McGrane: Fisher Leaves as Legend in SDSU Lore

April 12, 2017


By Mick McGrane, Senior Writer

It was the fourth game of the 2010-11 men's basketball season at San Diego State, a season that ultimately would produce a school-record 34 wins and the program's first NCAA Sweet 16 tournament appearance in four years.

At the moment, however, distinguishing the most efficient team in SDSU history from the one that won five games in head coach Steve Fisher's inaugural season on The Mesa was proving somewhat problematic.

As participants in the CBE Classic in Oxford, Ohio, the Aztecs, fresh off a win at No. 11 Gonzaga that provided Fisher with his 200th career victory, were trailing winless Wisconsin-Green Bay 28-6 with just over three minutes gone in the game.

"At one point, I leaned over to my son, (assistant coach) Mark, and said, 'Do you think we'll score 10 points this half?'" Fisher said. "They were beating us every which way."

Prompting point guard D.J. Gay to wonder just how big of a beating the Aztecs were going to take from Fisher at intermission.

"But instead of coming into the locker room yelling and screaming and chewing us out, it was the complete opposite," Gay said Tuesday. "He just looked at us and said, 'We're going to win this game.' Nobody in the locker room truly believed it, but after he'd said it six or seven times, we were like, 'OK, we're going to win this game.'

"I've always said that Coach Fisher can make you believe that anything is possible. But the first couple of times he told us that we were going to win that game, I thought, 'This man is crazy.'"

Once upon a time, so did everybody else.

It happens when after winning a national championship you dare to take over a program with 13 losing seasons in its previous 14 years. It happens when you knock on the doors of fraternity and sorority houses, shamelessly peddling free tickets if only someone will pledge allegiance to a team that reeks of irrelevance. It happens when you repeatedly --- and purposely --- run the gamut of the rubber chicken circuit, attempting to convince anyone who will listen that big-time college basketball is capable of blooming in San Diego.

Of course, it's only crazy if it doesn't work. And nobody made it work like Steve Fisher.

Eighteen years and 386 victories after propping up a program at death's door and lugging it into the arena of national notoriety, Fisher officially announced his retirement Tuesday. It was like closing a book you never want to end. Like waving goodbye and shading your eyes as the car pulls away, confident that you've successfully concealed a tear.

I don't know anyone who didn't admire Steve Fisher. It was impossible. For five years I had the great fortune of covering his team on a daily basis. And for five years never once did he fail to ask how things were at work, how things were at home, how my wife was doing. Once, following a game at New Mexico, she'd been prevented by security from meeting me in the media room following a game. When he became aware of the situation, Coach Fisher sent Mark Fisher to retrieve her. Mark informed security that she was one of SDSU's coaches' wives, repeatedly barking as he came up the ramp at The Pit, "Coming through, coach's wife, coming through."

If there was anyone who touched an entire campus the way Steve Fisher did at San Diego State, the name escapes me. Certainly, Don Coryell and Claude Gilbert had made SDSU football a national player, but when Fisher arrived in 1999, the two had been gone from the university for 27 and 19 years, respectively. So when Fisher took the Aztecs to the NCAA Tournament, in just his third season, it was like lighting a fuse in a fireworks factory. It was as though the electricity generated by Fisher's Fab Five at Michigan was suddenly surging through Cox (later Viejas at Steve Fisher Court) Arena. On the football front, SDSU was in the third year of what would become 11 straight non-winning seasons and four head-coaching changes.

Meanwhile, those tickets that Fisher once gave away were becoming prized possessions. In 1998-99, the year prior to Fisher's arrival, SDSU finished 4-22 with an average attendance of 3,136. Eighteen years later, the Aztecs have played in front of 85 straight regular-season home crowds of at least 11,000 and again led the state of California this season in average home attendance.

"When I came here, when I was introduced at San Diego State, the first thing I talked about was where I came from," Fisher said. "I said if I'm three or five years from now talking about the Fab Five in the first paragraph, we're not doing a very good job here.

"When I go to the Final Four now, when I went to Phoenix this year, I had people come up and say, Fish, I love the job you guys are doing at San Diego State. Fish, tell me about Kawhi Leonard, tell me about what he did for the Aztecs. That is my legacy. San Diego State is my legacy. I'm proud of every step along the way in my journey, but I'm an Aztec. When people say, "Where do you live?" I say with pride, "San Diego."

He speaks with no less pride of Brian Dutcher, his former associate head coach/head coach in waiting, whose title is about to get considerably shorter but whose position is about to become inherently more prominent. Unlike Fisher, who had to sort through the rubble to find the foundation, Dutcher is starting with a team that has been nationally ranked five of the last seven seasons. SDSU's streak of 12 consecutive seasons with at least 19 wins is tied for ninth-longest in the country.

"I always think it's strange when coaches take over programs and the first thing they say is, 'We're going to change the culture,'" said Dutcher, who has been with Fisher since 1988. "I'm here to say I'm going to do everything I can to maintain the culture of Aztec basketball. It's a culture of academic excellence. It's a culture of social responsibility. It's a culture of family first. And, most importantly, it's a culture of winning basketball.

"It's our charge as coaches and players to maintain that culture that Coach Fisher has set up for us. He set us up for success. It's our responsibility to move forward, take the lessons he's given us and keep the program moving forward. When we first went into homes they looked at us like we were crazy when we told them our goal was to go to a Final Four. They looked at us and said, 'That's impossible, you've never hung one banner.' But if you don't have that dream and if you don't have that goal of doing it, you have no chance of achieving it."

Steve Fisher, unfortunately, will never realize his dream of a Final Four trip with the Aztecs. Then again, who would've dreamed 18 years ago that it would be within the realm of possibility?

"I'm proud of the fact that people appreciate what we have done," said Fisher, who will remain in an administrative capacity within the athletic department. "It makes me feel good and makes me excited to want to come and watch the next chapter, what Brian is going to do with this team. I don't want to wax superlatives, but we're going to be good. We have a room full of guys that can play, we have guys coming in that can play, we have at least one, maybe two recruits coming in this weekend to visit. We're busy. I'm still part of that busy. I'm under contract until June 30th. I'm going to take every paycheck, and I'm going to keep working until June 30th."

"I said driving to pick up Mark (Fisher) today that I had a feeling of confidence that the right decision had been made, but there was a feeling of sadness that I wasn't going to be on the sideline to coach them," Fisher added. "But it was the right kind of sadness. I told our team that I damn well better have a piece of that net when you cut it down next year and I better have a ticket to the tournament when we go, because I'm going to be there with you, side-by-side."

It's impossible to imagine it being any other way.

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