For perspective on the unlikelihood of Steve Fisher, look at it this way: He is, far as I can tell, the only college basketball coach in history to move to a region he’d never previously lived in, take a coaching job 54 years into his life, then become a legend at that spot.
The biggest names in college basketball coaching over the ages -- the Krzyzewskis, Boeheims, Rupps, Woodens, Knights, Smiths, Calhouns, Tarkanians, Williamses, Ibas, Pitinos and so on -- none of them were in their 50s when they took on their most important, career-defining jobs.
But that’s what happened at San Diego State for Steve Fisher, a man who spent 50 years in basketball coaching, 26 as a head coach, the final 18 of them in San Diego. “Unconventional” is the word that comes to mind when reflecting on Fisher’s passage.
Now 72, Fisher told his colleagues, bosses, players and beloved friends at SDSU on Monday that time had come for him to retire. Fisher opts to leave his post on the heels of an uncommon event: The Aztecs didn’t make the NCAA Tournament this past season. Getting to the NCAAs has become expectation for SDSU, and the fact that is a fact speaks to the enormity of the job Fisher executed over 18 years.
Fisher was a second-act coach who forever changed a once-piddling program, but some of what makes his career distinct is what served as prelude to the San Diego State job. He arrived at SDSU in 1999 (two years from being booted at Michigan amid a booster scandal that he was never attached to) and tried to resurrect his career. He first coached Michigan to the 1989 national title under strange circumstances: getting the job only after his boss, Bill Frieder, was fired once it became known that Frieder would be leaving Michigan to coach Arizona State that the end of the 1988-89 season.
While at Michigan, Fisher brought in the Fab Five, one of the most influential and iconic recruiting classes in college basketball history. Without the interruption of third-party impropriety and the heavy intervening arm of the NCAA, Michigan could have been Fisher’s job for well over a decade. Instead, the NCAA investigation pushed him out of college sports for the short-term. Chris Webber, and others (most notoriously, a man named Ed Martin), eventually became entangled in a booster scandal that would strip the university, officially, of its two Final Four runs under Fisher. And so he was unceremoniously let go as coach only weeks before the 1997-98 season.
Fisher was ultimately cleared of any dirty work, and his reputation was obviously still good enough that he could land a D-I job. But San Diego State? It was a bad job in a great location. Aztec brass wanted Fisher, though, and after deliberation did he take a leap of faith. The program had been to the NCAAs only three times (no wins) in its history before Fisher got there. It had losing seasons in 13 of the prior 14 years.
“Those that were around and followed San Diego State and followed in the ‘90s, late ‘80s, it was not a program that people gave much thought to,” Fisher told me in 2014. “Nobody came to the games, nobody cared, and it was hard to recruit.”
He pulled off 11 straight 20-win seasons from 2006-16, averaging 26 wins per season in that stretch and going to the NCAA Tournament seven times. The Aztecs earned a No. 2 seed in 2011, a No. 4 seed in 2014. These are facts, yet to the approximately 37 longtime San Diego State fans who are alive today and also actually followed the program in the early 1990s, they remain astonishing truths.
Now SDSU has “The Show,” one of the 10 most enthusiastic, rabid, creative student sections in college basketball. Yet 17 years ago, Fisher was hitting up frat houses, coffee houses, student unions and bars just trying to give away tickets to the games.
From what San Diego State was to what Fisher transformed the program into, it’s one of the five most impressive construction jobs in college hoops history. He recruited Kawhi Leonard before anyone knew who Leonard was. Now he’s one of the five most important players in the NBA.
“The Arizonas and UCLAs, they recruited him, but not like we did,” Fisher told me in 2014. “I don’t think they knew how good he was. They thought he was a tweener. We said, ‘This kid could be a nightmare for the opposition.’”
Leonard wound up being the cog to that 2-seed season in 2010-11. Other critical players who came through SDSU thanks to Fisher: Xavier Thames, Malcolm Thomas, Jamaal Franklin, Winston Shepard, D.J. Gay.
Fortunately for the program, Brian Dutcher will succeed Fisher. Dutcher has been at Fisher’s side for decades, and he was named coach-in-waiting in 2011. But there is no replacing Fisher, and Dutcher obviously knows that.
The university named the court after Fisher in 2015. He retires with 570 wins to his name and 15 NCAA Tournament appearances to go alongside that 1989 national title. Twice he was named the National Coach of the Year. It remains to be seen if Fisher eventually gets nominated to the Hall of Fame. He won’t need that validation, though. Given what San Diego State was when he took over, and what he turned it into, which was one of the three best programs west of the Rockies in college basketball, it’s a path blazed and bridge built to long-term achievement that’s seldom matched elsewhere in the past 50 years of college basketball.