Steve Fisher, SDSU’s Master Educator (And Basketball Coach)

Steve FisherBy Ernie McCray

When San Diego State’s men’s gifted basketball players showed up at Allen Fieldhouse in Lawrence, Kansas and rose from the 21st rated team to number 13 after destroying the Jayhawks’ dream of stretching a 68 game winning streak against non-Big XII teams to 69 – I couldn’t help but think, at the time, of how lucky those young athletes are in having Steve Fisher as their guide on this wonderful ride.

The man is clearly a wonderful coach, a master teacher if there ever was one. He knows how to connect with folks who are counting on him for guidance.

I know. I’m an educator by nature, in a way. I decided on teaching after my very first day in kindergarten (as much as a five year old can consider such a thing), thinking that there must be a better way to teach somebody than taking a yardstick and whacking their knuckles to Maricopa County. I was sold on teaching in a humanistic way right away. Steve Fisher’s way of molding young round-ballers into fine athletes and men is certainly, from all I’ve seen, based on respecting them as individuals and showing them how to work together for the team (their community). That’s what it’s all about it seems to me.

My favorite teachers were those who treated us kids like human beings. Those who let us know who they were as human beings. Those who didn’t freak out if you suddenly burst out laughing at a lively fart or Ollie Lee’s silly ass haircut. Those who listened to you and responded to what they were listening to. Those who acted as though they were glad to see you when you bumped into them at Jim’s Market. Those who had lessons that sung. Those who let you have a little fun. Those who let you be yourself and tried to help you be the best self you could be at that place and time.

That approach sure worked for me when I began earning a living teaching in this society. And it’s sure worked for Steve, one of the greatest hires in San Diego State’s history, considering all that he has contributed to our fair city.

He’s the epitome of an educator, one who shows that he cares about those he has to teach by being sensible enough to let them shine as who they are and helping them refine who that person happens to be.

He showed that when he put the Great Fab Five, a freshman five, on the courts as the starting five at the University of Michigan back in the 90’s. I remember wondering how is this man going to deal with these young “brothers” who came off the streets, so to speak, legends in high school, tall-tale like players who were like men among boys? They could bring egos and attitudes galore.

I still have an image of them in their restless “Let’s get this show on the road” glares and stances, sporting baggy shorts that flopped and black socks that knocked the socks off basketball purists who, pretty much, acted as though criminals had been set loose in the hallowed world of the Big Ten Conference. Some Michigan alums were besides themselves, almost hysterically glum, crying about the Fab Five’s trash talking and loud Hip-Hop music in tones that resonated nationwide.

So many fans could hardly put their hatred for these teenagers, these kids, these unbelievably skilled basketball playing specialists, aside. They derided these, as it turns out, decent American citizens, as thugs and spoke of them as though they were sent to Michigan by The Wicked Witch of the West to ruin the very game of basketball. Oh, they were all that was wrong with college sports if one believed in fairy and tall tales. All the hullabaloo didn’t, however, jeopardize the tons of sales of the merchandise inspired by the Fab Five.

But, when they hit the floor, they were about the most disciplined unselfish group of basketball players I have ever seen considering their combined amazing hoops skills. If one of them got open the ball was on its way in an array of fashions, no-look-behind- the-back passes, precision bounce passes delivered and caught in stride, lobs that seemed to soar in the stratosphere and pause above the rim before it was slammed down by one of them. They snatched rebounds and fired outlet passes with accuracy and pizzazz, executing fast-breaks at breakneck speed and they juked and spun, on the run and if a three-pointer was needed it was done. Get lazy or sloppy on offense and these dudes would pick your pocket and run. In a spirit of focused determination and a whole lot of fun. High fives all around for everyone. Sign of new times.

It took quite a coach and teacher and leader to put the pieces together for the success he and that squad had. There was no way a team like that could have been assembled and made to work by someone with an old school screaming and hollering and foaming at the mouth style of leading young men. That wouldn’t have gotten anybody anywhere if their goal was to win a lot of basketball games. What Steve Fisher did revealed that he was an understanding warmhearted human being who had as much confidence, with or without “swag,” in himself as those whom he had to lead.

He knew better than to stifle the enthusiasm that those unique and gifted athletes brought to his program. I can see him at the beginning of the relationship with them, at a practice session, saying something like “Okay, pull those black socks up and put your shorts on tight, ready to fight! Let’s work hard every day and night and, at the same time, have a lot of fun and make a run, game by game, for something our school has already done, won a championship ring! We’re a team! We’re the Wolverines! If we stick together there’s no telling what we can do. I’ve got a plan but it can’t happen without you… Okay, who cut one? Give me ten laps! Let’s go, guys!”

The man who has inspired our Aztecs to pursue greatness as basketball players, enabling them to win a game in a fabled sports venue where very few teams are successful, is able to get teams to perform at such high levels because he, simply, accepts players for who they are and he gets them to buy into his ideas in ways that make sense to them.

What if all educators, like Steve Fisher does with his teams (at every level, grade school, junior and senior high, college and beyond, in academic or athletic settings) took what students and jocks brought to them book-wise and skill-wise and then from that base provided ways and means for them to become better, more learned, more polished and sophisticated, ready to make their way in the world?

We’d simply have a much better world, one where people knew how to get along and work together for the betterment of all humankind. I can’t think of those who promote such togetherness without Coach Steve Fisher coming to mind. We’re so lucky to have such a true gentleman in our midst. Go! Aztecs!

Photo courtesy of


Ernie McCray

I was raised in a loving and alive home, in a black neighborhood filled with colorful characters in Tucson, Arizona. Such an environment gave me a hint that life has to be grabbed by the tail as tight as a pimple on a mosquito's butt. With no BS and a whole lot of love. So, from those days to now I get up every morning set on making the world a better place. On my good foot*, and I hope my writing reflects that. *an old black expression

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  1. avatarbob dorn says

    Really, a great piece of understanding of what might lie behind the delightful basketball success of Steve Fisher. Trust and respect. Age is irrelevent. Nice work, Ernie.

  2. avatarBruce Fett says

    I never really knew too much about Steve Fisher, other than my own observation that he always seemed to treat his players decently and it seemed like the players were much the better for having chosen him as their coach. Thank you Ernie for confirming my hunch.

  3. avatarAndy Cohen says

    We’ve come a long way since 1999 when me and about 1,500 of my “closest friends” would show up to watch the Aztecs play basketball. The team was bad, the arena was empty, but we still managed to have fun. After experiencing that, it’s incredible, and incredibly gratifying to see the transformation in the support the basketball team is now receiving. Who knew San Diego was capable of creating one of the best, most energetic and electric atmospheres in the country for COLLEGE BASKETBALL?!? This is a football town fer cryin’ out loud!

    It only took Steve Fisher 12 years to do it, but the last four years of Aztec basketball have been truly special. It just never gets old seeing that number in front of the “SDSU.” It was a long wait, but well worth it! And it looks like the good times are gonna stick around for a while due to this staff’s recruiting efforts.

    San Diego has a coach and a program it can really be proud of. Now, if only he could convince Steve Alford to put the Aztecs on the schedule with a home and home….

  4. avatardave B says

    Ernie… Thanks for the great Bio on Steve Fisher… I did not realize he was formerly at Michigan… I bet they wish they had him now…. We are indeed lucky to have a man of such integrity leading the program….
    Makes me proud to be an Aztec….

    Dave B
    Spring Valley

    • avatarAnn(e) Arbor says

      Yes, Dave. Steve Fisher was at Michigan and many of us enjoyed his tenure there. I was so impressed with the man I’ve followed his time at SDSU regularly and am always pleased to see them do well. Encourage TPTB at SDS to keep him around as long as they are able! Wishing everyone in the basketball program continued success.

  5. avatar says

    A very nice writeup about Steve Fisher and how he treats his basketball team members. It was nice to learn about the parallels it showed in your own life and teaching experience, as well. Great reporting!

  6. avatarMichael Marks says

    Well written, very sensitive and insightful piece. As a long time Aztec BB fan, I constantly marvel at how ‘Coach Fish’ conducts himself and creates winning teams. He is truly the embodiment of a legendary coach-the incomparable John Wooden. We need to enjoy and cherish this wonderful treasure . What a class act he is. In Fish we trust! Nice job Ernie!.