Steve Fisher always said he didn’t want a protracted farewell tour, didn’t want a string of pre-game ceremonies with rocking chairs and golf clubs and misty speeches.
He wanted to go out on his terms, wanted to walk into his athletic director one morning and, out of the blue, tell him he was retiring.
And that’s what he did Monday.
San Diego State’s legendary basketball coach walked into John David Wicker’s office at 9 a.m. and informed him he is retiring at age 72 after 50 years of patrolling the sideline, beginning as a math teacher and JV coach at Rich East High in Park Forest, Ill., and ending with 18 unfathomably successful seasons on Montezuma Mesa.
SDSU scheduled a news conference for Tuesday afternoon to make the formal announcement and introduce Brian Dutcher, his longtime assistant and “head coach in waiting” since 2011, as his successor. Mark Fisher, his son, is expected to remain with the program as a special assistant, while the other assistant coaches will each move over one seat.
Fisher, Dutcher and other SDSU officials were unavailable or declined immediate comment. But the basketball community couldn’t stop talking, wistfully and reverently, about the man who transformed the sport in the land of palm trees and fish tacos.
“Coach Fisher changed basketball in San Diego forever,” said Brad Holland, the former USD coach who is currently CEO of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Carlsbad. “He came into a program that was really down, wasn’t winning, couldn’t find a winning formula, and he revolutionized it with his leadership, his recruiting, his coaching.
“It’s just very impressive, really in a short amount of time, to create a winning culture where many people thought it could never happen. He had a vision, a unique vision, when others did not. He looked at it and said: Why can’t this program be successful?”
Added Aerick Sanders, who was among Fisher’s first recruits at SDSU and now is an assistant coach at New Mexico State: “It was the best decision of my life to go to San Diego State and play for him. Coach Fisher is a legend for now and forever. I’m expecting to see a statue of him outside of Viejas Arena one day.”
While he was acting like he was staying, however, he wasn’t talking like it. When asked about returning for a 19th season at SDSU during the Final Four in Phoenix, he remained eerily noncommittal to both strangers and close friends alike. “I haven’t decided,” he kept saying.
Another clue was comments about whether disappointment over ending a 11-year streak of postseason appearances and 20-win seasons would drive him to coach another year, not wanting to leave on a sour note. His response: “It has no impact on our decision. If we were 34-3, it wouldn’t be any different.”
For the last several years, Fisher would wait until his annual trip with wife Angie to their Florida condo to, as he put it, “sit on the porch and talk about the future.” His trip this year was pushed back to May, but he and Angie began talking earlier.
Correctly reading those tea leaves was Marvin Menzies, hired onto Fisher’s first SDSU staff in 1999 and now the head coach at rival UNLV. He privately told people in recent weeks that he wasn’t so sure his mentor would return.
“We’re close, and there were subtle hints and innuendos that led me to believe he may choose to enjoy the rest of his life in a different way,” Menzies said Monday by phone from Las Vegas. “It was a gut feeling I had. But I’m sure it was something he struggled with. I’m sure this was something he examined methodically, because that’s the way he is.
“There’s no way this was a quick or rushed decision. This was well thought out. This is what he wants to do.”
Dutcher was named head coach in waiting in 2011 and had been working on the framework of a five-year contract for when, or if, Fisher left. That process will be accelerated now.
Little else will change, though. Justin Hutson will assume the associate head coach position previously occupied by Dutcher, and Dave Velasquez move from the No. 3 to No. 2 assistant. Tim Shelton, currently the director of player personnel, is the most likely candidate to become the third assistant coach.
The roster figures to remain largely in tact. Fisher confirmed Monday that Malik Pope will return for his senior season. NCAA rules allow incoming freshmen to obtain a release from their letter of intent if the head coach leaves, but both SDSU recruits — Jordan Schakel from Bishop Montgomery in Torrance and Adam Seiko from Sierra Canyon in Chatsworth — indicated in texts that they remain fully committed.
“Yes, I am!” Schakel said.
Fisher’s head coaching career in college began as suddenly and unexpectedly as it ended — an emergency replacement on the eve of the NCAA Tournament when Michigan’s athletic director fired Bill Frieder after learning he had accepted a job at Arizona State for the following season. The red-cheeked Fisher guided the Wolverines to six straight wins and, magically, the national championship.
He was fired at Michigan in 1997 amid a booster scandal despite never being directly implicated in a comprehensive university investigation. The Wolverines’ loss became the Aztecs’ gain in 1999, and a moribund program ascended to heights previously unimaginable.
The Aztecs would go 5-23 in his first season … and then reach eight NCAA Tournaments — including six in a row — and win 10 Mountain West regular-season or tournament titles. His best team was 2010-11, which finished 34-3, was ranked as high as No. 4 in the major polls and lost a close game in the Sweet 16 to eventual national champion Connecticut.
His career achievements as a head coach: 26 seasons, 570 victories, 22 postseason appearances, 15 NCAA Tournament berths, three Final Fours, two national coach of the year awards and one NCAA title.
For the past two seasons, he has coached on a slab of hardwood at Viejas Arena that bears his name: “Steve Fisher Court.”
Frieder, the man who hired him at Michigan and a Del Mar resident, ended his coaching career at age 55 and has been a daily reminder of the joys of retirement.
“I told him many times that he’s going to wake up in the fall and enjoy not doing this,” said Frieder, who remains among Fisher’s closest friends. “He’ll have more time to spend with Angie and his family. He’ll have plenty of offers – radio, TV, businesses. He’ll have tons to do. He’ll be so busy that in three or four years, he’ll have to retire from retiring.
“I think he made the right decision. He had a tremendous, tremendous career. In my estimation, he’s a Hall of Fame coach. Now he can enjoy life and not have the pressure of big-time college athletics.”
D.J. Gay was the point guard on that 34-3 team and now runs a youth basketball club in San Diego with 24 teams while also coaching high school.
“Coach Fisher was a mentor, a father figure,” Gay said. “He was someone, not just for me but my teammates as well, who you never wanted to disappoint. With parents, the worst thing you can hear is: ‘I’m disappointed in you.’ It’s something we never wanted to hear from Coach Fisher.
“He taught me how to be a leader and to lead the right way, what it meant to be a point guard and put a team on your back and lead by example. He’s helped shape me into the man I am today.”
Article Written By: Mark Zeigler/ San Diego Union- Tribune