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San Diego State's Steve Fisher finds his way back, and it's fab

He is poised to make an NCAA tournament Final Four run with No. 2-seeded Aztecs at the same time his 'Fab Five' Michigan team is back in the news. He embraces legacy and this special season.

March 16, 2011|Chris Dufresne
  • San Diego State Coach Steve Fisher is hoping he can be part of another memorable run in the NCAA tournament.
San Diego State Coach Steve Fisher is hoping he can be part of another memorable… (Ethan Miller / Getty Images )

From Tucson — The "Fab Five" is back in the news and Steve Fisher is preparing a team for another possible Final Four run, but this isn't 1992 or '93 — and this for sure isn't Michigan.

The players still wear droopy shorts — the most indelible contribution made by Chris Webber and Co., but Fisher's hair has turned a silvery gray.

He is 65 now and Michigan is a far-away, fading asterisk — home of the taken-down banners. Fisher was canned in 1997 for being the responsible CEO of a program rocked by scandal. He was never directly implicated in knowing about the wad of cash booster Ed Martin handed out, but Fisher certainly had access to the gym.

Fisher's part of the story might have ended there.

Then, in 1999, he entered a witness protection program called San Diego State basketball, the Aztecs coming off a 4-22 season.

The most famous player in the program had been Tony Gwynn, who still shares the school's single-game assist record at 18.

2011 NCAA men's basketball championship brackets

Fisher, though, methodically pulled basketball out of the mush pit and showed up at a news conference in advance of Thursday's game against Northern Colorado with six straight 20-win seasons and a 12-year record of 230-151.

His present intersected with his past this week when ESPN's documentary on the "Fab Five" aired just after the NCAA selection committee seeded San Diego State, 32-3, as a No. 2 in the West.

Fisher said he watched a "rough" advance copy of "Fab Five" last week.


"I smiled," he said at the McKale Center, the arena where the "Fab Five" overcame a 19-point deficit to upset UCLA in the second round in 1993. "It brought back a lot of memories. I enjoyed it. I thought it was a good portrayal of who they were, what happened."

Fisher's current players hardly knew of Webber, Jimmy King, Jalen Rose, Juwan Howard and Ray Jackson.

So they watched the film too.

"I didn't know too much about the Fab Five," Aztecs star forward Kawhi Leonard said. "I just knew they were all freshmen and they went far in the tournament."

Teammate Malcolm Thomas: "I just remember long shorts, black socks and they were the best team I've seen."

The "Fab Five" lost the title games of 1992 (to Duke) and 1993 (North Carolina).

Now it's time for a different brand of "fabulous."

San Diego State is actually seeded higher than Michigan was when the No. 6 Wolverines entered the 1992 tournament.

This is red-carpet stuff, the Aztecs.

San Diego State didn't have to take a red-eye to Dayton or connect through Chicago on its way to Cleveland.

These Aztecs have been skid-greased through Tucson, only a hop, skip and jump shots from next week's West Regional in Anaheim.

San Diego State has yet to win an NCAA tournament game but is poised to become 1-6 when it faces Big Sky tournament champion Northern Colorado on Thursday.

No. 2 owns a 100-4 record against No. 15 in the tournament. The last time a No. 2 spit the seed was 2001, when Hampton shocked Iowa State.

What could happen?

OK, this:

In 2008, Northern Colorado came to San Diego and whipped the Aztecs, a fact Fisher has mentioned 200 or 300 times this week.

Think about it, though.

It took Fisher six games to win his only NCAA title at Michigan, in 1989, when he was famously pushed on the tournament stage after Bill Frieder was fired for taking the Arizona State job.

Fisher's 12 years at San Diego State have been the opposite of that head rush.

"They said at Michigan he was handed it," Aztecs point guard D.J. Gay said. "But he built this, here, at San Diego State. Nobody can take that away from him."

It was interesting timing, Fisher and the Fab Five, more than 20 years later, reuniting this week.

What strikes you in watching the documentary is how happily Fisher is involved in it.

Webber refused to participate, for understandable reasons. He called the timeout Michigan didn't have in the 1993 title game against North Carolina and was the center of a federal indictment involving Martin.

Fisher, though, acted as if he were the film's co-producer.

For better and worse, he knows Michigan is part of his legacy.

"I think that's the way he's always been," said Mark Fisher, Steve's son and an Aztecs assistant coach. "It was what it was. It's so positive in our memories and our minds. That time was magical and wonderful, regardless of where the banners were stored. It was an amazing period in college basketball. And we were right there, front-row seat."

Mark Fisher, standing in the hallway outside of San Diego State's locker room, said people make too big a deal about his dad's coaching resurgence.

He sees Michigan-to-San Diego State as more of a continuum.

Then he paused and thought about it.

"Obviously, this has been a really special season," he said. "We've absolutely embraced and cherished and cherished and appreciated this year, it's been amazing."

San Diego State has allowed Fisher to separate himself from the less-flattering images of Michigan. He also dispelled the notion he was a two-hit coaching wonder.

Fisher's work at San Diego State has percolated from the ground up — and he's been scandal-free in his dozen years.

"I believed with all my heart that I would coach beyond Michigan after I got fired," Fisher said. "…I think I would have gotten another opportunity someplace else, but who knows whether we could have had the magical opportunity that we're having now?"

Isn't it Fab?

"I closed my eyes and said, 'I think we can be pretty good here,' " Fisher said. "How good is pretty good? I don't know that I ever thought about that."

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