Courtside with SDSU's Steve Fisher - the architect of the Aztecs' success
by TERRI STANLEY
Published - 03/11/16 - 02:21 PM | 0 0 comments | 4 4 recommendations | email to a friend | print
It may look like SDSU's Viejas Arena, but it's not – it's Steve Fisher's classroom, site of the day's most important curriculum. 	PHOTO CONTRIBUTED
It may look like SDSU's Viejas Arena, but it's not – it's Steve Fisher's classroom, site of the day's most important curriculum. PHOTO CONTRIBUTED
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Steve Fisher
Steve Fisher
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As soon as Steve Fisher sits down in his office at the Fowler Athletic Center at San Diego State University, he starts a story about how he met his mentor Rob Ades, who died two years ago at age 65 of leukemia.

Fisher, head coach of the SDSU men’s basketball team, says he shared a love of the game with Ades, a prominent Washington, D.C., lawyer who represented many basketball players and coaches as well as the Washington police union. Ades was known as a guy who could get things done and a tough negotiator — a good person to have on your side.

After winning basketball's National Invitational Tournament in 1997 and taking the University of Michigan team to the NCAA tournament six times with a national championship in '89, Fisher was fired as head coach over an off-court scandal, a decision that sent shock waves through the college basketball community and is still debated today.

Fisher says he and his wife, Angie, were at a low point in their life, and they credit Ades with helping them out.

In fact, Fisher says, it was Ades who stepped in and advised Fisher to pull himself together, because not only was he going to get through this but he was going to get a better job. After a one-year stint in the NBA with the Sacramento Kings, that “job” Ades referred to was leading the SDSU men’s basketball team to national prominence. The team, which closed out this season's record at 23-8, was the No.1 seed going into the Mountain West tournament and was led by two outstanding seniors, Winston Shepard and Skylar Spencer. who received an emotional farewell after their last regular season game from Aztec fans and faculty.

(The Aztecs eliminated UNLV from tournament play on March 5 in Las Vegas and opened the event by clawing their way to a win over the Utah State Aggies, 71-65, on March 10.)

Ades negotiated an initial seven-year contract with SDSU for Fisher in 1999, and the rest is history. Fisher’s stats are more than impressive – he has led the Aztecs to the NCAA tournament seven times, including six consecutive NCAA bids, Sweet Sixteen appearances in 2011 and 2014, four Mountain West Conference wins, nine 20-win seasons and... the list goes on.

Fisher got the time he needed

Fisher and Angie have lived in Del Mar since 1999 and have two sons, Mark and Jay. Mark was assistant basketball coach to the Aztecs for seven years before being diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's Disease. He has worked closely with his father for years and continues to do so in a different capacity.

A college basketball coach of Fisher’s caliber and expertise was in the right place at the right time. San Diego desperately needed a coach to build a winning team, and Fisher needed a place where he would be given the time to do it, says Siena College basketball coach Jimmy Patsos, a friend of Fisher’s who also counted Ades as a vital coach and mentor.

With the arrival of Fisher came wild success and money to a once-dying basketball program. Fisher, who turns 71 March 24, negotiated another three-year contract with SDSU. The team was on fire this season, and its head coach is juggling a million balls in the air as he and the Aztecs are in pursuit of yet another slot at the 2016 NCAA tournament.

But before the NCAA bracket match-ups were to be announced, Fisher is still thinking about how he got to SDSU and his friend, Ades, who brought him here. It was Ades who got Michigan to fulfill its financial obligations to Fisher. Ades wasn’t only being a good lawyer; he was a good (and persuasive) friend, Fisher says.

Late bloomer

As much as the fans of SDSU men’s team have come to believe a team led by Fisher is destined to be a winner, his long and successful career as a college basketball coach wasn’t always an obvious path. Fisher started later than most of his peers — he didn’t get to the college level until age 37 — and credits his father for paving the way. His father had always wanted to be a teacher and coach, but World War II got in the way. With a wife and four kids, he ended up taking a job he hated just for the paycheck. But he coached whenever he could, including Little League teams and grade-school teams, and he gave his son some valuable advice along the way.

“I have always wanted to be a high school teacher and a coach,” Fisher says. “My dad was my first coach, and he and my junior high coach were the ones who shaped what I would do. In my high school yearbook, they put my nickname, ‘Fish – likes psychology and trig, doesn’t like to get up in the morning, plans to be a teacher-coach.’ In my era, you didn’t go to college, be a grad assistant and stay in the college — nobody thought about doing that. My dad told me to be sure to major in something that separates you. Math was easy for me, so I majored in phys ed, double-minored in drivers ed, which everybody did, and math, which nobody did.

“I was hired for my first job by Les Wothke, head basketball coach for Rich East High School, because I could teach math. I was assistant coach to Les, and I loved where I was. Angie and I were married in August of 1974, bought our first house, and four years later, Mark was born. I didn’t have a resume in hand and wasn’t looking for a job. In March of 1979, Les moved on to be head coach at Western Michigan College, and he calls me and says 'Let’s go, I need an assistant coach.' I went because it was Les. That’s how I really got to the college level… that’s why, Les Wothke.”

Players today

Fisher has been at SDSU for 17 years and has coached college basketball for more than 34. His first job as assistant at Western Michigan was during the heart of the Vietnam Wa,r and there were protests all over the country. His players had long hair, and anti-establishment views were very fashionable at the time. Though the times have changed, Fisher doesn’t see a big change in the kids themselves. But he does see one big difference.

“People want instant gratification,” he says. “They’re not willing to wait in line or wait their turn. And it’s reflected in college basketball.” Fisher notes that 40 percent of freshman players are gone by their sophomore year, usually because they transfer to get more playing time. “The way I see it, kids are kids — they want structure, they want to be taught, they want to know you care and they want you to prove that you care. Back then, the kids would say, ‘Coach, don’t just tell me because, tell me why,’ and it’s the same way with kids now. Trust and respect are earned, we tell our players – you earn it; it’s not given just because; you earn it. I earn it as a coach, and you earn it as a player.”

'It's not me; it's we'

Fisher attributes his approach to coaching to his passion for teaching. He establishes a relationship with his players right away and constantly talks to them about expectations of themselves and of the team. There is a big emphasis on commitment and Fisher’s philosophy is all about doing your best — if you do, all boats will rise.

“We’re no different than other teams. We all do a lot of the same things. But in this program, there are some basic things that we do every day with our team. I don’t have a million rules, but the rules that we have are important — on time all the time, respect, try your hardest, stay out of trouble, be for the team. We don’t assume that because you can run and jump you know how to play. We teach – the Viejas arena is my classroom.

“Whether it’s from 3 to 6 or 1 to 4, it’s the most important class these kids will have all day.”

TRUISMS

The following are a few roles to live by from SDSU men's basketball coach Steve Fisher.

Family First: My wife Angie and I have been married for 41 years and have been blessed with two sons, Mark and Jay. She was a teacher, and she’s allowed me to be a better teacher and coach because she’s got a perspective, and I listen to what she says on a whole host of things. I tell our players: If you haven’t called home, you better do it – if you don’t call home at least once a week, something’s wrong.

The Team: In coaching, we have the word in our locker room — the team, the team, the team. If you will give of yourself and play for others and strive to be the ultimate teammate, you will be better, and we as a group will be better.

Thought of the Day: A sure sign of old age is when regret replaces dreams. I’ve had a lot of disappointments along the line, but I have enjoyed every moment of my tenure here.

Pet Peeve: The chronic complainer. Sometimes, I just laugh — I listen to talk radio; 95 percent is all negative. People call to complain — rarely do they call to talk about something good. It’s always something that they don’t like. We talk about energy takers and energy givers. I don’t like energy takers.

Guilty Pleasure: Buttered popcorn after Angie goes to bed.
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