One of the best parts about the NCAA college basketball tournament is that it allows relative unknowns to rise from obscurity, open some eyes and earn a place in college hoops history. Steve Fisher can attest to that.
In 1989, Fisher took over the University of Michigan basketball team right before the tournament began. Six games later, Fisher was a national champion. He had gone from an unknown assistant to a national champion practically overnight.
From there, Fisher brought in one of the greatest recruiting classes in the history of college sports on his way to reaching two more national championship games (albeit both losses) and another Elite Eight appearance.
Fisher, with some help from a little recruiting class called the Fab Five, helped transform the Wolverines into a national powerhouse.
Unfortunately for him, however, a scandal rocked the program. While Fisher was never implicated as doing anything wrong, he was held accountable. He was the caretaker, he was viewed as negligent, and ultimately, the scapegoat. He was fired in 1997.
Just as quick as he rose to stardom — stardom many thought he didn’t deserve after he was more or less handed a national championship — he was gone. Back into the large pool of basketball obscurity.
From the collegiate athletic prominence of Ann Arbor, Fisher was forced to settle at San Diego State, a school better known for Tony Gwynn, Marshall Faulk and beautiful weather, than for anything having to do with a basketball. But still, San Diego State was willing to give Fisher a chance in 1999. More than a decade later, Fisher has the Aztecs looking like geniuses.
While it didn’t happen overnight, Fisher helped oversee a SDSU transition from scheduling cupcake to legitimate national title contender.
If there was ever a situation to juxtapose his tenure in Michigan, San Diego State was it. Instead of inheriting a team that was ready to win a national title, he took over a team that had won four games the previous year. Instead of being able to recruit blue-chip prospects like Jalen Rose, Juwan Howard and Chris Webber, Fisher had to piece together the recruiting process.
Slowly, but surely, Fisher took the Aztecs from the rubble, and he made them not only better, but relevant, too. In the four seasons preceding this one, the Aztecs averaged over 23 wins a season, winning no fewer than 20 in a single campaign.
Then, 2010-11 struck. Even as Jimmer Fredette, Brandon Davies and BYU got all of the attention in the Mountain West, Fisher’s team won the majority of its games. The Aztecs won 29 regular-season games, and they won the Mountain West, spending much of the season in the top 10.
They also picked up the first and second NCAA tournament wins in school history. Now, Fisher has an opportunity to really prove how much he’s done in San Diego.
Up next for the Aztecs is arguably the country’s hottest team: Connecticut. Like Fredette, the Aztecs will have to worry about slowing another dynamic player: Kemba Walker. Fisher will have his hands full as well, game-planning for Jim Calhoun, a proven tournament coach.
And, speaking of proven tournament coaches, if SDSU can get through UConn, it may set up a must-see showdown between Fisher and Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski. Coach K’s Blue Devils denied Fisher an NCAA title in the first year of the Fab Five.
A San Diego State-Duke game would be a not-so-subtle reminder of Fisher’s past, and where he’s come from to get to where he is now. And where he is now is just one stretch of terrific basketball away from grabbing another national championship. That, too, is something he’s pretty familiar with.
Somehow, though, you gotta think that if the Aztecs can stay hot, this run from obscurity may mean a little more to Fisher than the last one.
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