In a way, Steve Fisher will always be remembered as a "Michigan man."
Twenty years ago this month, Bo Schembechler angrily decreed that "a Michigan man will coach Michigan, not an Arizona State man," after Bill Frieder accepted the ASU job on the eve of the NCAA tournament.
Fisher was that man. He was promoted to replace Frieder and
directed the Wolverines to the national championship. The Fab Five
would follow, as would two more appearances in the title game and
then Fisher's firing because of the program's involvement with
booster Ed Martin.
That was half a career ago.
Now, Fisher is on the cusp of another remarkable achievement.
His San Diego State Aztecs, once a doormat for one and all, are
two victories away from winning the NIT championship. It would be a
significant accomplishment for a school whose only Division I national title came in 1973 in a sport the Aztecs no longer offer, men's volleyball.
"When a guy's been here for a decade, I think of him as a San Diego State man now," athletic director Jeff Schemmel said.
Fisher doesn't see much of a connection between the run SDSU's
on now compared to what he did at Michigan.
"Probably not," he said. "I mean, what happened to me 20 years ago could never happen to anybody, and it happened to me," he said. "That's not the case this year. We've had a good team all
year. We felt like we can play with anybody. We were disappointed
we didn't get into the NCAA, yet determined that we were going to
play well in the NIT, and we've done that.
"We're going to play on a national stage in a historic, prestigious building in New York City, and it's got all of us excited. If we can go in and win two games, I think it will be a major, major accomplishment for this program."
San Diego State will face Baylor in the NIT semifinals on Tuesday night at Madison Square Garden. Penn State will play Notre Dame in the other semifinal, with the winners playing for the championship Thursday night.
After being snubbed by the NCAA, the Aztecs set their sights on
winning the NIT. They earned the trip to New York by holding off
Saint Mary's 70-66 in front of a revved-up crowd at Cox Arena on
Three straight wins in the NIT make this the deepest the Aztecs
have gone in a national postseason tournament in their Division I
history. Until this year, the Aztecs had only two postseason wins,
in the NIT in 2003 and 2007 under Fisher. They're 0-5 in the NCAA
tournament, including two appearances under Fisher.
If they win the NIT, the Aztecs feel they'd be entitled to say more than just "We're No. 66!"
"I would say the last four teams standing are teams that were very capable of being in the NCAA tournament and winning games,"
said forward Lorrenzo Wade, one of four seniors in the starting
lineup. "You can't compare the two, between the national champion
and the NIT champion, but it just goes to show that we're no
The Aztecs look at this NIT run as another step on the long road to respectability.
When Fisher was hired in March 1999, San Diego State was a hoops
backwater that had just finished a 4-22 season and had posted just
one winning season in a decade and a half.
"This was not an attractive job when I got it," said Fisher,
who had taken a job as an assistant coach with the Sacramento Kings
after being fired by Michigan in October 1997. "This was a job that if somebody couldn't get another job, they might want to consider this one. I would say right now it's a very, very attractive job in a really good league with a city, a program, resources where you can win."
Schemmel is more than pleased with the job Fisher has done.
"Maybe one of the unique characteristics of Steve is his energy
and passion haven't diminished in any way whatsoever," Schemmel
said. "He's a 64-year-old man now. A lot of guys slow down on the
recruiting trails and quit doing some of the stuff down there. Steve is probably the opposite. He works harder at it than he ever did."
Fisher remembers that when he was hired, SDSU and Air Force
"were the whipping boys, the laughingstock, of the Mountain West
Conference. Everybody beat up on the two of us. We both have some
accomplishments since then. I really do think we've got a program
now where you expect us to be good, our community expects us to be
good, and it's a disappointment if we're not."
Fisher liked the support from the administration, and 12,400-seat Cox Arena had opened on campus just a few years earlier.
He knew coaches who had won elsewhere weren't able to duplicate
that success with the Aztecs.
"I thought, 'Why not? Why can't we be good?' I felt like it was an opportunity that we wanted to take advantage of," he said.
"I would not have taken if I didn't, with all my heart, believe that we could win in more than just a pipe dream. A lot of people could have come in here and won, and we were the recipients of all the resources that we had, and we won. We always want to win more. We're proud of what we've done. We're looking for more, starting on Tuesday."