ANAHEIM, Calif. —
As San Diego State prepared for its first Sweet 16 appearance, Aztecs Coach Steve Fisher walked across a basketball court Wednesday with a familiar, deliberate gait. He shook hands with Bill Frieder. He chatted with a reporter as two small television monitors nearby replayed 19-year-old highlights of Christian Laettner and Chris Webber battling shot-for-shot in the national title game.
Reminders of three historic milestones in Fisher’s career converged. It was unclear whether this was March of 2011, 1992 or 1989.
The Washington Post's LaVar Arrington, Dan Steinberg, Tarik El-Bashir and Jonathan Forsythe look ahead to the round of 16 games and debate which double-digit seed is most likely to continue its Cinderella run to the Final Four.
Browse our interactive NCAA bracket and tournament history.
“It feels good to be here,” said the gray-haired Fisher, who turns 66 on Thursday.
Playing on this NCAA tournament stage is new territory for San Diego State, which had never won an NCAA tournament game before last Thursday’s first-round victory over Northern Colorado. But this is not new terrain for Fisher, who famously coached a national champion and two national runner-ups at Michigan before some of his current players were born.
This season’s Sweet 16 includes five other coaches — Mike Krzyzewski, Jim Calhoun, Billy Donovan, Bill Self and Roy Williams — who have won national championships. None has had the unusual and memorable career arc of Fisher, who maintains the same polite disposition he possessed two decades ago in Ann Arbor, Mich. And what he has now accomplished at San Diego State has validated his coaching acumen, quieting those who painted him as a skilled recruiter rather than a basketball tactician.
“That kind of was a Michigan mentality; they never would give the basketball coach the credit he deserved because they wanted to protect football,” said Frieder, Fisher’s predecessor at Michigan who talks to him every day and is providing analysis of the West Region games for Westwood One radio. “He proved at Michigan he was a great coach when he got the Fab Five as freshmen to the Final Four. He has always been a great coach. And it has taken a great coaching job to take a program that was dead in San Diego State and resurrect it and bring it to the Sweet 16.”
To this day, Fisher’s introduction to college head coaching remains surreal. Michigan Athletic Director Bo Schembechler fired Frieder days before the start of the 1989 NCAA tournament and asked Fisher, a longtime assistant, to be interim head coach. In three weeks, Fisher went from anonymity — he was even called “Steve Frieder” on CBS — to a national name. After winning the 1989 national title, Fisher and his wife, Angie, had a date at the White House for a state dinner. Fisher sat at a table with Barbara Bush, Bob Hope and the prime minister of Israel.
That all preceded the most ballyhooed recruiting class in modern college basketball history. The Fab Five won — reaching consecutive national title games in 1992 and ’93 — and became a cultural phenomenon, popularizing black socks, bald heads and baggy shorts.
Fisher was fired in 1997 after the program became ensnared in a scandal that ultimately revealed that a booster paid some $600,000 to former players, most notably Webber. (Fisher was never implicated.)