One of the sad things about life is that everything must come to an end.
On Monday, a day that every Aztecs fan knew would come, finally did, as Steve Fisher announced his retirement from coaching after 38 successful seasons in the sport. The man should be recognized for all he did. He changed collegiate basketball in San Diego forever.
Steve Fisher began his coaching career at The University of Michigan in 1989. It is important to point out that Fisher only coached that squad during the postseason, because Bill Frieder accepted the head coaching job at Arizona State after the regular season. Athletic Director, Bo Schembechler, decided coach Fisher would coach the Wolverines in the NCAA tournament.
Thanks to an inspired performance by Glenn Rice, Fisher won the National Championship that season.
After the Championship season, Michigan struggled for a couple of years, but in 1991 Fisher signed one of the most impressive freshmen classes of all time. Chris Webber, Juwan Howard, Jalen Rose, Jimmy King, and Ray Jackson all came to Ann Arbor to play for the Wolverines. They became a cultural phenomenon known as the “Fab Five”.
That team played together for two seasons, reaching the title game as both Freshmen and Sophomores, but wound up losing both times. The year after that, Webber declared for the NBA draft and the Wolverines lost to eventual champion Arkansas in the Elite 8. Fisher remained at Michigan until he was fired in 1997 due to the Ed Martin scandal, a scandal that centered around former Michigan great, Chris Webber, receiving illegal benefits.
In 1998 Fisher joined the Sacramento Kings of the NBA as an assistant coach. He thought that his days as a head coach were done, but in 1999 San Diego State came calling and Fisher accepted the job as the head basketball coach of The Aztecs. It is important to emphasize that in 1999 SDSU had no relevant history of any kind when it came to their basketball program. Many people thought that Fisher had taken on an impossible rebuilding job, After all, he was a former National Champion and had built a juggernaut while at Michigan.
His first season at SDSU went as badly as you can possibly imagine, as the team finished 5-23 on the season overall and 0-14 in conference play. But everyone involved with the program knew that it was going to take a lot of work before the Aztecs bought in to Fisher’s style. There are stories about how Steve Fisher personally was giving tickets around campus for the basketball games. This showed that Fisher had a vision and commitment towards the program that was new and refreshing for the school. In his second season, the Aztecs fared much better as they went 14-14 in overall play, and they were already developing an identity as a solid defensive basketball team.
Fisher’s first success at SDSU came in his third season, as he won the Mountain West tournament Championship and earned a spot in the NCAA tournament for the first time in almost 20 years. The year after that, SDSU played in the NIT, and hosted UCSB, as they won their first postseason game in program history. The Aztecs missed the postseason the following two seasons, but returned to the tourney in ’06. After that season, the culture around the program started to change as fans started showing up to the games and the program was expected to compete for conference championships year in and year out. In ’09 the Aztecs won a then record 26 games and ended their season playing in the NIT semifinals at Madison Square Garden.
Then the 2010-2011 season arrived. That year, SDSU began the season ranked in the Top 25, which was a testament to how far the program had come under Steve Fisher. That season, the Aztecs spent most of the year in the top 10 and even got to the fourth spot nationally. It was assumed that the Aztecs were going to finally win their first tournament game ever. When the tourney came, SDSU was a second seed in the west region. They steamrolled Northern Colorado in their first game and beat Temple in an overtime game in the round of 32.
The Aztecs got to the sweet 16 for the first time in program history. I was fortunate enough to be at the Honda Center in Anaheim, for the regional semifinal against College Basketball blue blood, UConn Huskies. The Aztecs, led by future NBA finals MVP, Kawhi Leonardo, played a hard-fought game, but eventually lost to the team that ended up as Champions. That season was tremendous successful as SDSU finished 34-3, losing twice to BYU, and obviously to National Champion UConn.
The Aztecs returned to the tournament in 2012, 2013, 2014, and 2015, but never with kind of success as that magical 2011 season.
On Monday, coach Steve Fisher announced his intentions.
Fisher leaves with a 386 and 209 record, which is astonishing when you consider his first season was a train wreck.
Though the last two seasons weren’t what many people expected, there’s absolutely no question that his tenure at SDSU has been one of the most successful runs in San Diego sports history. Take into consideration that before Fisher, nobody cared about the basketball program in general. As Fisher leaves SDSU, there’s no question that the program is on the upswing. He is almost solely responsible for that and we should all thank him.
There will be a new day for Aztec basketball and new head coach, Brian Dutcher, might take SDSU to new heights, but let’s take time to appreciate the incredible job that coach Fisher did. Tuesday will be an emotional day, as his press conference will be full of plenty of memories of what he created for the school.