumped by an astounding 73 percent and by spring, the stars of tomorrow became more receptive when Fisher and his staff came calling to talk about Aztec basketball.
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 Steve Fisher teams. They played their best when it mattered most.
The Aztecs roared down the stretch, winning eight of their final 10 games and climbing to .500 in Mountain West play, a major step for San Diego State 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. And SDSU was close to so much more. The Aztecs dropped three overtime games, lost a hard-fought battle at Utah and went on the road to push Duke. San Diego State reached 21 wins for the first time since the 1984-85 season and returned to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since that same '84-85 team.
Along the way there were more glaring landmarks. SDSU picked up its first win at New Mexico since 1984 and swept the Colorado State-Wyoming swing, considered one of the toughest in college basketball, for the first time ever.
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. San Diego State concluded its third straight season with a .500 or better record by going 16-14 and advancing to the second round of the NIT. Along the way, the Aztecs played before two sellout crowds in Cox Arena 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 had been 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 before falling in the second round.
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 with a 25-9 record, won the MW tournament title and advanced to the NCAA tournament 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 season.
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, who led the team in scoring and rebounding, 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 Division I college basketball.
Personally, Fisher was recognized for his team's success as he was named the Naismith and NABC National 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 Mountain West 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 honorable mention All-America accolades, while Tapley established himself as one of the top shooting guards in the nation after picking up all-league honors.
The aforementioned duo along with the senior leadership of Tim Shelton and Garrett Green, and a supporting cast that had been through the rigors of a 34-3 campaign, willed the program to its third consecutive NCAA tournament 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 has come, one needs to look no further than the home attendance figures for 2012-13. To save you the trouble, the answer is 12,414, or better known as a sellout. The Aztecs sold out the entire campaign before the season started. San Diego State went 14-1 at home en route to a 23-11 overall record. The Aztecs, led by 2013 NBA draft pick and two-time AP All-American Jamaal Franklin, did something only the 2011 team did and that was win in the NCAA tournament.
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 and excitement is at an all-time high, both locally and nationally.
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 Conference five times. In 1995, Michigan set a league record by holding opponents to just 39.4 percent shooting from the floor.
Fisher and company 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.