By Matt Norlander
College hoops is populated by a group of senior-citizen coaches who are still kicking tail and redefining the boundaries and expectations of the profession unlike anything we've ever seen before.
These men are all 65 years or older and either surely coaching in this year's NCAA tournament or still in play to win their way into an at-large bid: Leonard Hamilton (65), Bo Ryan (66), Mike Montgomery (67), Mike Krzyzewski (67), Jim Boeheim (69) and Larry Brown (73).
All with thinning, gray roofing (except for you, Krzyzewski) but still looking like they're in the prime of their careers for the most part. And all of them older now than John Wooden was when he retired (64), yet none of them are seemingly within at least three seasons of walking away. These coaches -- especially Ryan, Krzyzewski, Boeheim and Brown -- have been on the receiving end of some seriously good publicity in recent years for the way they've remained vital to the game.
And then we have another man who belongs in this group, except for that last detail. As has been the case most of his career, he's an unheralded man nationally, and a man who's accomplished something half the men listed above have not: won a national title. San Diego State's Steve Fisher, who's less than two weeks from his 69th birthday, has created a remarkable second act in coaching at a place and situation that nobody thought … possible? The word seems too kind for the burden he faced upon taking a … chance? The word seems too optimistic for what San Diego State basketball was in 1999, when Fisher came to town.
Now the team is 27-3, Fisher long ago completing his ninth straight 20-win season with the Aztecs. You could argue -- though I'm not sure who would be wise enough to counter the claim -- that no coach has done a more impressive job of bringing prestige to a place in recent college basketball history like Fisher at San Diego State.
"Those that were around and followed San Diego State and followed in the '90s, late '80s, it was not a program that people gave much thought to," Fisher said. "Nobody came to the games, nobody cared, and it was hard to recruit."
Prior to Fisher's arrival, San Diego State had made three NCAA tournaments and never won a game once getting there. Fisher doubled that number in 11 seasons and will make trip No. 7 next week. This was no rebuild. This was an exhaustive construction project that began as something of a personal dare at the age of 54, when he was hired, opting to give it a try after spending one season -- and liking that season -- as an assistant in the NBA.
For so long, Fisher was connected to and remembered for when he coached Michigan. Mostly, that wasn't a good thing. It began with winning the national title in 1989 in something of an awkward situation. He was the interim Wolverines coach after then-coach Bill Frieder was fired just before the NCAA tournament, when athletic director/Michigan patriarch Bo Schembechler made the move after learning Frieder was going to be Arizona State's head coach the following season. Fisher coached at Michigan until 1997, ultimately also being fired by the school and having his Maize-and-Blue legacy soiled because of the controversy and NCAA sanctions surrounded the Fab Five's explosive but exploitative time.
Four of his seven seasons featured games that were later vacated by the NCAA, three of the seasons wiped out altogether from the record books. The man responsible for bringing arguably the most transcendent recruiting class in college basketball history to Michigan became persona non grata after he was promptly fired in the fall of 1997, the NCAA heaving down Michigan's next, weeks before Fisher was to begin coaching his ninth season in Ann Arbor.
He remains frank about the exit to this day. Fisher didn't have many options in coaching right after that, but he knew people. And after former SDSU AD Rick Bay -- a Michigan grad who once tried to hire Jim Boeheim at Ohio State back in the '80s -- attempted to lure Rick Majerus, Fran Fraschilla, and a few other names to sunny southern California, he was tossed a solid by none other than Frieder, who happened to know Bay. And Fisher said his family didn't really want to move out to California; Fisher had grown up in Illinois and his wife, Angie, had lived in Michigan her whole life. He was reticent, but it was a college job and there felt like unfinished work to be done.
So they took the chance. He wanted security for his youngest child, who was seven years away from graduating high school at the time. Fisher got a seven-year deal. He said he was fortunate to walk into the job that had one very nice attribute: the arena. Viejas Arena opened two years before Fisher got there, and although the games saw empty seats outnumber hopeful souls, a vision was in place where a beautiful arena occupied space.
"That was a huge piece of having a chance," Fisher said. "But we said, if we're still talking about the past in three or four years, we've not done much here."
So he had to convince the recruits, their families, the AAU coaches that SDSU could be relevant. Getting them on campus was critical.
The corner was turned when San Diego State landed Kawhi Leonard, current San Antonio Spur who's looking like he has 12 more years of NBA paychecks coming. The Aztecs were on him before almost anyone, certainly the big West Coast schools. Fisher knew the moment he saw Leonard that "this guy would be phenomenal for us."
"The Arizonas and UCLAs, they recruited him, but not like we did," Fisher said. "I don't think they knew how good he was. They thought he was a tweener. We said, 'This kid could be a nightmare for the opposition.'"
Leonard became Mr. Basketball in California, and the push/reputation for him thereafter was massive. Too late. Fisher already got him to sign to SDSU. Leonard was on that No. 2-seeded team from 2011, a breakthrough year for the program. He would go on to become a lottery pick and do wonders for SDSU's profile in recruiting. He allowed San Diego State to run with the biggest schools.
"We worked hard to be selective," Fisher said.
It took a long time and lot of hours he'll never get back, though. While worth it now, Fisher estimates he spoke 73 to 75 times in a 365-day period in trying to convince people to buy into the local basketball team. He went to coffee houses, fraternity houses, Kiwanis Club groups, local watering holes, the student union. The team was winless in his first year in league play and took nearly 18 months to win a road game.
"A lot of people hadn't been there in 10 years to see what we had, to see that beautiful arena," Fisher said.
He gave away tickets and took a hit in the short-term just to get people to show. Now he has The Show, San Diego State's student section that has ballyhooed its way to a rightful claim as one of the top five student sections in the country.
"It's been marvelous crowds for four or five years now," Fisher said.
And his team is good while the program is ascending to great, certainly with claim to being one of the five best west of the Rockies. SDSU is on pace for a No. 2 seed if all goes well in the Mountain West tournament. The Aztecs, with wins at Kansas and vs. Creighton and Marquette (when both were ranked) on a neutral court earlier this year are not to be taken lightly. This group boasts the Mountain West player of the year in Xavier Thames, a vigorous senior combo guard who's as capable of taking and making a big shot as anyone in this sport not named Doug McDermott or Russ Smith.
If San Diego States earns a No. 2 seed, it will be the second time in four years Fisher's managed to coach this program into that spot. To put that in perspective, it would be like Indiana football becoming a top 10-ranked team with regularity over the course of the next five years, practically out of thin air.
Adding to the sensational story that is Fisher and this program, you should also know the team is supposed to be better next season. This was going to be the down year; the team wasn't thought by many to be NCAA tourney-worthy back in the fall. Fisher and the coaches had the hunch, though.
"In the fall we talked privately with our team that we, as coaches, truly thought we could have a special season," Fisher said. "Our defense has been good but the offense has been better than people expected. We have an ability to get to the free-throw line, and we make more than you take."
Maybe it's because of where he's been, or his age, or the ever-erratic climate of college basketball, but Fisher refuses to acknowledge that San Diego State is here to say. The team made the NCAAs his third season there, which was a huge accomplishment, but he attributes it to "getting lucky" by winning eight of its final nine games. The program bobbed back down for a few years after that.
"I don't think you can ever say we've arrived and it's our right to be here every year," he said. "It starts with having a base where people can say, 'That's not just talk. We've seen them win.' Then you start to say, 'We're going to recruit the same people that UCLA and Arizona and these schools recruit, and we're going to get one of them. It might not be the first or second guy, but it'll be the third."
Fisher's putting the future of San Diego State basketball in not just his own hands, but his assistant's. He has one more year left on his deal, and from then on out it's the Wooden contract: year-by-year, renew as you go, one-year deals until he decides to retire for good. And when that happens, assistant Brian Dutcher slides over one seat.
"That way they (recruits) know who's going to be the head coach," Fisher said. "I'm don't know what it's going to happen, but … they can't say, 'Fisher's not going to be there, he's too old.' Now they know who's going to be their coach after I leave."
They'll never forget him, though. Few coaches become legends at a place they begin coaching at in their 50s. Fisher still has a few years left in him to build this thing out even more, bringing Aztecs basketball -- and his life -- to a place that didn't seem … what's the word for it?
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Matt Norlander is a contributor to Sports on Earth and a writer at CBSSports.com. He lives in Connecticut and is equal parts obsessed with sports and music. Follow him on Twitter: @MattNorlander.