PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP)—Bruce Pearl remembers sitting with Steve Fisher in Michigan high school gyms in the 1980s, a couple of Big Ten assistant coaches competing for the same recruits.
“I remember we rarely got a guy that Bruce Pearl wanted,” Fisher recalled on Wednesday, a day before his 11th-seeded San Diego State Aztecs were to play Pearl’s No. 6 seed Tennessee in the first round of the NCAA tournament at Providence.
“I’m not surprised with the success he’s had,” Fisher said. “He’s smart. He’s a very, very hard worker, tremendous motivator, and he was that way as an assistant. He was very involved, very active, and you could tell that he was a head coach in waiting.”
Pearl has Tennessee (25-8) in the tournament for a school record-tying fifth straight year, a streak that coincides with his arrival in Knoxville. He led the Volunteers to back-to-back appearances in the round of 16 in 2007-08.
But in the 1980s he was an Iowa assistant under Dr. Tom Davis. Fisher was at Michigan in 1989 when head coach Bill Frieder said, right before the NCAA tournament, he would be leaving for Arizona State.
Fisher was hastily promoted to interim coach and led the Wolverines to the national title.
“He was one of the assistant coaches that I always kind of looked up to and hung around a little bit to find out what gyms he was going into, especially when I was recruiting in the Michigan area. And a really, really good guy,” Pearl said.
“And so you were happy that he got that opportunity because he was such a good person. I didn’t know what kind of coach he was. I don’t think anybody really could know. But you found out in a hurry how good a coach he was.”
The feeling was mutual.
“I think there’s a real kinship in assistant coaches when you go anywhere,” Fisher said. “And when they become head coaches, you pull for them. We’ve done that. I’ve done that with Bruce Pearl, from the moment he took his first head job. I wouldn’t say that we’re guys that talk on the phone every month. But when we see one another, we spend time reminiscing.”
After landing the Fab Five—a historic recruiting class that featured Chris Webber, Juwan Howard and Jalen Rose—Fisher got Michigan back to the national title game in 1992 and ’93.
Now, he has San Diego State (25-8) in the NCAAs for the third time in his 11 years there.
The Aztecs have never won a game in the tournament in five total appearances, but forward Malcolm Thomas said that Fisher’s credentials help the team buy into what he’s telling them.
“Just knowing his history, you never second guess what he tells you,” guard D.J. Gay said. “He’s our leader. He’s our coach. So whatever he says, we’re all ears. Our attention is always on him. When he has something to say you have to listen because he’s been here before. None of us have.”
Fisher often brings up the Michigan teams, even though the Aztecs are different. After all, San Diego State is trying to achieve the same things as the Wolverines were back then.
“If you don’t get excited when you walk out there for an NCAA tournament game, it doesn’t matter who you are or where you are, then you don’t belong in the business,” Fisher said. “I am itching—jumping out of my skin—to get another opportunity to play in the NCAA Tournament, as are our kids and our fans and our community.”
Pearl is equally enthusiastic.
A native of nearby Sharon, Mass., who went to Boston College, Pearl considers his visit to Providence a homecoming. For his opening statement at Wednesday’s media availability, he talked about the Red Sox, Patriots and Celtics—a surefire way to get the home crowd on his side.
At Tennessee, he’s gotten a lot of attention for his garish clothing and showing up at women’s basketball games with his face painted orange. But players see him as a father figure whose attitude is contagious—and a big reason why the Vols made it through a rough patch.
“His enthusiasm goes off on his players, and it gets us hyper, because he’s a hyper coach,” center Brian Williams said. “He gets us rowdy and he’s a great motivator.”
Pearl may have faced his most difficult job this season when forward Emmanuel Negedu was sidelined after a cardiac arrest, and guard Josh Tabb left school to be near his sick mother. Tyler Smith, the team’s top returning scorer, was kicked off the team after being arrested with a gun, and three other players with him in the car were suspended.
That left the Vols with just six scholarship players and three walk-ons.
Two games later, they beat top-ranked Kansas.
“We believe everything happened for a reason,” guard Bobby Maze said. “Emmanuel Negedu and the situation was difficult for all of us because he was like our brother. But he’s still with us now. And he’s one of the reasons why we are inspired to win this thing.”