SAN DIEGO — If anyone thought Steve Fisher was still living in the shadow of Michigan's Fab Five, they haven't been paying attention to what he's done at San Diego State.
Although it's taken 12 years, Fisher has transformed a backwater program into a top-10 team and San Diego into a basketball town. Montezuma Mesa has become the place to be, as the Aztecs, laden with Californians, play before loud, sellout crowds. Their ultimate goal is to finally win a game in the NCAA tournament.
Sitting in his corner office overlooking Viejas Arena, Fisher contemplates the transformation in both his career and at SDSU, which was 26-1 and ranked No. 6 going into Saturday's game at Air Force.
Someone recently told Fisher that he's still viewed as a Michigan man. True, Fisher always will be associated with Bo Schembechler's blustery declaration that "a Michigan man will coach Michigan, not an Arizona State man," after Bill Frieder announced on the eve of the 1989 NCAA tournament that he'd accepted the job at ASU.
"My response was, 'Not here. Not in San Diego,' " said Fisher, who led Michigan to the 1989 national title. "I've been in San Diego now for 12 years, I've been a head coach at San Diego State longer than I was at Michigan. And here they view me as a San Diego State man."
This is SDSU's sixth straight 20-win season and seventh overall under Fisher.
"What we've done, because of our success, we've gotten this national attention now to where people back in the Midwest and all over, are saying, 'Boy, this is a team. This might be the best team since the Fab Five,' " Fisher added. "I don't want to make those kind of statements, but we're proud of the fact that we're selling this building out and we've got a team that's being talked about. We've got a team for the first time ever ranked nationally and yet, our goal is to get to the tournament and win a game in the tournament. That's how neophyte we are in terms of postseason success. And that's our goal."
What Fisher has done at SDSU is remarkable. Hired in 1999, two years after he was fired at Michigan, he inherited a team that won only four games the previous season. His first team went 5-23, including 0-14 in the Mountain West and winless away from San Diego.
Now, with a team led by senior point guard D.J. Gay and sophomore forward Kawhi Leonard, Fisher has obliterated that sad-sack image. When the Aztecs appeared at No. 25 in the preseason Associated Press Top 25, it marked their first-ever ranking. They reached No. 4 before losing to Jimmer Fredette and BYU on Jan. 26 in Provo, prompting Cougars fans to rush the court. The rematch, which has been sold out for weeks, is Feb. 26 at 12,414-seat Viejas Arena.
Frieder, now a radio analyst, lives part-time in Del Mar, where Fisher lives, and often attends SDSU games.
"You know what? I'm tired of talking about Michigan and the Fab Five," Frieder said. "That's almost 20 years ago for him. There's a perception out there, unfortunately, and I think this vindicates him. They should be talking about the job he's doing at San Diego State. I've followed this program for years. This place was a morgue. He took a place that was a morgue and made it the eighth wonder of the world, as far as I'm concerned."
SDSU has had 11 sellouts this season at Viejas, where the student section, known as "The Show," sets a raucous tone. The Aztecs had eight sellouts total in the previous 13 seasons at the arena.
"I think he's got a great team," Frieder said. "If he can keep them healthy, I think they're going to go deep in the tournament. They're Butler of a year ago. They've got a solid chance to go deep."
Butler reached the championship game before losing to Duke.
SDSU, on the other hand, is 0-6 in the NCAA tournament, including three losses under Fisher.
Fisher has built a team with a decidedly California feel. His starting five has one San Diegan, senior forward Malcolm Thomas, who's in his second season at SDSU after transferring from Pepperdine. Gay is from the Los Angeles suburb of Sun Valley and Leonard is from Riverside. Sophomore guard Chase Tapley is from Sacramento, leaving senior forward Billy White of Las Vegas as the only out-of-stater among the five.
Another San Diegan, backup guard James Rahon, transferred from Santa Clara. There are four other players from California on the 12-man roster.
"It was not exclusively by design and yet, I think no matter where you are, you're better served recruiting a smaller circle and kind of keep it going," Fisher said. "So, if there were enough people right here in San Diego that we felt could help us win, we would go no further, because those are the ones that you have the best shots at. The closer you are, all things close to equal, the better served you are. That was kind of our theme — stay in California, stay in the West, selectively recruit nationally, that sort of thing."
Fisher often has said that while Gay might not be the team's best player, he's certainly its most important player. Two weeks ago at Colorado State, the Rams tied the game with 10 seconds left. Fisher decided not to call a timeout and left it up to Gay to make a play. He dribbled down the court and hit an 18-foot fadeaway jumper with 1.8 seconds left for a 56-54 win.
SDSU's best player is Leonard, whose huge hands gather in seemingly every rebound in sight. Leonard has 18 double-doubles this season and 35 in his career.
"We recruited him harder and better than anybody," Fisher said. "I know that's bragging, but we did. We watched him practice, we saw more games than anybody."
Leonard said he also was recruited by Arizona, Arizona State, UCLA, USC and Michigan.
"I just had a feeling for the school," Leonard said about SDSU. "Since my junior year they were the first school that started recruiting me hard. I came down here for unofficials, got with their players, just liked their players, the way they acted around me. They brought me in, loved me, just brought me in like I was a teammate already."
"Other schools, like UCLA, I wasn't their main option to get first," Leonard said. "I was kind of their second option. If they didn't get another player and I still was left around, they probably would've signed me. I wasn't just their main focus point. Here at San Diego State, they wanted me here. They weren't trying to get somebody else ahead of me."
Fans are keeping their fingers crossed that Leonard goes to the NBA later rather than sooner.
"When I hear it I just smile and just keep walking," he said of the NBA talk. "I'm just serious about being a college basketball player right now and focusing on our team and getting our next win. It's not even a thought right now."
Fisher continues to do well bringing in transfers. Senior center Brian Carlwell also is a transfer, having spent his first two seasons at Illinois.
Early on, Fisher recruited anyone who would let him in the door.3 comments on this story
"A lot of them wanted me to come in initially because of where we came from," he said. "They wanted to hear about the Fab Five, their parents did. We talked to a lot of people. Sometimes you get to know them and they go someplace else and it doesn't quite work out and they remember us. That's another reason to make sure you get into some homes and make sure you get on somebody's short list, even though you know in your heart that you better have three others because we've got an outside, outside chance to get him. But we still recruit him."
The Fab Five, the most famous group in Michigan basketball history, led the Wolverines to the national title game as freshmen in 1992, and repeated the feat as sophomores in 1993. Because of forward Chris Webber's involvement with booster Ed Martin, the school has vacated the records from both seasons.
Gay hopes Fisher gets as much credit for his work at SDSU as he did with Michigan.
"He's done a great job here in building this program," Gay said. "This city has become a circus now with all the success we're having this season. He's probably the most popular guy in San Diego."