When he took the job at San Diego State University, in the fall of 1999, Steve Fisher didn't promise that he'd turn things around overnight. He signed a seven-year contract, as if to prove the point, and spent the first few months of that deal barnstorming dozens of San Diego businesses and social groups to sell tickets. On the recruiting trail, he told players up and down the California coastline they could be pioneers, helping to transform an anemic basketball program into a giant. "My goal is not to retire at the racetrack at Del Mar," he said at the time. "I want this program to go, and win."
A quarter-century after he took home a national title as interim head coach at the University of Michigan, and 21 years after he watched helplessly as Chris Webber earned his last collegiate technical foul, Fisher's sandy hair has turned a distinguished shade of white, accentuating the charcoal sport coats and thick black frames he favors. At 68, he resembles an aging architect, which is fitting enough; now in his 15th season at SDSU, the plain-spoken Illinoisan took a rickety foundation (zero total postseason wins, complete fan apathy), found Left Coast kids who take pride in guarding people, and built the Aztecs into an unexpected perennial contender. "I am old enough to appreciate what we've got and what's happened," he says. "It's been amazing."
Nineteen Division 1 basketball coaches have guided men's teams to four or more Final Fours. Fisher is one of two who could join that illustrious list this March. (The other is Florida's Billy Donovan.) His atypical career arc—wild success early and late—would make a return trip to the national semifinals especially notable; only one coach in NCAA tournament history, DePaul's Ray Meyer, experienced a longer gap between Final Four appearances (36 years) than the 21-year-drought Fisher could erase with two more wins at the West Regional in Anaheim. Run the table and Fisher, who turned 69 on Monday, would eclipse Connecticut's Jim Calhoun, by 50 days, as the oldest coach ever to cut down the nets.
This season might be Fisher's most impressive performance since the Fab Five bolted from Ann Arbor. (Fisher was fired by Michigan in 1997, but was never implicated in that program's infamous booster scandal.) Even after losing 62 percent of last year's scoring and over 50 percent of its assists and rebounds, SDSU now sits at 31-4, having claimed a Mountain West title, victories against Creighton and at Kansas, and a berth in the Sweet 16. It starts with their defense, one of the stingiest units west of the Rockies—they're long and quick, switch ball screens freely, and press energetically without committing careless fouls. Among elite defenses, just Virginia gives up a lower percentage of its total points from the line.
Fisher's men have long delighted in making life difficult for the opposition, an ethic their coach brought with him from Big Ten country, and which is mildly incongruent with the carefree Southern California atmosphere in which he now works. SDSU has finished in the top-50 in adjusted defensive efficiency each of the last seven seasons, per kenpom.com, and will do so again in 2014. Only Kansas, Michigan State, and Illinois can say the same. "It's not smoke and mirrors," says Fisher. "We've earned what we've got."
Xavier Thames, a 6'2" point guard from Sacramento, is Fisher's anchor. Slight-framed and sleepy-eyed, the Mountain West Player of the Year stayed in San Diego for all but two weeks this summer, rehabbing nagging injuries (knee, back) and studying how Kyrie Irving and Chris Paul work off high screens. With the early draft departure of Jamal Franklin—a high-usage guard and "Type A personality," according to Fisher—there were Aztec possessions to be claimed, and a healthy Thames has made the most of them. Cognizant of the NCAA's effort to limit defensive hand checks and arm bars, the fifth-year-senior is blitzing the rim off the bounce, scoring 17.4 points per game (through March 23) and raising his offensive rating—a catchall stat that measures a player's personal efficiency—by a colossal 21 points. In their third-round game against North Dakota State this past Saturday, Thames carved the Bison for 30 and five assists. "[Franklin] talked to me about getting easy baskets," he says. "I just tried to incorporate that more this year."
Strange as it might have seemed around the new millennium, it's worth asking why everyone doesn't want to follow Thames' lead and enroll here. SDSU has posted 20-win seasons nine years running, qualified for its fifth straight Big Dance, and sent three recent alumni to the NBA. At Viejas Arena, their steep and gleaming red bowl of a gym, they consistently draw national television coverage and rowdy, sandal-clad capacity crowds—a rarity in California rarity. Icy bus rides aren't a concern, and the weather is so consistently beautiful that Thames joked about feeling "kind of cold" on a 67-degree day in late February. Most importantly, one gets to suit up for Fisher, a generous man and skilled tactician who stacks bench chairs from three title games along his office wall and believes deeply in giving players what he calls "freedom of thought" on the floor. "Coach Fish is not like any other coach I've ever had," says J.J. O'Brien, a junior swingman. "He instills a lot of responsibilities on us, but he's not a guy who micromanages."
The Aztecs' record this season belies the fact that baskets have been tough to come by. At times, the offense can stagnate, leading to isolation plays that Fisher's less-than-stellar shooters have difficulty converting. (SDSU is averaging a puny 10 assists per game, and shoot just 45 percent inside the arc.) If they pound the offensive glass and find creative ways to score, though, Dallas is absolutely within their grasp. And if not this spring, a Final Four berth should come sooner rather than later; their 2014 recruiting class is America's 12th best, according to Rivals.com, ranked higher than prestige destinations like Indiana and Syracuse. "Everyone talks about me going there," says Trey Kell, a sharpshooter from San Diego's St. Augustine High School, who passed up offers from Arizona and UCLA to stay at home next fall. "Everyone loves them."
Adam Doster is a freelance writer based in Chicago. His work about sports and sporting culture has appeared in ESPN the Magazine, The Classical, and the New York Times, among other publications.
Photo via AP