|San Diego State Coach Steve Fisher - ESPN|
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|
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.