By Karen Billing
San Diego State University’s The Show was almost The Fish Bowl.
Sixteen years ago, when Coach Steve Fisher first arrived on the Mesa and was trying to ramp up fan support for his Aztecs basketball squad, unable to even give tickets away (“I’d give them free and they still wouldn’t come,” he says), he met with representatives from a fledgling student section about bulking up their corner of the arena. The early idea to call themselves The Fish Bowl was nixed immediately by the ever-humble Fisher, and instead The Show was born.
Sixteen years, multiple giant cardboard heads and “I Believe” chants, and eight consecutive trips to the post-season later, SDSU basketball is now one of the hardest-to-get tickets in town.
There is a wait list for tickets and the Aztecs basketball team has sold out its 12,414-seat Viejas Arena for the past three years.
“We average more fans than UCLA and USC combined, and those are pretty historic programs, ” said Fisher. “We’ve become relevant, and we’re proud of that.”
Fisher, a Del Mar resident, visited with the Del Mar Rotary Club on July 31, on the verge of a new season after finishing first in the Mountain West Conference last year in dramatic fashion and making the Sweet Sixteen.
“He’s a great coach, an Aztec for life and a great friend,” said Larry Cook, a Del Mar Rotarian and president of the Aztec Club.
Fisher recalled his first job when he was 22 years old, at a high school in Park Forest, Ill. He was hired not because of basketball, but because he could teach math. He taught math, physical education and driver’s education — for extra money he picked up bus and cafeteria duty.
“I made $7,000 and thought I had died and gone to heaven,” Fisher said.
He still has a close relationship with the best player on his first basketball team at the school who was only a few years younger than he was when Fisher coached him: Larry McCarren, who went on to play for the Green Bay Packers football team.
Fisher was an assistant coach at Western Michigan and the University of Michigan before taking over head coaching duties and winning the NCAA Championship in 1989. He was at the University of Michigan for eight years, famously coaching the “Fab Five,” a group of freshmen stars who reached the NCAA finals in 1991.
The first time Fisher had ever been to San Diego was in 1975, to watch UCLA Coach John Wooden win his last championship at the then-Sports Arena. He said he marveled at the beauty of San Diego and hoped he could return to vacation — 16 years in, he said he is starting to feel like he belongs here.
“SDSU is a phenomenal place; it’s a wonderful university. If you came there now and you hadn’t been since 1999, you wouldn’t recognize it — it’s changed dramatically,” Fisher said.
As an example, Fisher’s office is now in the Fowler Center, which is where the swimming pool used to be. On Aug. 27, SDSU will break ground on the new 23,500-square-foot Jeff Jacobs JAM Center, an idea Fisher said he first “ran up the flagpole” in 2001. The basketball performance center will include two full-length courts, locker rooms, film rooms, training rooms and team lounges.