SAN DIEGO – Steve Fisher has never been considered Basketball Brahmin, never mentioned in the same breath with fellow 60-something coaches Mike Krzyzewski, Rick Pitino, Jim Boeheim and Roy Williams.
But the man has had himself a career – a twisting odyssey full of unexpected developments and historical footnotes and a whole lot of victories.
Fisher's first six games as a college head coach produced a national championship at Michigan. Athletic director Bo Schembechler dumped Bill Frieder before the 1989 NCAA tournament – when Frieder agreed to become Arizona State's head coach at the season's conclusion – and abruptly replaced him with assistant Fisher. The Wolverines went out and won it all, still the program's only men's basketball title, and Fisher was given the full-time job at Michigan.
That led to coaching the Fab Five, a charismatic and controversial group that helped alter the course of college hoops toward more of a transient experience on the way to the NBA. Fisher quietly coached the Fab Five to a pair of national runner-up finishes.
Then there was the NCAA Dark Period, when Michigan was hit with major sanctions for violations that occurred on Fisher's watch.
And now we are in the latter stages of a surprising second act: Fisher's resurrection of San Diego State and transformation of a once-dead program into a remarkably consistent winner. He's 68 years old, his team is ranked in the Top 10 and he's thriving.
"I told [the players] the other day, I had my 50th high school reunion in October and I didn't go," Fisher said. "I remember when my mom had her 50th high school reunion and I thought to myself, 'Fifty years, you're old.' I don't feel old, until I look in the mirror and see I am old.
"I'm a good listener, the kids know that. … I'm enjoying what I'm doing, I'm having a good time. Winning allows you to have fun, but I'm having fun."
For a quarter century in a profession that can breed narcissism, Fisher has succeeded at not taking himself too seriously. This is a man who sat on a podium in front of the nation's media at the 1992 Final Four in Minneapolis, waiting for his Fab Five Michigan Wolverines to join him, and here was the greeting from guard Jalen Rose: "Yo, Fish!"
Everyone got a kick out of the cheekiness of it – a freshman referring to his coach as Fish. In his third year as a college head coach, Fisher didn't mind it a bit. The Bob Knight dictatorial approach was never his style.
Now in his 23rd season as a college head coach, having blazed an utterly unique path through his profession, Fisher is still comfortable being referred to in the same way by players who could be his grandchildren.
Big Fish, they call him at San Diego State. Little Fish is Steve's son, Mark, a basketball staffer here.
I asked the Aztecs what they have in common with their pinched, wizened head coach. "Nothing. He's old," forward J.J. O'Brien said with a laugh, then got serious. "What amazes people about Big Fish is that he still has his mind in the game and is so energetic about the game. He's able to stay so alert and energetic and enthusiastic about basketball and that trickles down to us."
It hasn't just trickled down to his players. It has rippled through this entire city.
San Diego was an utterly apathetic basketball town before Fisher arrived in 1999. The Aztecs were terrible, suffering through losing seasons 14 times in 15 years from 1985-2000. Nobody much cared that they were terrible, preferring to focus on pro sports and impeccable weather and the ocean.
Now? Fisher was awarded the San Diego Union-Tribune Sportsman of the Year last month in honor of his transformational work. They sell out every game at Viejas Arena, and the student section – dubbed "The Show" – is one of the loudest and most creative in college basketball. (Props to the kid at San Diego State's game against Fresno State last week who held up a sign reading, "You owe us BCS money," in reference to Fresno State's late-season football loss that cost the Bulldogs – and the Mountain West – a BCS bid.)
Of course, nobody is going to get that excited for a mediocre team – and San Diego State has been consistently excellent. If anyone thought Fisher took the SDSU job to ease into retirement, the truth has been the complete opposite.
San Diego State is well on its way to a ninth straight 20-win season and a fifth straight NCAA tournament berth. It has lost a pair of NBA draft picks in the past three years (Kawhi Leonard and Jamaal Franklin) and refused to take a significant step back. The program has never been better, and some expect the Aztecs to have their best team ever next year.
At present, SDSU is 16-1 and ranked No. 7 in the nation. The Aztecs compiled a stellar non-conference résumé that includes a victory at Kansas and neutral-court wins over Creighton and Marquette, and their only loss is to No. 1 Arizona. The Mountain West Conference has produced some notable March busts in recent years – including upset losses the past two years for SDSU – but this team is in early contention for a very high NCAA tourney seed.
"Our league has not won as many games in the NCAA tournament as we have talent," Fisher said. "Hopefully that changes, and we're one of them that does it. … If we get a top-five seed, we have to say, 'OK, we have a great opportunity,' and find a way to win."
Fisher and coach-in-waiting Brian Dutcher, who have been together since 1989, have built San Diego State with savvy and opportunistic recruiting. The current team features four players who came to SDSU out of high school and six who are Division I transfers. That includes three starters: leading scorer Xavier Thames (Washington State) and forwards Josh Davis (Tulane) and O'Brien (Utah).
"We've been selective with transfers that we have taken – many of whom we recruited (out of high school) and didn't get," Fisher said. "So we felt like we knew character and we felt like we knew them as players. They've been good kids who want to play and win.
"There's too many transfers everywhere. But as long as kids are transferring, if you feel like you have someone that fits -- without naming names, we had three kids last year that begged us to take them that were transferring. They're playing at BCS schools as we speak. And we chose not to take them, for various reasons."
Next year San Diego State will bring in four touted high school prospects: Californians Malik Pope, who also visited Kansas and Gonzaga, and Trey Kell; Zylan Cheatham of Arizona; and Canadian point guard Kevin Zabo.
"The better you get, the more of the better players you can get out of high school," Fisher said. "We signed four guys out of high school that everybody in America wanted, all four of them."
That class should fit well into the athletic, switching defensive system championed by SDSU assistant Justin Hutson, who returned to the Aztecs this season after two years at UNLV. The current team ranks 11th in Ken Pomeroy's adjusted defensive efficiency, and leads the nation in opponent's field-goal percentage. The defensive whammy SDSU slapped on Kansas left the Jayhawks shooting 29.8 percent in their own building.
After three home games in the first five league matchups, the challenge now will be taking the Aztecs' act back on the road. The travel can be arduous in the Mountain West, and last year's SDSU team struggled away from Viejas Arena. But this year's team doesn't bear much resemblance to that 23-11 squad right now.
"We work real hard this year," O'Brien said. "Our defense is a lot better this year."
The coach is the same old guy, authoring some impressive late chapters in a career that probably deserves more recognition. Big Fish isn't done yet. Not at all.