When San Diego State coach Steve Fisher’s team won its second-round game against New Mexico State, the press conference that followed gave us a glaring example of why he is considered a TSL Big Dance Throwback Attack Coaching King.
While most coaches – thirsty for wins and motivated by endorsements and hanging banners – would be basking in the glory of advancing in college basketball’s Russian Roulette, Fisher chose to use his moment in the media spotlight to rip the NCAA for having short arms and deep pockets.
A year ago in the NCAA Tournament, the San Diego State team, band, cheerleaders and staffers had a disastrous trip home from Philadelphia on a charter jet after a tough loss to 15th-seeded Florida Gulf Coast, spending more than 10 hours on the plane during the ordeal before arriving at campus in the wee hours of the morning. So Fisher was extra sympathetic and an advocate for a Lobos contingent that was being shipped out that night by the NCAA.
"New Mexico State has to do this,” Fisher said. “They didn’t want to go home, either. But they have to go home tonight. It’s disgraceful – for the billions of dollars that we have here, for them (NCAA) not to find a way to accommodate these kids, the student athletes. You can’t tell me they couldn’t find charter planes (Friday).”
“I got all the rhetoric: ‘We tried, we tried, money’s not the issue, we tried,'' Fisher lamented. “I am not a guy that looks for things to complain about. But this is not right. This should not happen … It can’t happen. But it happened. They didn’t want to go home tonight…Is that right? Is that fair? Come on.”
Maybe not. And this isn’t the first time somebody’s accused the NCAA of being Scrooges at the expense of its student-athlete. That’s always been Steve Fisher. The calming influence. The guy that sometimes looks as gullible as Gomer Pile but is as connected and respected a basketball coach as there is. The consummate player’s coach. In the past, maybe to a fault.
As much as any one of TSL’s Coaching Kings, Fisher sort of stumbled upon his greatness. In 1989, during the final week of the regular season, Michigan head coach Bill Frieder agreed to take the coaching job at Arizona State University beginning the next season. Frieder had a stud squad and told athletic director bo Schembechler that he would stay to coach the team in the NCAA Tournament.
Legend has it Schembechler responded, "The hell you will!" and immediately fired Frieder and announced that Fisher, who had graduated from the school and been an assistant since 1982, would be promoted to replace him.
Initially, Fisher was an unknown entity and even after leading the Wolverines to an improbable NCAA championship that season, basketball “experts” credited a sick shooting exhibition by Glen Rice, a deep and talented Wolverine’s squad and some beginner’s luck for Fisher’s accomplishment. He may not have been Dean Smith with the clip board, but if anything, Fisher proved to be a motivator and a calm but effective communicator.
In 1991, Fisher also proved to be a savvy recruiter as he signed the dopest incoming freshman class of all time – The Fab Five. Together, they helped disrupt, revolutionize and re-invent college basketball culture. Fisher led the bold, brash and dynamic Wolverines to the national title game in the Fab Five’s freshman year, but they fell to Duke. The Wolverines reached the title game again the next season but didn’t get any relief in strength of opponent as they fell to North Carolina in that game. At times, Fisher was accused of fostering a free-for-all, undisciplined, “ghetto” environment, but the basketball was demonstrative, captivated fans and the team's swag was at 100.
Fisher began his head coaching career at Michigan on top of the basketball world and he went out under a cloud of scandal. In October 1997, Michigan fired Fisher as a result of an off-court situation concerning players and illegal benefits. A 1996 automobile accident during a high school seniors recruiting trip to the school, exposed a shady relationship between booster Ed Martin and the basketball program. A federal investigation later revealed that for years Martin had been blessing players with chips to help him launder money from an illegal gambling operation. It wasn’t long before players were being called before a grand jury and the NCAA got involved.
Four players – current NBA TV analyst Chris Webber, Maurice Taylor, Robert “Tractor” Traylor, and Louis Bullock - were found to have taken a total of over $600,000 from Martin. After Fisher got the boot, Michigan imposed its own harsh punishment by vacating five seasons of victories, including all NCAA tournament records from 1992-99. Michigan also removed all commemorative banners from those seasons and put the program on probation for two years. Despite overseeing one of the most successful eras in Michigan basketball history, Steve Fisher and the Fab Five are like ghosts of Ann Arbor past, but their basketball souls continue to live on in the aftermath of those unforgettable and incomparable years. In fact, Fisher’s 15-year Aztec run can be called a fitting resurrection.
In 1999, Fisher took over as coach of a San Diego State program that had suffered losing records in 13 of the previous 14 years. He had his opportunity to once again put his magic touch on a situation, redeem his name and shake the idea that he can only win with future pros on his squad. In the season before he arrived, the Aztecs had won just four games, but Fisher has a 311-175 record in his 15-year Southwest Cali reign and the Aztecs (31-4) have won 20 or more games each of the last nine seasons and have made five straight Big Dance check-ins. Just call Fisher "The Rubberband Man" because he's back and a National Championship is a real possibility.
"The experience and the opportunity we have had at San Diego State is unbelievable," Fisher said in a press conference. "I wouldn't trade it for anything."
On Saturday Fisher’s No. 4 seed Aztecs advanced to their first Sweet Sixteen since 2011, beating North Dakota State 63-44 behind 30 points by Xavier Thames. Fisher, who turns 69 next week, is still building his legacy, dropping coaching gems and relating to the “Generation Me-ers.” By now, most of the basketball world knows Fisher has elite game on the bench. And to the few naysayers left, the more he wins, the less that ‘89 c'hip seems like fluke.