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.
“It’s going to be spectacular,” Fisher said of the center, slated to be complete by August 2015.
In his first year at SDSU, Fisher asked his players to close their eyes and dream of hanging a banner in Cox Arena (now Viejas) because there were none. His third year he hung that banner, and now he asks players to envision a NCAA championship banner — to bring the team to a place they’ve never been before, a Final Four.
Fisher admits they’ve gotten close and had their chances. In 2011, they reached the Sweet Sixteen and lost to eventual champions Connecticut. In 2014, the Aztecs were beaten by Arizona, “as talented a team as we’ve ever faced,” Fisher said, noting that two players went pro.
The Aztecs had a strong recruiting class last year, and Fisher is excited to see what this team can do.
He said this year will be a crucial year for junior forward Winston Shepard and he thinks senior forward Dwayne Polee is a phenomenal athlete. “He has an opportunity to be a real star for us,” Fisher said.
Fisher said he is very eager to see what his “new kids” can do, such as Trey Kell, a freshman guard from St. Augustine High in San Diego.
The teacher in Fisher is still alive. Besides basketball, he teaches his guys that the way they act is important, especially when they think no one’s watching — because someone is always watching. While every player thinks they are NBA-bound, Fisher instills the value of a good education and a degree.
And he gets his guys to grind.
When recruiting players to come to San Diego, Fisher said he sells State’s alumni, the fans and the people. It’s not a hard sell.
“The bricks and mortar is really good, but what will make your experience are the people, and we do believe that we have the kind of people moms and dads want their sons or daughters to be a part of. And not just the Kawhis of the world,” Fisher said, referencing Kawhi Leonard, the former SDSU player who was the 2014 NBA Finals MVP for the San Antonio Spurs.
“In 1999, we went 5-28 and were 0-14 in the league, and those are some of the same people who are still engaged and connected and feel they are a part of the foundation to where we are now. They all want to come back because of how it feels in the community. To me, that’s what’s allowed us to grow the program. I don’t like to boast but we have a program now that can compete with most of the country.”