SAN DIEGO – Steve Fisher will always be the “Michigan man” who was promoted to head coach on the eve of the 1989 NCAA Tournament and led the Wolverines to the national title.
He coached the Fab Five.
And then he went off and did something few people thought was possible. He put San Diego State on the college basketball map.
Fisher announced his retirement from coaching Tuesday after spending 18 seasons at SDSU, which he turned from a laughingstock into a West Coast power.
Fisher, 72, said it was simply time to step away and hand over the program to his long-time assistant, Brian Dutcher.
“It was done for all the right reasons,” Fisher said at a news conference. “I know that the program is in great, great hands with Brian Dutcher and it will flourish. So that makes me feel good.”
The promotion is well-deserved for Dutcher, who has been with Fisher for all but one season since 1988. Dutcher was named the associate head coach-head coach in waiting in 2011.
Fisher’s work at SDSU was nothing short of remarkable, and he became one of the most-beloved figures in San Diego sports history.
Hired in March 1999, Fisher inherited a program that had just gone 4-22 and had posted just one winning season in a decade and a half.
“When I came here and I was introduced at San Diego State, the first thing I talked about was where I came from,” Fisher said. “And 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 good job here.’ `’
In just three seasons, he had the Aztecs in the NCAA Tournament, a feat they’d accomplished only three times prior.
“San Diego State is my legacy,” Fisher said. “I’m proud of every step in my journey, but I’m an Aztec.”
Fisher will have a part-time role with SDSU’s athletic department. As such, he’ll be able to help recruit.
“To me, it’s like I’m the head coach and I haven’t lost my main asset,” said Dutcher, whose father, Jim, was head coach at Minnesota from 1975-86. “His value’s just beginning to the university.”
Fisher was 386-209 at SDSU, leading the Aztecs to eight NCAA Tournament berths and five in the NIT. His 2010-11 team, with Kawhi Leonard, went a school-best 34-3 and made the school’s first Sweet 16 appearance.
After Bill Frieder accepted the Arizona State job on the eve of the 1989 NCAA Tournament, Michigan athletic director Bo Schembechler angrily decreed that “a Michigan man will coach Michigan, not an Arizona State man.”
Fisher was promoted to replace Frieder and coached the Wolverines to the title. The Fab Five would follow, as would two more appearances in the title game and then Fisher’s firing in October 1997 because of the program’s involvement with booster Ed Martin.
Fisher was 184-82 at Michigan. In 2002, as part of its self-imposed punishment for the Martin scandal, Michigan forfeited 112 regular-season and tournament victories from five seasons, plus its victory in the 1992 NCAA semifinals.
Frieder has remained close friends with Fisher. They live about a mile apart in Del Mar.
Before Fisher took over, the SDSU program “was a morgue with no interest, tons of apathy and what, 1,200, 1,500, 1,800 people at the games?” Frieder said. “I’m shocked that he did what he did. It’s the eighth wonder of the world. It’s unbelievable. Steve had the quality of being able to put a product out on the floor, and he put a product out on the floor year after year and that attracted the crowds and now you’ve got one of the top programs on the West Coast. It’s just the magic of Steve Fisher. He did a tremendous, tremendous job.”
Dutcher said he turned down chances to become head coach elsewhere.
“You know, I’ve wanted to help take over something that I helped build,” he said.
“They say the hardest distance to travel in basketball is that 18 inches from the assistant coaching chair to the head coaching chair. Well, it’s taken me 18 years to travel that 18 inches here,” he said.
“I always think it’s strange when most coaches take over programs the first thing they say is, we’re going to change the culture,” Dutcher said. “I’m here to say I’m going to do my best 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.”
Fisher is stepping down after a disappointing season. The Aztecs finished 19-14 and failed to make a postseason tournament or win 20 games for the first time in 12 seasons.
Forward Malik Pope said it “was nothing but excitement” playing for Fisher.
He said it was “eye-popping” when SDSU began recruiting him. “Fisher sticks out. You can never go wrong with Steve Fisher. That’s why I was like, `I have no choice. I have to go here.“’
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