In a city that is sun-drenched nearly year-round, a large shadow has been cast over Montezuma Mesa as Steve Fisher retired Tuesday, April 11.
“I know rumors run rampant, and I got my health, my mind has always been questioned but I have my health!” Fisher said to open his press conference, which received a loud laugh from the crowd.
In a joke-filled press conference with Athletic Director John David Wicker and longtime assistant Brian Dutcher, who has held the title “head coach in waiting” since 2011 and will replace the 72-year-old coach, Fisher officially announced his retirement.
With his family, current and former players and a swath of friends in attendance, Fisher said his final farewell to the program as the head coach with a smile on his face and confidence in his decision.
“I will never, ever second guess did I do it too soon,” he said. “I did it at the right time for me.”
Beyond proud & happy I got the chance to play for u.Mentor, father figure, cool guy lol, I love you forever! #Legend pic.twitter.com/3i4eVz7xAt
— AQ (@AqeelQuinn) April 10, 2017
While Fisher is retiring from the head coaching position, he will maintain a role as part of the program, however, he is unsure as to what it will entail.
“I’m not going to be in the way but I’m going to be a part of San Diego State and that’s important to me,” he said. “I want to be here. There is something to be said for wanting to be where you’re wanted and I feel that.”
For his current players, who were told yesterday of his decision, this announcement came as a surprise. He didn’t skip a beat after the tournament and went to work on the recruiting trail and in the film room junior guard Trey Kell said.
Kell, who was usually praised by Fisher for his on and off the court actions, was saddened by the decision but understood the move.
“As much as I’m going to miss him, I’m excited for him as well,” he said. “I’ve been prepared for this moment, because when he was recruiting me, he never promised to coach me all four years.”
Sophomore guard Jeremy Hemsley shared Kell’s sentiment and will miss a confidant in Fisher.
“I say Fisher and I are pretty close,” Hemsley said. “I’ve talked to Fisher about things I’ve never talked to anyone else about, so I’m going to miss him.”
As current players expressed their feelings on their head coach’s decision, former players reflected on Fisher’s teachings.
“I’m involved in coaching kids right now, so I find myself using a lot of coach Fisher metaphors and quotes,” said D.J. Gay, who played for Fisher from 2007-11. “He taught me how to become a leader and changed my way of thinking.”
Fisher’s theme throughout the press conference was to enjoy one’s journey.
“That is something that I will hold onto,” said Skylar Spencer, who was named two-time Defensive Player of the Year under Fisher in 2015 and 2016. “I definitely had a good journey here with him and he had a great long journey here in San Diego.”
Honored to be apart of the Fisher era. Spent 4 years under a legend not many can say that. Sad to see it come to an end 😭 pic.twitter.com/P6B5UYgh2G
— Skylar Spencer (@SkyRodrigo) April 11, 2017
That journey for Fisher may be over, but for Dutcher, who has been on Fisher’s staff since 1989 while at the University of Michigan, it’s a new chapter as he takes the reins to a West Coast powerhouse he and his predecessor have built since their arrival on campus in 1999.
Back when he first stepped onto campus, Fisher’s journey at SDSU began with a goal in mind and no end in sight.
“I want to build a tradition here at (San Diego State) similar to the one we had at Michigan,” Fisher said at his introductory press conference. “And I believe we can do that. We will win here at SDSU. Do I know when? No. But I do know that we will turn this thing around.”
This “thing” was a stretch of 13 losing seasons in 14 years, an average attendance of roughly 2,600 in that same time span and only three NCAA tournament appearances, without a win, in the 29 years of Aztec Division I history prior to his arrival.
With the goal of a dramatic turnaround, Fisher did everything he could to transform the culture of SDSU basketball on and off the court. Aside from patrolling the sidelines, he set out on campus with tickets in hand and tried to give them to students.
“I was talking to my dad and he said how he remembered walking on campus and coach Fisher gave him a ticket to go to the game,” Kell, who was born and raised in San Diego, said with a smile. “It came from where he had to hand out tickets to where people are begging for them.”
However, that first season was a hard sell for a team that went 5-23 and 0-14 in the Mountain West. But as the wins piled on, the seats began to fill and one of the best home-court atmospheres arose: “The Show.”
The highly-touted student section, which bows to Fisher when his name is announced during pregame introductions, took new life in the 2010-11 season. The average of 11,600 people in attendance witnessed Fisher guide his Aztecs to a 34-3 record, the first NCAA tournament win and the first Sweet 16 appearance in program history.
That goal he made 12 years prior finally came to fruition: A tradition had been established at SDSU.
Fisher would take the program to six straight NCAA appearances from 2009-15, win 20 or more games from 2006-16 and captured a Mountain West-record 10 regular and tournament titles in that time.
He will step down with 386 wins coaching the Scarlet and Black, eight NCAA tournament appearances, five trips to the NIT, two Sweet 16 appearances and one national coach of the year award.
While some will still link Fisher to his Michigan days and the “Fab Five,” Fisher’s heart belongs to San Diego.
“San Diego State is my legacy,” he said. “I’m proud of every step along the way in my journey, but I’m an Aztec.”