McGrane: Fisher is Turning the Page on a New Chapter
Sept. 7, 2017
SAN DIEGO -
By Mick McGrane, GoAztecs.com Senior Writer
The corner office is virtually vacant now, the mementos of five decades of coaching boxed and carried away, leaving one briefly sparring with sadness and wrestling with reality.
Just a few minutes earlier, the office's former occupant arrived as he does most every day, with his son, Mark. The son, who for the better part of six years has bravely battled the insidious effects of ALS, otherwise known as Lou Gehrig's disease, is still a valued member of the basketball staff. The father is only here for a quick interview, then off to lunch to dive back into his new assignment, one that includes serving as a marketing arm nonpareil for the merits of San Diego State University.
The university's new special consultant sits back on an office chair and folds his hands behind his head, resting his feet atop a glass table top and gently rocking. It's difficult to look at him without also noting the absence of the championship balls, the gleaming trophies and the photos capturing his teams at the height of euphoria, reveling in triumph.
Yet on a far wall is the reminder, the reminder of what Steve Fisher did in raising not only a basketball program from the ashes, but simultaneously hoisting the spirit of an entire university and its surrounding city. It is a framed San Antonio Spurs jersey bearing the number 2, whose former owner is widely regarded as the best basketball player in SDSU history. If Kawhi Leonard's work habits are legendary, it's a direct reflection on his former coach, a man who knows no other way.
It has been five months since Steve Fisher announced his retirement, though it still seems difficult to grasp. It's as if he's simply stepped out and will momentarily return, his batteries recharged and ready to resume the heavy lifting of getting the Aztecs back to the NCAA tournament. After 18 years, forgetting the face most synonymous with San Diego State is going to take some getting used to.
In adjoining offices, the beat goes on. The team is in the midst of boot camp, a relentless conditioning period leading up to the first official practice on Sept. 29. There is the need to sign an additional big man. As Fisher relates his parting from a program he led to a Mountain West-leading 10 conference titles and eight NCAA tournament appearances, coaches go about their daily routine. One fully expects that at any minute the office door will swing open and Fisher will be asked his opinion on any number of pressing issues.
But the office now belongs to head coach Brian Dutcher, who briefly enters before departing without a word. This is not to insinuate that two men who coached side by side for 30 years have suddenly stopped communicating. Fisher is readily available for advice, but knows full well the importance of keeping his distance.
"I want to make sure that I step away enough to where no one feels like I'm looking over their shoulder, and that includes both coaches and players," Fisher said. "I'm very sensitive to that. When the team is working out in the JAM (the team's practice facility), I watch but I don't say anything. I hug and talk to every player and let them know that I'm here if they need someone to listen. I think I can provide some added help along those lines. We've always had a policy that we're going to be here for you 24/7 when we recruit you.
"But I mainly want to make sure that Dutch knows that I'm here. He knows I'm here for him if he needs me, but I'm absolutely never going to come in and say, `Why aren't you doing this?' or `You should do that.' That's not my role; that's not what I intended to do when I stepped aside. They all know I'm here. If I can be an asset, I want to be. If I can be of assistance, I want to be. But I don't want to be intrusive, and that's a line you walk. Dutch and I have been friends for such a long time. He can read me and I can read him. It's been an easy transition for me not to worry too much."
Instead, he now comes and goes as he pleases. Seldom, however, is he not selling San Diego State, hopscotching from tailgate to tailgate at Aztec football games and circulating among donors in stadium suites, be it San Diego Stadium or Petco Park. If you know Steve Fisher, you also know of his deep appreciation of SDSU. He's not glad-handing without reason, not addressing groups of boosters without a sincere proclivity for a university that he came to love and one that loved him back.
"I'm a guy who easily adapts, so if you do something for 50 years like I have as a teacher and a coach, and the coaching part is not there any longer, you know that you'll miss that part of it," said the 72-year-old Fisher. "The interaction with everyone, the preparation, the competition and the excitement and the energy that comes along with it. I'm smart enough to know that it's something I'll miss, but I'm still working here. I think I'm still a valuable part of San Diego State, and I'm here to help anybody and everybody."
Lest one think Fisher spent 18 years solely refining the benefits of doubling the low post, he has frequently served as liaison for the university's other coaches, convincing athletes from a variety of sports to take a long look at SDSU before taking their talents elsewhere.
"I think you're representing yourself all the time, whether you're teaching a math class (as Fisher did as a high school coach), whether you're coaching a JV basketball team, whether you're the head tennis coach, you're subtly selling yourself and what you do and how you do it all the time," he said. "That's not something that just applies to coaching, that's life. You're not thinking, `I've got to sell, I've got to sell,' you just be yourself.
"And that's what I've always tried to do. I'm not always going to tell you what you want to hear or be slick and pat you on the back. We try to be good folks that are genuine, and I think that wins friends over time. Which is why I think our staff is so well received, because (recruits) know we're fair and they know that we're never going to talk out of both sides of our mouth. We've always been about family."
A rule of conduct no less applicable to his current station in life. In addition to a marriage that has spanned 43 years with his wife, Angie, Fisher is a grandfather who is much involved with Mark and Jill Fisher's 4-year-old son, Max.
"Where we live now, we're 10 minutes away from them and we help out whenever we can," he said. "We keep (Max) some portion of time every other weekend and see him quite often during the week. He's very social and loves going to (preschool), so I hope his love of school continues for a long, long time. He's into everything imaginable, but right now he's mostly into the super hero action figures. He's got every costume known to man and puts every one of them on everyday."
If Max has yet to learn that super heroes don't always come with capes, he need only listen to the tale of his grandfather, who rescued a drowning basketball program and reinjected life into a campus and a community yearning to come along for the ride.
"I've said this loud and proud: Angie and I are going to be great fans for Coach Dutcher, the staff, the team, the program and the university," said Fisher, who has given no indication about a potential return to coaching. "That being said, I'm excited about my next chapter and what it might hold, in addition to what I'm doing now. But right now, I'm not sure what that might be. Right now, we're enjoying the less stress that has come with changing roles and what lies ahead for us.
"I've never been one where I've obsessed to the point where (coaching) has become a detriment to family, and I'm proud of that. I've been able to leave it on the doorstep when I come in the house. Angie and I have a life. We've got a life as a married couple, we've got a life as grandparents, as father and mother, and that's what we've always done. I think that until you get out of (coaching), you don't maybe fully comprehend the amount of emotional stress that impacts a whole family. So I think Angie's a lot like I am. She's excited for the next chapter, there's less stress for her and that's a good thing."
As is a university's ongoing relationship with Steve Fisher.
"If I bring value, if they want me around and if I continue to love coming in here, I don't think there's a limit from an age standpoint," he said. "I'll know if people don't want me around, but right now I'm proud of the fact that they do want me around."