Steve Fisher achieved the unimaginable by turning around San Diego State

The day before home games during his debut season at San Diego State, Steve Fisher would venture out onto campus with his pockets stuffed full of free tickets.

More often than not, he couldn’t give them all away.

When Fisher became San Diego State’s new head coach in 1999, the Aztecs had never won an NCAA tournament game and were coming off a dismal stretch of 13 losing seasons in 14 years. Their newly built 12,000-seat arena was often mostly empty on game days because students and alums in sun-drenched San Diego had better things to do than support a losing team.

The transformation Fisher engineered during his 18 seasons at San Diego State is the most underappreciated element of his decorated coaching career. Under Fisher’s guidance, the Aztecs evolved from perennial afterthoughts into one of the West Coast’s best programs, making six straight NCAA tournaments from 2010-2015 including a pair of Sweet 16 appearances in 2011 and 2014.

A source confirmed to Yahoo Sports on Monday that Fisher is retiring, leaving behind an impressive legacy at two schools. Fisher remains synonymous with Michigan basketball after leading the Wolverines to the 1989 national championship and guiding the famed Fab Five to back-to-back title game appearances, but that shouldn’t overshadow what he accomplished during a successful second act at San Diego State.

When former San Diego State athletic director Rick Bay hired Fisher, it initially appeared to be a classic marriage of convenience.

Hampered by a shoestring budget, threadbare roster and track record of underachievement, San Diego State could not find a well-known coach willing to take on the daunting challenge of rebuilding its basketball program. Fisher couldn’t afford to be as choosy as the likes of Fran Fraschilla and Rick Majerus just two years removed from being fired at Michigan amid an investigation into recruiting improprieties.

“We needed each other is how I would say it,” Bay told Yahoo Sports in 2011. “Steve wanted to get back into coaching in the worst way, but I think he knew it was going to be a political battle for an athletic director to hire him. I think he knew his opportunities were limited.”

The full measure of Fisher’s challenge became obvious during his first season when San Diego State staggered to a 5-23 record. Undaunted, Fisher tried to restock his undermanned roster by finding overlooked in-state prospects out of high school and turning the Aztecs into a destination for high-caliber transfers in need of a second chance.

Many thought Fisher would leave for a more high-profile job after transfers Tony Bland (Syracuse) and Randy Holcomb (Fresno State) helped snap San Diego State’s 17-year NCAA tournament drought in 2002. Fisher instead proved them wrong, staying put because he felt he had found a program where he could leave his mark.

While Fisher won 20 or more games every year from 2006 to 2016 and captured the Mountain West title six times during that stretch, San Diego State was never better than during the 2010-11 season. Led by an undersized point guard, two unheralded transfers and a three-star recruit who would one day become an NBA All-Star, the Aztecs won 34 games and nearly upset eventual national champion UConn in the Sweet 16.

By the Kawhi Leonard era, Fisher was no longer struggling to hand out free tickets on campus. Against all odds, he had turned San Diego into a rabid college basketball town.

At the peak of Fisher’s tenure, Viejas Arena overflowed with fans each night, none more enthusiastic than San Diego State’s aptly named student section. Costume-clad members of “The Show” gave the Aztecs one of the best home-court advantages of any West Coast team with their signature chants and cardboard cutouts.

The atmosphere at San Diego State games diminished a bit this past season as the Aztecs stumbled their way to a disappointing 19-13 record, but Fisher left his longtime coach-in-waiting Brian Dutcher with a talent-laden roster.

Almost every key player is back, meaning that Dutcher has a good chance to sustain what Fisher built and keep the Aztecs relevant for years to come.

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Jeff Eisenberg is the editor of The Dagger on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at or follow him on Twitter!