SAN DIEGO -- Forget assistant coaches. When Steve Fisher arrived at San Diego State in 1999, he needed a priest.
That was the only way to secure the attention of a community filled with San Diego Chargers and Padres fans. Because back then, it would've taken a miracle to boost an Aztecs program that hadn't earned a trip to the NCAA tournament since 1985. Only a higher power could draw men and women to Viejas Arena when sunbathing was clearly a better option than buying a ticket to watch the bad basketball SDSU had played for years.
But now, look at what the 68-year-old, aw-shucks coach has done at San Diego State. And even on that rare day when it's raining in paradise, which has Fisher fighting the sniffles, he can look back and see what he's accomplished and what's next for a program that has been raised from the dead.
San Diego State, at 21-1 (10-0 in the Mountain West), is the No. 5 team in the country. And then there's the other big project, one he cannot wait to be finally finished.
In June, school officials will put the first shovels in the ground on the site of a new practice facility. It's significant compared to what the place looked like when he arrived. Back then, there was nothing but dirt atop a four-win program. Disinterested students treated Viejas Arena like a graveyard. They drove by, but rarely entered.
Fisher had enjoyed years of support as the former head coach of a Michigan team that won a national title in 1989 under his guidance. He recruited the Fab Five before a scandal led to his 1997 firing.
He'd essentially hit reset on his career when he accepted San Diego State's offer to coach its program just two years after he'd exited Ann Arbor.
But Fisher didn't pout. He simply accepted that responsibility. He hit the streets and became an evangelist for SDSU hoops.
"I spoke at 79 different events my first 365 days," Fisher says. "Kept count of them. From small little coffee groups of 15 or 20 to the national rotary group in downtown San Diego, 400 [people], and everything in between to spread the word about San Diego State basketball."
He made promises of a bright future that his team's five-win season in his first year failed to back. So the stands were still empty in those early years.
"You'd come here and you'd be able to count the number of fans here on your hand," said Brian Dutcher, an assistant on Fisher's staffs at Michigan and San Diego State. "There'd be 100, 200, 500 fans, maybe. So it was tough, it was kind of a dead environment."
That's significant if you're going to understand the length of Fisher's ride. Banners for SDSU's six NCAA tourney appearances now jut from the ceiling at Viejas Arena. The Aztecs, who will play at Wyoming on ESPNU at 11 p.m. ET, have won 20 or more games for nine consecutive seasons (including this one) and they've won seven Mountain West titles since his arrival. The team's vibrant fans -- "The Show" -- are nationally recognized for their fervor.
Twenty-five years after he was thrust into the role of interim coach, after which Michigan went on a magical six-game run to the national title, Fisher's San Diego State team is in contention for a No. 1 seed a little more than a month from now on Selection Sunday. Xavier Thames (18.1 PPG, 44.3 percent from beyond the arc, 1.7 SPG) is the top player on a team with wins over ranked teams Creighton and Kansas, and whose only loss was against No. 2 Arizona.
And -- get this -- the Aztecs also have territorial bragging rights, a laughable idea 15 years ago. Fisher smirks about that one.
"I heard [Bill Walton] say [recently] on the Arizona-Stanford game, 'Arizona, they played tough road games. They went to San Diego State and won a tough game there. San Diego State's the best program in the state of California,'" Fisher says. "And people are saying that. And I think there's facts to back it up, too."
Fisher and San Diego State are college basketball's true started-from-the-bottom-now-we're-here tale. He's traveled a complex path that has included Michigan's only national title, the creation of the Fab Five, the scandal that followed and the rise of SDSU basketball.
You have to revisit his past to understand his present.
The title, the aftermath
Fisher had a vision for his time at Michigan. After winning the title and luring arguably the most famous recruiting class of all time to Ann Arbor, he figured he'd have an eternal presence on campus.
"I would retire at Michigan and they'd name a building after me," Fisher said. "That's what I always thought."
It was a reasonable idea.
Late in the 1988-89 season, Bill Frieder left for Arizona State and Fisher became interim head coach right before the NCAA tournament was set to begin. Frieder had tried to avoid the midseason mess and conceal his plan to leave for Tempe, Ariz., after the season, but once Michigan athletic director Bo Schembechler learned of it, he wouldn't allow Frieder to remain. Enter Fisher.
The late-season transition was not complicated for players. Frieder had always given his assistants significant duties. He wasn't a dictator. And that made the switch easier for everyone.
"When [Frieder] left, when I became the interim [coach], it was not the first time I got up and gave the game plan to the team," Fisher said. "They'd seen me lead practice. Bill gave me a lot of responsibility and flexibility and freedom."
But players had a few concerns about Fisher. The meticulous coach didn't watch film, he consumed it. Every play broken down, every mishap addressed. In the VCR age, those sessions would last forever, according to former Michigan standout Terry Mills.
"He always wanted you to watch film," said Mills, who is now a radio analyst for Michigan basketball. "As players, we never wanted to watch film. Back then it was VHS. You had to fast forward and rewind it, and if you watched with Fisher, you'd be there all night. When he cut those lights off, many guys found ways to get to sleep."
Mills, Loy Vaught, Rumeal Robinson and Glen Rice helped the program win the title with an 80-79 overtime victory against Seton Hall in the championship game. The Fab Five of Chris Webber, Jalen Rose, Juwan Howard, Ray Jackson and Jimmy King are the most popular figures in the program's history. But Fisher's first Michigan team is the only one that captured gold.
Fisher was a relatively unknown assistant for the bulk of the 1988-89 season. After that national championship run, however, he was a rock star.
"I went from an obscure assistant to the White House," Fisher said. "I stayed all night in the White House. Went up to President Bush's home, walked in the Rose Garden with he and his wife, sat next to Bob Hope and Audrey Hepburn at a state dinner. Bob Hope jumped up and knew who I was. Three weeks ago, half the people in Ann Arbor didn't know who I was. Strange things happen in life."
Nothing as strange and unexpected as his exit.
As a pay-for-play scandal surfaced, athletic director Tom Goss fired Fisher in 1997. In 2002, a federal investigation revealed that Webber and three other players had been paid $616,000 by booster Ed Martin. That same investigation did not identify any direct ties between Martin's scheme and Fisher. But it still stained the coach's legacy, especially after the school forfeited 112 victories.
It was a dramatic shift in the forecast of his career; the sunny skies had given way to a rainstorm.
"I know that I did a good job in every regard," Fisher said. "I know I didn't cheat. Was firing fair? I was the leader of the team, the captain of the ship. I think had they wanted to they could have worked through it, but they didn't want to."
Fisher is a glass-half-full guy. And today, he speaks about that difficult period without anger. He's moved on. But the troubling days and weeks that followed his firing comprise the pages of his worst chapter.
His son, Mark, had been a freshman at Michigan for a few weeks when he was fired. He had another young son, Jay, and a wife, Angie, who wanted to know what was next for their family.
"Initially, you feel all the things that go into when you get fired from a very high profile, public position," Fisher said. "You're sad, mad, embarrassed, feel sorry for yourself and then, that wears off and you say, 'OK, I've got a life. What do I want to do? What will I do from there?'"
After sitting out the 1997-98 season, Fisher got the itch again. So he called Geoff Petrie, then the general manager of the Sacramento Kings, who offered him a job as an assistant for the 1998-99 campaign. He was comfortable, even though his family had remained in Ann Arbor for the season.
Later that year, San Diego State athletic director Rick Bay called. Fisher toured the university, talked to folks on campus and looked around Viejas Arena.
He knew he'd found a new home.
The next, final chapter
Fisher recognizes that he can't coach forever.
But if he retires soon -- "I'm for sure going to stay another year and what happens after that will all be year to year," he says -- it won't be the result of limited energy. He's still spry and vibrant.
"He still grinds at the job," said Dutcher, who has been named SDSU's head-coach-in-waiting. "He watches the tape, he puts the hours in. It's not like he's just riding off. He still wants to get this program to a Final Four. That's what his goal is, to get us to the Final Four and have a chance at a national championship. He's not going to rest until that happens."
Even if it doesn't, his legacy at SDSU is unmatched.
Season tickets have been sold out for the last two seasons (Viejas has a capacity of 12,414). Want a spot in the first three rows? Those season tickets will cost you $50,000 minimum -- but that small sum includes free food and drinks. Philip Rivers, Marshall Faulk, Stephon Marbury and Stephen Strasburg have all visited Viejas Arena to see the best college basketball team in California.
The players are different, too. In Fisher's first year on the job, he received a call from a man who talked about a kid who couldn't play for Rick Majerus at Utah but would be a star for his program.
"I said to him, 'The last time I looked, I'm in the league with Rick Majerus and I have to have people that cannot only play with me but can beat Rick Majerus,'" Fisher says. "People thought anybody can play at San Diego State."
Fisher said Tulane transfer Josh Davis, who is averaging 9.0 PPG and 11.0 RPG, is the best rebounder he's ever had. Yes, better than former San Diego State star and current San Antonio Spurs standout Kawhi Leonard.
Davis said the weather didn't woo him as much as the coaching staff's familial approach. Before Fisher and his staff reached out to Davis, they visited his mother in North Carolina.
"That meant a lot to me [for them] to be concerned about my mom rather than just come through me," he says.
Even though he's surrounded by young men 50 years his junior, Fisher is still old school. His players can't wear earrings on the road. He says he refuses to "hip-hop with them."
That's not completely true.
"He actually knows Tupac, Biggie, all the old-school rappers," Thames says. "He was around [Jalen Rose] and those guys with the Fab Five. I'm sure he knows a little bit, but every time we play music in the locker room, [it's] 'What is this crap?'"
He's a coach, not a friend. But the veteran finds ways to connect with his players.
"I find out what makes you tick and I play off that," he says. "I think we've got good people skills as a staff."
Fisher initially assumed he could rely on his Midwestern roots to lure breadbasket kids to the beach. But it's hard to recruit players across the country on a budget and even tougher to cure their homesickness once they land. So Fisher and his staff quickly changed their recruiting philosophy by recognizing that they had to focus on the West Coast.
They went to nearby AAU tournaments. They talked to every high school coach in the San Diego area. They built relationships.
The effectiveness of that approach is evident within his latest crop of incoming players.
San Diego State has been enhanced by solid transfers and junior college players under Fisher. But the 2014 recruiting class features four high school players, three of whom are top-100 prospects per RecruitingNation (Malik Pope, Trey Kell, Zylan Cheatham). Angelo Chol, who's sitting out this season after transferring from Arizona, will be eligible next year, too. They're all from the region. Kevin Zabo, a Canadian guard, will join them.
"We set out to build relationships, to invest our time in other people, to prove that we were who we said we were, and we would call people sometimes when we knew they had no players," Fisher says. "Everybody calls you when you have a player."
Or when they think you need one.
SDSU officials will break ground on that new practice facility in the coming months. From his grand office on campus -- think midsized condominium -- Fisher smiles about it all as he stares out the window through his thin-framed glasses and swivels in his black leather chair.
Yeah, it's just a building, but it will give the Aztecs more flexibility with practice times. Plus, these trinkets tend to boost recruiting, although the climate usually helps Fisher's pitch.
"The weather and the girls," Thames says, "that helped a lot, too."
Fisher's achievement with Rice and Co. in the national title game 25 years ago commenced this initial ascent. That's where it all began. His murky departure from Michigan, however, is now just a footnote in his career. Fisher is judged by many by what he's doing now.
And right now, he's the author of a remarkable story.
At the outset, it appeared that San Diego State would never reach this place. And there were no guarantees that Fisher would, either.
But here they are, overtaking some of the nation's blue-chip programs in the rankings and stealing their recruits, too. Just 15 years ago, the Aztecs were afterthoughts in their own community. Now they're a national title contender in a packed arena.
"He's been redeemed, but it doesn't surprise me at all," Frieder says.
But Fisher resents that word: redemption.
"I don't like to call it that," he says. "I have great pride in what I did back at Michigan. We had great success. ... It didn't end the way I wanted it to end. The last chapter wasn't good. But I think that what we're doing now is we're proving to people that might have doubted [that] there's substance there and they can coach and teach and they're good, honest, honorable people. But I knew that. I wasn't out to prove that."
Maybe SDSU will name a building after him one day.
And maybe he'll smile when the sun's rays kiss the letters as he drives by.
Maybe, Fisher will admit then that redemption is the only word that fits.