“If I wasn’t prepared when the chance came, that would have been my fault,” he said. “I had plenty of time to learn the craft, and I learned from one of the best.”
Based on his record, it’s pretty clear Dutcher was ready. In four seasons at San Diego State, he has a record of 92-30 going into Wednesday night’s regular season finale at UNLV. The Aztecs are 49-6 since the start of last season, including 30-2 a year ago when they almost certainly would have been a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament had it not been canceled.
“That team was national championship-caliber good,” Fisher said Tuesday. “They had experience and great guards, and they could have played with anyone.”
That team lost three starters, including leading scorer Malachi Flynn, who was taken by the Toronto Raptors in the first round of the NBA draft — the first San Diego State player picked in the first round since Kawhi Leonard in 2011. The Aztecs went 34-3 in Leonard’s final season, losing a tight Sweet 16 game to Connecticut — the eventual national champion.
“That team was good enough to win the whole thing, too,” Fisher said. “The U-Conn. game was winnable, but we didn’t win. That’s basketball.”
Fisher knows about teams good enough to win national titles. When Bill Frieder was fired by then-Michigan athletic director Bo Schembechler in March 1989 after announcing he was leaving for Arizona State at season’s end, Fisher stepped in as interim coach. “I don’t want someone from Arizona State coaching the Michigan team,” Schembechler famously said. “A Michigan man is going to coach Michigan.”
Fisher (who graduated from Illinois State) led Michigan to the national title, and the “interim” tag vanished.
Fisher then recruited the “Fab Five,” who lost back-to-back national title games. The Ed Martin scandal tainted the Fab Five — both their Final Four banners were taken down — and Fisher, who was fired in the fall of 1997.
Two years later, he was hired to take over a downtrodden San Diego State program. The Aztecs had finished with a losing record in 13 of 14 seasons, going 4-22 the year before he was hired. In Fisher’s third season, San Diego State went 21-12, won the Mountain West and appeared in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1985. By the time he retired in 2017, Fisher had taken the Aztecs to the tournament eight times and had the court there named for him.
Dutcher was by his side the entire time. Dutcher is one of those guys whose first word probably was “basketball.” His father, Jim Dutcher, was the head coach at Eastern Michigan when Brian was a boy.
“Some of my earliest memories are running around the court there during practice and watching George Gervin,” he said. “Those were amazing teams dad had.”
Jim Dutcher went on to become an assistant at Michigan, his alma mater, and then became head coach at Minnesota, taking over in the wake of Bill Musselman’s successful but scandal-ridden four-year stint.
He built a solid program but resigned in 1986 after three of his players were charged with rape. The school decided to forfeit the team’s next game, and Dutcher resigned because he believed his players were innocent and didn’t think the other players should be penalized for what their teammates were accused of doing. All three players were acquitted, but Dutcher, who was only 52, never coached again. Instead, he became a successful money manager.
By the time his father quit coaching, Brian was an assistant at South Dakota State. Two years later, Frieder, who had known the elder Dutcher well, offered Brian the chance to move to Michigan. He accepted, stayed after Frieder left and worked under Fisher until Fisher was fired.
Two years later, Fisher called him. “I’m being introduced tomorrow as the coach at San Diego State,” he said. “I want you to come with me and promise you’ll stay three years.”
Twenty-two years later, Dutcher is still there. “I guess I lived up to the commitment,” he said. “I’m not sure I would have lasted as an assistant for that long in the same place in, say, Laramie, Wyoming — God bless Laramie, Wyoming — but San Diego is paradise. Steve and I were both Midwesterners, and when we got out here, neither one of us had any thought about leaving or going back.”
In 2011, Fisher began thinking seriously about the future. He had turned 65 at the end of the 2010 season, and his son Mark, who had been working as an assistant coach along with Dutcher, had just been diagnosed with ALS. Fisher knew enough about the disease to know that he and his wife, Angie, were going to have to spend a good deal of time as Mark’s primary caretakers as the disease worsened.
Fisher went to then-SDSU president Stephen Weber, who had hired him, and proposed that Dutcher be named coach-in-waiting. He wanted to be prepared if and when he felt the need to retire, and he wanted Dutcher to know the job was his whenever that time came.
Fisher coached six more seasons. In the meantime, Mark got married and had a son; he is still on the coaching staff, although he has been unable to go into the office during the pandemic. Fisher decided in the spring of 2017 that it was time to hand the job over to Dutcher.
“I’d say it’s worked out pretty well,” Fisher said. “Brian has all the qualities you want in a coach, and he can recruit.”
Before last season, Dutcher brought in three transfers: Flynn from Washington State, center Yanni Wetzell from Vanderbilt and KJ Feagin from Santa Clara. All were fourth- or fifth-year players. They keyed that 30-2 season, which ended prematurely.
“What bothered me most when the tournament was canceled was that none of the three had played in the NCAAs at their prior schools,” Dutcher said. “This was their chance. And then it was gone.”
This year’s team is led by Matt Mitchell and Jordan Schakel. It is deep — no one plays 30 minutes a game — and is projected between a No. 7 and a No. 10 seed, depending on what happens in next week’s Mountain West tournament.
That isn’t a No. 2 seed, and this team isn’t “national championship-caliber good,” but it’s clear Dutcher is going to keep San Diego State at or near the top of the MWC for a while. Which emphatically proves the virtue of patience.