SAN DIEGO -- Forget assistant coaches. When Steve Fisher arrived at San Diego State in 1999, he needed a priest.
That was the only way to secure the attention of a community filled with San Diego Chargers and Padres fans. Because back then, it would've taken a miracle to boost an Aztecs program that hadn't earned a trip to the NCAA tournament since 1985. Only a higher power could draw men and women to Viejas Arena when sunbathing was clearly a better option than buying a ticket to watch the bad basketball SDSU had played for years.
But now, look at what the 68-year-old, aw-shucks coach has done at San Diego State. And even on that rare day when it's raining in paradise, which has Fisher fighting the sniffles, he can look back and see what he's accomplished and what's next for a program that has been raised from the dead.
San Diego State, at 21-1 (10-0 in the Mountain West), is the No. 5 team in the country. And then there's the other big project, one he cannot wait to be finally finished.
In June, school officials will put the first shovels in the ground on the site of a new practice facility. It's significant compared to what the place looked like when he arrived. Back then, there was nothing but dirt atop a four-win program. Disinterested students treated Viejas Arena like a graveyard. They drove by, but rarely entered.
Fisher had enjoyed years of support as the former head coach of a Michigan team that won a national title in 1989 under his guidance. He recruited the Fab Five before a scandal led to his 1997 firing.
He'd essentially hit reset on his career when he accepted San Diego State's offer to coach its program just two years after he'd exited Ann Arbor.
But Fisher didn't pout. He simply accepted that responsibility. He hit the streets and became an evangelist for SDSU hoops.
"I spoke at 79 different events my first 365 days," Fisher says. "Kept count of them. From small little coffee groups of 15 or 20 to the national rotary group in downtown San Diego, 400 [people], and everything in between to spread the word about San Diego State basketball."
He made promises of a bright future that his team's five-win season in his first year failed to back. So the stands were still empty in those early years.
"You'd come here and you'd be able to count the number of fans here on your hand," said Brian Dutcher, an assistant on Fisher's staffs at Michigan and San Diego State. "There'd be 100, 200, 500 fans, maybe. So it was tough, it was kind of a dead environment."
That's significant if you're going to understand the length of Fisher's ride. Banners for SDSU's six NCAA tourney appearances now jut from the ceiling at Viejas Arena. The Aztecs, who will play at Wyoming on ESPNU at 11 p.m. ET, have won 20 or more games for nine consecutive seasons (including this one) and they've won seven Mountain West titles since his arrival. The team's vibrant fans -- "The Show" -- are nationally recognized for their fervor.