Steve Fisher tells life story, provides career advice during inspiring hour with SMBA ‘14

Steve FisherSAN DIEGO — In the SDSU sports MBA program, we spend plenty of time discussing the structure of college sports as well as the major issues the NCAA faces in the immediate future. Yesterday we were treated to a visit from a man who has experienced many aspects of major college athletics when SDSU men’s basketball head coach Steve Fisher stopped by the classroom for an inspiring hour.

Along with providing in-depth descriptions of his career highlights, Fisher brought us behind the scenes of his program while teaching us a series of life lessons that will serve us well in our future careers.

My biggest takeaway from Fisher’s talk centers around the importance of truly loving every job you take throughout your career.  Fisher made that point through an anecdote about his first day as a high school math teacher, which was his first professional job, when he showed up at 7:15 a.m. for an 8 a.m. class and met two experienced counselors in the teacher’s lounge. After gushing about his excitement for his first class, one of the counselors replied, “I’ve got 153 days left. That’s all I’ve got, I can’t wait.”

But that’s never been Fisher, who said he has witnessed many people over his long career who were never happy where they were and instead always were seeking out that next opportunity. Fisher urged us to be genuine, believable and to truly care, issues he frequently discusses with his team.

“I’m starting my 15th year at San Diego State, and nowhere in the world would I rather be than right here. Nowhere,” said Fisher, 68, who’s now about the same age as the high school counselor was when he started out. “And I’m going to have the luxury to do what very few in my business do: retire on my own terms. I can see it. I’m not quite there yet.”

Although Fisher said he feels he would have been happy spending his career as a high school math teacher, as many of his original colleagues did, he also advocated dreaming big. However, it’s doubtful even Fisher could have imagined where his career has taken him.

“I tell our players, if you don’t close your eyes and dream about cutting the nets down and winning a national championship, it isn’t going to happen,” Fisher said. “If you don’t close your eyes and dream about something that you think you can achieve but maybe no one else can, then it won’t happen. Dream and dream big and then work to achieve that dream, and don’t take shortcuts.”

Fisher’s big break came under the most unusual of circumstances, as he became the only coach in college basketball history to win a national championship without winning a single regular season game. As Michigan prepared to open the 1989 NCAA Tournament, head coach Bill Frieder told Fisher to take the team to Atlanta as he planned on flying to Phoenix first to be announced as the next head coach at Arizona State. Michigan AD Bo Schembechler had other plans and installed Fisher as the interim head coach for the tournament.

Michigan thought so little of the team’s chances that it did not even bring the pep band or cheerleaders, instead borrowing the Georgia State pep band. That point was driven home to Fisher when he walked out to the court and saw an opposing fan’s sign that read: “Rent a band, rent a coach.”

Yet behind future NBA star Glen Rice, Fisher inspired the Wolverines to the 1989 NCAA championship, and all of a sudden Fisher went from a man recognizable only to his wife and kids to a renowned coach invited to the White House with his wife (but not the team) to meet the first President Bush.

“Three weeks prior to that nobody in Ann Arbor knew who we were,” Fisher said. “I’m staying all night at the White House, Bob Hope knows who we are, President Bush invited us. It’s a nutty, nutty, nutty world. I was smart enough to know how fortunate I was.”

Fisher is best known as the head coach of perhaps the greatest recruiting class ever, Michigan’s Fab Five, a group of players Fisher is still close enough with to bring in to speak to SDSU players. When asked about his biggest career challenges, Fisher brought up Chris Webber’s famed timeout when he didn’t have one with Michigan on the precipice of another championship.

The current SDSU head coach also had no shame in discussing the one time in his life when he was fired back in 1997 at Michigan.

“I thought that I would be where I was forever if I wanted to,” he said. “I thought as time went on they’d put my name on a building, and then I got the pink slip. The thing I was most proud of when I left is I knew I did things in a fashion that was not deceitful, but I got fired.”

After a year as an assistant coach with Webber’s Sacramento Kings, a position Fisher said he enjoyed tremendously, he took over what was seen as one of the worst jobs in the Mountain West Conference at San Diego State and immediately proved that right in his first year by compiling a 5-23 mark without winning a single league game.

That has changed in a big way as the Aztecs have won at least 20 games for eight consecutive years, including a dominant 34-3 campaign in 2010-11 behind star forward Kawhi Leonard that ended in the Sweet 16 against eventual national champion Connecticut.

“We were better than Connecticut,” Fisher said. “To say we’re good enough to win a championship, they would have laughed us off the street when we came in in ’99, but we were.”

Yet even after losing stud forward Jamaal Franklin to the NBA Draft and four of their top seven players overall this summer, Fisher still feels like the Aztecs will be good next season as they shoot for their fourth consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance.

“That’s a good feeling to have, losing the heart of your team and still saying, ‘We’re going to be good,’” he said.

Throughout his talk, Fisher constantly brought up the importance of family, trust and respect, concepts that he frequently discusses with his team starting with recruitment.

“If I recruited you, I would say, ‘We’re going to treat you like family,’” Fisher said. “You might not like everything we say, you might not play as many minutes as your dad thinks you should play, but you will be treated fairly, you’ll be treated with respect, and you’ll be one of us forever, not unlike the mafia. Once you’re with us, you’re always with us.”

That can be seen through the large number of players that return to campus and sometimes speak to the team.

Fisher’s final piece of advice would serve any leader well, yet it’s not something often associated with college basketball head coaches, particularly coaches of Fisher’s tenure. After all, college coaches are stereotypically known as control freaks who must have everything their way.

“My advice to you is when you get into a position of authority, involve your teammates, involve the group that you’re working with,” Fisher said. “I always say in our staff meetings, I always say to our team – and you need to do this, too – what do you think? What do you think? Because you’ve got a lot to offer.

“You must value your team if you want to keep that good team with you. Not enough people listen. Too many people act like they listen. Be a good listener and involve your team with you, and you’ll have a better chance to be successful.”

This strategy has certainly served Fisher well throughout his career.

Quotable and Notable

  • Fisher invited the class to take in a practice under one condition: We are required to pay attention and provide critiques if we see anything that could be done better. Making that statement just goes to further show Fisher practices what he preaches when it comes to being a good listener.
  • On the differences between now and when he started coaching: “Today’s world is not like it was when I started coaching in 1979. In 1979 you could have issues, deal with them internally, discipline the right way, nobody would know except you, the player, the family and your superior. Today everybody knows your business. I tell our players, ‘I’m going to know everything you do.’ Sometimes it might take weeks or month, I’m going to find out. Sometimes I’ll know it as it’s happening, sometimes I’ll know it before it even happens.”
  • On Franklin: “I’m a guy who the glass is always half-filled. So I told Jamaal, ‘You were a first-round pick of Memphis, that was their first pick.’ (Editor’s Note: Franklin was selected in the second round, but the Grizzlies did not own a first-rounder.) They offered him a three-year contract and Jamaal said, ‘I want two and two only because I want to be on the open market after the second year.’ I said, ‘I like your confidence, and I hope that this is the right decision.’”
  • On money: “We all want it, we all need it, but again money does not guarantee happiness. Money will not be the reason you’re happy. Genuine happiness and love of the job you have, that can lead to money.”
  • On his White House visit: “I’m the only guy who has never contributed a dime to the Republican party to stay in the Lincoln bedroom.”
  • On advanced stats: “Our younger guys keep me up to speed. Right now you can find out through one of these services where does your player have the most success taking his shot. Is it off the bounce, is it a catch-shoot? What is your most effective lineup? I think sometimes you can get bogged down with too much statistics. We keep abreast of the cutting edge of what’s out there, and it’s so interesting. You get these computer guys who maybe have never bounced a ball, but boy they can spit out those statistics. They can be very, very interesting.”
  • On long-time assistant Brian Dutcher being his successor upon retirement: “I feel as good about that as any victory that we’ve had.”

SMBA project update

Tomorrow a group of SMBA students will take part in a hip pocket class to learn Microsoft Access in which we will be sorting the shooting statistics of Golden State Warriors star Stephen Curry for a project with statistics professor Dr. Jim Lackritz.

We aim to build one big data set with all of Curry’s makes and misses throughout the 2012-13 NBA season in consecutive order to try to determine whether he is streaky at a statistically significant level. In prior studies of this kind, there has not been any strong statistical evidence of the streak shooting concept.

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