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.
“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.)
Two years later — with a recommendation from Frieder — Fisher was hired at San Diego State, a basketball graveyard in paradise. The Aztecs had suffered 13 losing seasons in 14 years. It was difficult to give away game tickets — sometimes Fisher handed them out to students around campus. He won five games his first season.
“We used to say if we were recruiting adults we’d already have a national championship, because adults say, ‘I can go somewhere with everything already paid for and live there in San Diego?’ ” said Brian Dutcher, Fisher’s former assistant at Michigan who followed him to San Diego State. “But we’re recruiting teenagers, and they were looking for something already established.”
Early on, Fisher sold what he could: his past. He and Dutcher talked up the Fab Five not only to prospects, but also to their parents. Fisher had other advantages over previous San Diego State coaches: sparkling Viejas Arena and new athletic administration buildings. (Dutcher said previous coaches worked out of trailers.)
Then came recruiting breakthroughs. San Diego State lured standout Randy Holcomb from Los Angeles City College. Tony Bland transferred from Syracuse back home to Los Angeles. And then the Aztecs found the cornerstone of their current team: Kawhi Leonard, whom some teams thought couldn’t handle the ball well enough for a small forward and wasn’t big enough to play power forward.
Leonard, a sophomore from Riverside, Calif., was just named a second-team all-American by the Sporting News and is considered a future first-round NBA draft pick.
Fisher has won at least 20 games seven times at San Diego State. The Aztecs are 34-2 this season.
“I knew he would do a great job there,” Frieder said. “But no one — no one — could have ever imagined this. It is way beyond expectations.”
Everything is now coming full circle. Frieder is here. Duke, which beat Fisher’s Michigan team in the 1992 national title game, could await in the region final. And the Fab Five is back in the national discussion after ESPN’s two-hour documentary on Selection Sunday.
“I smiled,” Fisher said about watching the show. “It brought back a lot of memories. I enjoyed it. I thought it was a good portrayal of who they were, what happened.”
Brian Carlwell, a senior forward on San Diego State, said he has watched it 10 times. D.J. Gay, San Diego State’s starting point guard, said he didn’t know much about Fisher’s accomplishments with the Fab Five until watching the documentary.
“Coach Fisher, he has come a long way,” Gay said. “It was nice to catch up on history and know that our coach was a part of it.”
And now Fisher is making more of it. After San Diego State beat Northern Colorado, Fisher was a confused about receiving a pin, something given after each tournament victory.
“That’s how long it’s been since I’ve been past the first round,” Fisher said. “It’s been 17 years. Seventeen years since I’ve been part of a team that hasn’t gone home after Game One. I said: ‘So I’m proud to have this pin. And I’m looking forward to getting another one.’ ”