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Tuesday, February 21, 2006 | I don’t care how many NCAA basketball titles Steve Fisher won at Michigan (one).
I don’t care how many times he guided a team to the Final Four at Michigan (three).
I don’t care how many Fab Five players Fisher recruited to Michigan that were so talented they later jumped early to the NBA (three).
Steve Fisher has never been a better basketball coach than he is right now in his seventh year at San Diego State. He’s better as a San Diego State Man than he ever was as a Michigan Man.
That was the label, you might remember, that Bo Schembechler gave Fisher when he stripped Bill Freider of his team and promoted Fisher from the assistant’s chair on the eve of the 1989 NCAA tournament. Fisher went 6-0 en route to Michigan winning the NCAA title.
But as a San Diego State Man, Fisher has taken a program with zero credibility among major Division I prospects at San Diego high schools – not to mention the rest of the country – and made it a place to consider signing up for the future.
I’m more impressed with the job Fisher has done at SDSU coaching Mohamed Abukar, a 6-foot-10 junior forward from Rancho Bernardo High, than he did with Chris Webber or Juwan Howard at Michigan.
Similarly, I’m more impressed with the job he’s done coaching Richie Williams, a 5-foot-9 point guard from Steele Canyon High, than with Jalen Rose at Michigan.
With Abukar and Williams, Fisher starts two San Diego-bred athletes who could have gone elsewhere. In SDSU’s 83-71 win Saturday over TCU, Abukar finished with 17 points with seven rebounds while Williams’ line was 13 points, six assists and one turnover.
“I’m having as much fun as you can imagine,” Abukar said. “It’s really great being home, being successful and being able to play in front of my family and friends. I couldn’t ask for anything more.”
Well, he wouldn’t have said that three years ago coming out of Rancho Bernardo. Back then he considered the sweltering heat of Georgia more enticing than San Diego State. And when he realized he had committed to Jim Harrick’s cesspool of NCAA violations at Georgia, he again bypassed the Aztecs, this time for the mosquitoes and swampland of Florida.
You can’t blame Abukar for bypassing SDSU back then. The Aztecs went to the NCAA in 2002 when the team got hot on the back of senior Randy Holcomb, but the foundation for future success wasn’t as firm then as it is now. It was only three years earlier Fisher’s first team went 5-23 overall and 0-14 in conference play.
San Diego sports fans aren’t easily fooled – not like the lemmings found in places like Boston, Philadelphia and Chicago that are mistakenly considered better sports towns – and the Aztecs are winning them over. Cox Arena is taking on the tone of The Pit in New Mexico with noise cascading down to the floor from red seats that climb higher and higher up from the court.
“We’re bringing attention to San Diego State,” Abukar said. “We’re bringing a style of play and an atmosphere that people enjoy. People want to play for us. We’ve got people at San Diego State who realize what basketball is all about.”
The Aztecs started slowly this year, and they were handicapped by injuries suffered by Marcus Slaughter and Trimaine Davis that knocked them out of a combined seven games. But this team continues to improve as the NCAA tournament season approaches. The Aztecs are 18-7 overall and 11-2 in Mountain West Conference, holding a two-game lead with three to play for the regular-season title before Wednesday’s game at BYU.
If this was Michigan rebounding from a slow start, people would say Fisher’s talent is finally playing up to its potential. But Fisher and his staff have coaxed and cajoled the Aztecs out of their slow start to play at the level that can take them to the NCAA tournament.
Fisher and his staff have Williams, who struggled early in the year, calmly walking the ball up court to set the offense as he did Saturday night once the Aztecs had rallied from an 11-point deficit against TCU to take control of the game.
Fisher might never have gotten the credit for coaching “up” players at Michigan as he deserves now at San Diego State. This is his program, his identity, like he never would have enjoyed at Michigan.
Now we can watch Abukar at Cox Arena instead of on TV at Florida as he takes the ball on the wing, dribbles to an open spot with his graceful stride and swishes an 18-foot jumper. That’s what he did Saturday for a 54-54 tie in the comeback win.
“It means a lot to be playing here for a winning team,” Abukar said. “I grew up in San Diego, and San Diego State never had a successful team. We’re making noise here now. We’re bringing fans and happiness to San Diego.”
And they’re doing it with a San Diego State Man and San Diego players.
Tom Shanahan is Voice’s sports columnist. He is the media coordinator for the San Diego Hall of Champions (www.sdhoc.com). You can e-mail him at