This Fish Knows How to Dance

by Paul Knepper

San Diego State was the surprise team in college basketball this season, compiling a 32-2 record and securing a two seed in the NCAA tournament. Of course, Aztecs Coach Steve Fisher is no stranger to success, having coached in three NCAA Tournament Finals while at Michigan in the late 80’s and early 90’s. But this time around is different because Coach Fish is the one in the spotlight.

Fisher’s foray into big time college coaching was rather abrupt. He replaced Bill Frieder as Michigan’s head coach just days before the NCAA Tournament in 1989. Frieder had announced that he would be leaving Michigan for Arizona State at the end of the season and Michigan’s Athletic Director Bo Schembechler responded by famously stating that “a Michigan man is going to coach Michigan.” He fired Frieder immediately.

Fisher was handed the job on an interim basis and Schembechler intended to hire a big name coach after the season. Nobody expected Michigan to advance very far in the tournament after changing coaches days before it started, but a funny thing happened. The Wolverines won the whole thing  behind the sweet shooting of Glen Rice and two clutch free throws by Rumeal Robinson and Bo removed the interim tag from Fisher’s title.

Still, the ’89 championship team was viewed as Frieder’s guys and after two disappointing seasons Fisher’s job was believed to be in jeopardy. Then he landed perhaps the greatest recruiting class in the history of college basketball, five extremely talented and athletic kids who came to be known as “The Fab Five.”

Chris Webber, Jalen Rose, Juwan Howard, Jimmy King and Ray Jackson all started as freshmen and shocked the college basketball establishment by advancing to the finals of the NCAA Tournament before being trounced by a more experienced Duke team. The following year they returned to the championship game only to suffer a heartbreaking defeat at the hands of North Carolina, in a game best remembered for Chris Webber‘s ill-fated timeout call.

Despite recruiting the Fab Five and leading them to unprecedented success, Fisher received more criticism than credit for their tenure in Maize and Blue. It has often been portrayed, as was the case in the Fab Five documentary which recently aired on ESPN, that Fisher got Howard to commit and then Howard took care of the rest, convincing the other four to join him in Ann Arbor.

Fisher also never received any credit for the team’s accomplishments. Their wins were attributed to the players, yet he took a large share of the blame for the losses. There was a common perception that the Fab Five were undisciplined and that Fish just rolled the balls onto the floor and told the talented youngsters to play. Anybody who follows basketball closely knows that’s ridiculous. No matter how much talent a team has that talent must be directed and molded into a cohesive unit on the court.

Very few sportswriters addressed the unique challenges that Fisher faced in dealing with five freshmen starters or praised the coach for channeling their creativity, individualism and swagger into production on the court rather than stifling it as many coaches would have. The only time the media discussed Fisher’s coaching ability was in the context of explaining why the Wolverines fell short of that elusive National Championship, especially in the game against North Carolina.

After the loss to the Tarheels, Webber left for the NBA. The following year the remaining four members of the Fab Five advanced to the “Elite Eight”, then Howard and Rose followed C-Webb to greener pastures. Fisher recruited several more highly touted freshmen over the next few years, but they yielded mediocre results on the court, the pinnacle being an NIT Championship in 1997.

In light of a growing scandal centered around Michigan booster Ed Martin, Fisher was abruptly fired prior to the 1997-98 season. The investigation continued until 2003, when the NCAA concluded that Martin had given over $600,000 total to Webber and three other Wolverines coached by Fisher, Robert “Tractor” Traylor, Louis Bullock and Maurice Taylor. The NCAA’s report indicated that Fisher had left complimentary tickets to a game for Martin and that the coach failed to promote an atmosphere of compliance within the program. The university removed the 1992 and 1993 Final Four banners from the ceiling of Crisler Arena.

After being fired by Michigan Fisher took a year off and then worked as an assistant coach for the Sacramento Kings for one season. In 1999, he took over as the head coach of San Diego State where he inherited a program that hadn’t been to the NCAA tournament in 17 years, suffered 13 losing seasons over the previous 14 years and won just four games the season before.

Coach Fish quickly turned the program around, building them into a .500 team in his second season. In his third year on the job the Aztecs won 21 games and earned a trip to the NCAA tournament. Since then, they’ve made four appearances in the NIT and returned to the Big Dance in 2006 and 201o. Still the school has never won an NCAA tournament game, though that may be about to change.

San Diego State returned five starters this season from a team that came within three points of knocking off Tennessee in the first round of last year’s tournament and were considered the favorites in the Mountain West Conference, but nobody expected them to be this good. The Aztecs won 32 games and lost just 2, both to BYU, and they avenged those losses in the finals of the Mountain West Conference Tournament. That earned them the second seed in the West Region, where they’re set to open with a first round matchup against the University of Northern Colorado.

Unlike, Fisher’s Michigan teams San Diego State’s roster isn’t replete with bluechip prospects. The Aztecs are comprised of kids that other teams didn’t want and Fisher has coached them up. They’re tough upfront with Kawhi Leonard, who averaged 15.2 points and 10.7 rebounds per game and Malcolm Thomas and Billy White. The Aztecs also have the balanced scoring, depth and coaching experience to make a run deep into the tournament.

Steve Fisher’s head coaching career started with a blast, morphed into a national phenomenon and then crash landed in scandal. Now, at 65-years-old, he has a major player in the Big Dance once again and this time there’s no star on the team for the media to shine the spotlight on. The name mentioned in the lead-in to Aztec games is the coach’s. This is Steve Fisher’s team.

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