Posts Tagged ‘Fab Five Fish’

Steve Fisher has retired as San Diego State basketball coach and it certainly is the right time for his departure.

His final team wasn’t all that good — 19-14 to snap a streak of 11 straight 20-win campaigns — while playing in a Mountain West that was mediocre at best and now firmly entrenched as a one-bid league when it comes to the NCAA Tournament.

Several times this season, I tossed out social media comments that it would be Fab Five Fish’s final season. It just had that feeling about it.

Longtime assistant coach Brian Dutcher — one of the most genuinely nice people in college basketball — takes over the program.

Fisher, 72, went 386-209 in 18 seasons with the Aztecs and posted 12 20-win seasons and led the program to eight NCAA Tournament appearances, including a string of six straight.

Making six straight NCAA Tournament appearances was surreal for a program which was among the worst in the nation when Fisher was hired.

Remember, I was covering that awful program when Fisher was hired and he was far from the preferred target.

I broke the story that then-Utah coach Rick Majerus interviewed for the job and Majerus was close to taking it a few days later before he said no. Fran Fraschilla also was offered the job (nope, I didn’t break that one) as was then-Gonzaga coach Dan Monson (yep, broke that one and was waiting at the airport for his Sunday night flight to arrive and when he didn’t come out of the jet way, I knew that was a problem for San Diego State).

At that point, then-athletic director Rick Bay turned to Fisher, who was desperate to get back into college coaching. He had been fired at Michigan a few years earlier and I still remember how stunned I was upon meeting him that he had gray hair in 1999, just a few years after having a full head of brown hair while coaching the Wolverines.

The Aztecs were putrid in his first season and went 5-23 and then Fisher booted five inherited players off the team to free up scholarships.

Two seasons later, led by junior-college transfer Randy Holcomb, the Aztecs made the NCAA Tournament. Credibility had arrived for a program that previously had none.

Eventually, the 20-win seasons became an annual thing but there was still the matter of the program having ZERO NCAA Tournament wins. And you really don’t have a program if you’ve never won an NCAA Tournament game.

Finally, the Kawhi Leonard-led Aztecs had the best season in program history in 2010-11 with a 34-3 mark — a season that will still be the best in school history in 2117 if the world exists.

San Diego State finally got that elusive NCAA tourney win by beating Northern Colorado and eventually lost in the Sweet 16 to eventual national champion Connecticut. The Aztecs also topped 30 wins when they went 31-5 in 2013-14 and again reached the Sweet 16 before falling to Arizona.

If you haven’t figured it out, 30-win seasons aren’t supposed to be accomplishments achieved by the San Diego States of the college basketball landscape.

Last season’s final hurrah was not a good one for Fisher but he certainly elevated the program to heights nobody foresaw. Dutcher has been his right-hand man for all of those 18 seasons so the program philosophy won’t change.

The challenge for Dutcher is to have last season’s subpar campaign be an aberration. Once programs like San Diego State fall back into being just another mid-major program in a poor basketball league, it becomes harder to rise back up. Isn’t that right, UNLV?

But know this: Dutcher steps into a far better situation than the one Fisher inherited. The days where nobody cared that San Diego State even had a basketball program seems like centuries ago.

It was a good run for Steve Fisher but good for him to recognize that it was time for him to depart.

San Diego State has a better football program than it does a basketball program.

Repeat that sentence 10 times without smirking.

Then bust out in howling laughter.

Hard to believe such a thing is true but it is with Rocky Long’s team just one victory away from matching the school record for wins.

The football Aztecs (10-3) have won nine consecutive games and defeated Air Force in last Saturday’s Mountain West championship game. They will meet Cincinnati (7-5) in the Hawaii Bowl on Dec. 24.

They won all eight of their regular-season conference games by double digits. That is one hard feat.

And they nearly swept the conference’s major awards – and that is a super, duper hard feat.

Junior running back Donnel Pumphrey (1,554 rushing yards, 19 total touchdowns) was the Offensive Player of the Year, junior cornerback Damontae Kazee (seven interceptions) was the Defensive Player of the Year, sophomore Rashaad Penny (30.6 average on kickoff returns, two touchdowns) was the Special Teams Player of the Year and Long was named the Coach of the Year.

Long had to work some major magic after a 1-3 start that included a home loss to South Alabama. Not Nick Saban’s Alabama, something called South Alabama.

But he got the team turned around and now it is rolling.

Surely rolling better than during the eight years I was at practice every day covering a dogmeat program. Never once did San Diego State have a winning record with me patrolling the premises.

In fact, the last time the football Aztecs were better than the basketball Aztecs was because the hoopsters didn’t win a single conference game. That would be Steve Fisher’s first season as coach in 1999-2000.

But things haven’t started well for Fab Five Fish this season.

His team didn’t look like any of the recent hard-nosed squads when they lost at Utah. But worse, they had cupcake San Diego Christian up next and only won by 10.

That is the type of team the Aztecs have been beating by 30, 40 or 50 points over the past six to seven seasons.

Then they lost at home to Little Rock, scoring just 43 points. Losing to Little Rock – Little Rock! – anywhere is not good.

The beat down that occurred against West Virginia was even more alarming. Sure, the Mountaineers have a better program but who would expect them to drub the Aztecs by a score of 72-50 on a neutral floor?

And Sunday we got another reminder that these Aztecs aren’t all that solid. They trailed San Diego – known as USD locally – by 21 points in the well-hyped Petco Park contest and lost 53-48.

The Aztecs had beaten the Toreros nine straight times.

And yeah, Kansas is on the docket for Dec. 22. Not Little Kansas but real Kansas.

Real mad Kansas as coach Bill Self hasn’t forgotten losing at home to San Diego State two seasons ago.

Going to be a real big losing margin unless something changes quickly.

The Aztecs (6-4) could help themselves immensely by beating the Jayhawks. That would be a victory that would stand out come March in case San Diego State should be on the NCAA tournament bubble.

And as of right now, that sounds about right. There will surely be five or six upcoming defeats in conference play and San Diego State may have to win the Mountain West conference tourney to be part of the NCAA tournament.

Right now, these Aztecs are NIT material. And that is a fact.

Freshman point guard Jeremy Hemsley (12.8) is the lone player averaging in double digits. Senior forward Winston Shepard (9.1) is once again underperforming and sophomore forward Malik Pope (6.1) has to be frustrating the tar out of Fisher.

I sat in on practices dozens of times a season during Fisher’s first eight seasons as coach. You always knew who he felt wasn’t giving the proper effort or didn’t have the right focus.

Something tells me Pope – who actually considered leaving for the NBA after his underwhelming freshman season – is the recipient of many exasperated comments.

Pope is supposed to be a shooter, right? Check this out – he’s shooting 29.2 percent from the field.

Repeat – 29.2 percent.

And NBA scouts think he’s a draftable player? He wouldn’t get selected in the Top 5 picks at the local YMCA based on that kind of misfiring.

The authorities would come take away his shooting license.

So there you go, it is the basketball program that is playing second fiddle.

Could it be the start of a trend? Probably not.

But I used to cover 20-point basketball losses with regularity. Those Aztecs hoopsters were annually among the worst teams in the nations.

Nobody foresaw that change coming.

So who knows whether another changing of the campus guard is about to occur.