Wednesday, March 12, 2014

EXCLUSIVE: San Diego State Coach Steve Fisher's Private Acts of Kindness Pay Dividends on the Court

San Diego State Coach Steve Fisher - ESPN
Back in 2008, I caught a rare and revealing glimpse of the personal side of San Diego State University basketball coach Steve Fisher. Kelvin Davis, an SDSU player at the time, had just been diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma (cancer). When Fisher heard the news, he called me and asked if I would please talk to Kelvin and send him a copy of my book on lymphoma survivors. Fisher knew that I'd fought a similar type of lymphoma (non-Hodgkin's) and he wanted me to give Kelvin some encouragement that he could beat this disease.

Fisher said Kelvin was having a rough time with the news, as anyone would. I told him I was honored to receive the call and was more than happy to speak to Kelvin and send him the book, which I did. 
I was immediately impressed with the quiet courage possessed by Davis, who successfully fought his cancer and was the worthy recipient of the 2009 U.S. Basketball Writers Association's "Most Courageous Award." 

Fisher's compassion was deeply moving. I was frankly floored that he sought me out the way he did. He and I had never spoken. I'm not sure how he found out about my book, and I don't think he knew that I went to San Diego State or that I was a diehard Aztecs fan. None of that mattered. We didn't talk basketball. This was about his genuine concern and affection for one of his players.

Fisher, who was unfairly maligned back in Michigan, where for the record he was exonerated, is the real deal. It's become a cliche' to describe a coach as a father figure to his young players, but in Fisher's case it is so glaringly true. He's a class act, a quality person, a role model for youth, and this year he's shown yet again what a great coach he is. 

SDSU's Steve Fisher & Kelvin Davis
And that makes it all the more infuriating to read the story this week by ESPN's Dana O'Neil in which O'Neil asks a bunch of college basketball coaches nationwide who should be named national Coach of the Year. Of the 22 coaches anonymously queried, 11 said Wichita State's Gregg Marshall should get the nod, three picked Florida's Billy Donovan and two chose Cincinnati's Mick Cronin, while Creighton's Greg McDermott, Virginia's Tony Bennett, Villanova's Jay Wright, SMU's Larry Brown, Kansas' Bill Self and Michigan's John Beilein received one vote apiece.

Inexplicably, not a single coach chose Fisher, who's unquestionably earned this award over all of these good coaches above. The case for Fisher as Coach of the Year in 2014 is pretty open-and-shut, really. But neither the coaches in this story nor O'Neil even mention him as a candidate, let alone a deserving winner. That's laughable.

No one expected much this year from the Aztecs, who lost more than 60 percent of their offense from last season as well as more than 50 percent of their rebounding and assists. This was expected to be a transition year, a year to rebuild while the school awaited the highly touted recruiting class coming in next season. The Aztecs were picked to finish fourth in the Mountain West Conference. Instead, they shocked the nation by winning the conference title on Saturday. The team is currently ranked 7th in the nation and hoping for a 2 or 3 seed in the NCAA Tournament. 

No other coach has come close to accomplishing what Fisher has this season. Wichita State's Marshall? No. The Shockers' undefeated season is impressive, sure, but they haven't played anybody! Great team, yes. But who didn't expect them to be very successful with a cupcake Missouri Valley Conference schedule and a core group of players returning this year from a team that last year made it to the Final Four?

Kansas coach Self? No. He's done a terrific job with a young Jayhawks team. But Kansas is a basketball institution. Recruiting there is a heck of a lot easier than recruiting to San Diego State -- though that is quickly changing. And need I remind you that Fisher's Aztecs beat Kansas on its home floor this season? That's a rare achievement. The better coach won.

No one is really shocked by the Shockers or Jayhawks' success this year. But this Aztec team surprised everybody -- even Fisher. Despite the team's confounding shooting woes all season - and perhaps even because of them - San Diego State is by far the best story in college basketball in 2014. It's hard to overstate just how much this team, which finished the regular season 27-3, had to overcome with an offense that struggled as much it did. This squad plays absolutely ferocious, stifling defense and just finds ways to win. 

I admit that I am not an entirely objective writer here. But this Aztec team is the most determined and inspirational group of college basketball players I've seen since the legendary North Carolina State's "Cardiac Pack" that won a very unlikely national championship in 1983 for Coach Jim Valvano, who of course we sadly lost to cancer in 1993.

This San Diego State team has that kind of heart. They do the seemingly impossible. They overcame a 16-point deficit with 12 minutes remaining in the second half to win on Saturday against an imposing 20th-ranked New Mexico team. And a huge reason why SDSU won that game is because these guys are so well coached. They play hard and they play with confidence in part because they know their coach has got their backs.

I've said many times that Fisher is not the best circles-and-arrows coach in the nation. But there is no coach anywhere in this country who is more loved and respected by his players. And trust me, players will perform at a higher level if they feel their coach respects them as young men and cares about them as individuals. When a coach shows kindness, compassion and respect it often pays dividends on the court.

I know Fisher feels this way about these "kids." I've witnessed it first-hand. He is a decent man. And he's smart. His switch in the second half on Saturday to a rare 1-3-1 zone to combat New Mexico's dominant big men was evidence of that. It was an assistant coach's idea, but Fisher realized it was the right move, and he made it. That changed the entire game and was the catalyst for the best comeback in recent college basketball history.

And yet not a single basketball coach or ESPN journalist even puts Fisher into the conversation as Coach of the Year? Are you kidding me? Now that is March Madness! 

Despite these coaches' myopia and utter cluelessness, however, the honors began to roll in this week for Fisher, who captured his third Mountain West Coach-of-the-Year Award in the last four seasons. The 15th-year head coach led SDSU to its highest conference win total in school history (16) and helped SDSU win its league-leading eighth league title.

For me, Steve Fisher is an easy pick as national Coach of the Year. He's a great basketball coach. And far more importantly, he is a good man. But don't for a minute think that the two aren't connected. Fisher's kindness and character could escort him and his team far this month, and perhaps next.


  1. Great article ... As a 2nd semester junior at Michigan, I remember meeting with Coach Fisher in 1989 right after his National Championship run with Glen Rice & Co. I basically thought I was good enough to make the next year's team and asked him for a walk-on tryout. Not only did he make the time to meet with me personally, but he gave me a tryout date to boot. He didn't have to do either, and I remain impressed to this day with how kind he was to me back then. I fractured my wrist and a vertebra in my lower back preparing for that tryout, so never got to play for him, and yet I am simply thrilled that such a class act is having such well-deserved success these days.

    1. thanks for sharing that story. why stay anonymous? i am sure many people would like to know who you are. thanks.

    2. No need for anyone to know who I am ... It's much better to keep the focus where it belongs: on Coach Fisher. I did go one to play pro-ball for a mid-level team in Europe for a few years after graduating from Michigan, and yet was & always will be only a "big fish in a small pond" as far as basketball is/was concerned ... ;) ... Thanks again for the classy article about a classy guy.

  2. Huge fan of Coash Fisher. While he's done great things at SDSU, I'll always remember him as a Michigan guy, the '89 champion, and the father of the Fab Five.

    1. yes, but he's an aztec now, and in many ways this is the pinnacle and highlight of his coaching career. what he has done at san diego state these past 15 years is nothing short of remarkable. he turned one of the worst basketball programs in the nation into one of the best.

    2. Good article. Steve Fisher's non-inclusion in the CoY conversation is more inexplicable than Southern Methodist being snubbed by the selection committee. More inspiring is the way he genuinely cares for his players. Wish the Aztecs (were they serious abount joining the old Big East?) all the best.

  3. Steve Fisher is simply a wonderful human being and the issue of his ranking in highly a subjective beauty pageant like winning COY honors is insignificant compared to who he is and what he does as a person. A few years ago our adult son was recovering from the first of two cranial surgeries at Johns Hopkins Hospital to correct and extremely debilitating but fortunately rare condition known as superior canal dehisence syndrome (SCDS). One of his friends who is on Fisher's staff invited us to a closed practice which was a thrill for us as very long time Aztec fans and season ticket holders for three sports. Soon after we took our seats in the arena, the players and staff began gradually filing in to stretch and warm-up, followed by Coach Fisher who conferred with his assistants for a few minutes. He then looked up to the seating area, left the floor and began climbing up the stairs, entering our row to introduce himself, and saying, "You must be the young man who I'm told went through some difficult cranial surgeries for vertigo recently, would you mind taking some time to tell me about it?"

    For the next 20 minutes a very thoughtful, sincere and compassionate man asked questions, listened intently and offered his encouragement and positive wishes. For his kindness to so many and so often, Steve Fisher is the MOY (Man Of Year) which is a much higher achievement of COY.

  4. Awesome job really it's great article.