Retire? Why retire?
San Diego St.'s Steve Fisher has too much fun to stop
Steve Fisher is pushing 70 now, a quarter-century after he lived the spring of every college basketball coach’s dream. And there is no end in sight. How could there be, when he is still having such a good time?
Last week, Fisher agreed to a three-year contract extension at San Diego State. This week, if the Aztecs can get two victories at the EA Sports Maui Invitational, he will become the winningest coach in the history of the school.
Come March, he is hoping to lead San Diego State back to the NCAA tournament for the sixth consecutive year and the Sweet 16 for the third time. This at a school that had endured losing seasons 13 of 14 years and never won an NCAA tournament game before he came to town. He is in his 16th season, in a Mountain West conference whose other members -- according to San Diego State athletic director Jim Sterk -- have seen 38 coaching changes since Fisher arrived.
Meanwhile, the Aztecs carry a couple of mighty streaks that might not be widely noticed.
Does everyone know that San Diego State has won 43 games in a row against fellow California teams?Or that in the past 123 games in which the Aztecs have led with five minutes to go, they’re 123-0? Nobody steals one away from San Diego State at the end.
“It’s a wonderful situation and environment,” he said over the phone. “It’s more than the winning. It’s more than the money. We’ve had fun doing it.
“So many places are one of two things. They’ve either had great success before, or everybody thinks they’re supposed to win, because it’s UCLA or Arizona or someone like that. Here, the people at this university and in this community are genuinely appreciative of where this basketball program is.”
Twenty-five years ago, he was coaching the defending national champions at Michigan. That, after the extraordinary spring of 1989, when he was suddenly elevated from assistant to the top spot just before the NCAA tournament, after word had leaked head coach Bill Frieder was pondering moving to Arizona State.
Every lover of sports fairy tales knows what happened next. The Wolverines won six games and stood as national champions, with Fisher holding the reins, not to mention some of the net from that night in the Kingdome. From fine print on the roster to the history books in three weeks.
Twenty-five years later, he lives 2,000 miles away from Ann Arbor in Del Mar. And who should be among the other 4,000-plus residents of his town? Bill Frieder. Fisher’s life has not been without irony.
“My first trip to San Diego was 1975, John Wooden’s last Final Four,” he said. “I’m thinking, boy, if I could ever save enough money to come out here and vacation. I was a high school coach at the time. And now I’m living here.”
By Monday, he will be in Maui, in a first-round game that is the basketball equivalent of yin and yang. The 3-0 Aztecs have allowed only 44.7 points a game to their first three opponents. They’ll be playing BYU, third in the nation in scoring at 95.7 points a game.
“We’ve played unbelievably on defense,” he said. “But every bit of that will be tested when we go against BYU,”
Later could come a potential championship match with Arizona, the team that beat San Diego State twice last season, including in the Sweet 16. Two programs fighting for West Coast supremacy might as well meet in Hawaii.
But before that, the current status of Steve Fisher, in a few of his own words ...
On how the horizons have changed at San Diego State: “Our goal when we came here was let’s hang a banner and get in the tournament. Now we’re saying let’s hang a Final Four banner, let’s hang a national championship banner. The NCAA tournament has become such a big deal that unfortunately at times, it can negate in the minds of people a great season. Our goal is to win the conference and get to the tournament. Then you have a chance.”
On San Diego State shooting 50 percent to win its opener but only 24.6 percent to win its third game: “I hired myself as shooting coach after the Northridge game but fired myself after the Bakersfield game. I think I’m going to let the players coach themselves in shot selection for the next game or two.”
On if he has changed since that 1989 title: “One of the things that makes me feel good is that we are well-liked in the community and not just because we’re coaching basketball. We do things we’ve always done. We treat people the way you would like to be treated. And we will continue to do that. Always have.”
The California winning streak: “The nice thing is we’ve been from the top of the state all the way to the bottom. They talk about it every time we play a California school, so we’re hoping we can keep it going.”
The 123-game streak with leads at the five-minute mark: “It looks good on paper. I think you have to be lucky. You have to have good teams and play well, but you have to have good fortune. We’ve had games where we make the last shot, or they don’t make it, to keep it going.”
What his record-setting 317th win at San Diego State would mean: “That we’ve had some really good players, and a lot of good people involved in the program. And it will mean I’ve been there a long time.”
His annual post-season process of considering if he wants to continue, no matter how long his contract: “Angie and I have been married for over 40 years now. We will talk about it. I’m a guy who doesn’t make a quick decision on a lot of things. It won’t be 30 minutes after our last game.
“The nice thing is they want us, and we’ll be able to do what a lot of coaches can’t do. We’ll be able to end it when we choose to, rather than have someone end it for you.”
If his legacy will be more Michigan or San Diego State: “I remember when we first came here, all anybody wanted to talk about was where we came from; 1989, the Fab Five. And we talked about it because that got us entry into [recruit] homes.
“But I said then if we’re still talking about our past three or four years from now in the first paragraph, we’re not doing our job here. I remember when we went to New Orleans for the Final Four the last time  and all everybody wanted to talk about when they came up was San Diego State, which was very neat.
I’m proud of where I’ve been and what we did, and I’m proud of where we are now and what I’ve done here.”