SAN DIEGO — Brian Dutcher finally gets to move over one seat on San Diego State’s bench.
He spent 18 years as assistant to Aztecs basketball coach Steve Fisher, the last six with the “head coach in waiting” designation. He’s waiting no longer after Fisher retired in April.
There was a time when Dutcher could have moved on to another program, but the “head coach in waiting” showed he was serious about eventually succeeding Fisher, whom he’d been with since 1989 at Michigan.
“To me I think it’s always about taking over something you helped build,” Dutcher said as the Aztecs began preparing for what they hope is a bounceback season. “Instead of going to take over something someone else built, I’ve been here all 18 years with coach. So I feel like I’ve been a piece of all the success. I’ve had my influence in here. So to take over something you feel like you’ve been involved building, is great satisfaction and gratifying.”
With Dutcher at his side, Fisher turned SDSU from a hoops wasteland into a perennial postseason participant, at least until last season.
Dutcher was there for all 386 wins, 209 losses, eight NCAA berths and five NIT appearances in the Fisher era. He was there when SDSU reached its first Sweet 16 in 2011, with Kawhi Leonard, and then again in 2014.
As a head coach for the first time at any level, Dutcher takes over the program on a down note. SDSU finished 19-14 last season and failed to make a postseason tournament or win 20 games for the first time in 12 seasons. The Aztecs finished sixth in the Mountain West Conference.
“I always felt like I contributed at practice and was a part of everything we did, but to step out there and be the final voice on everything is kind of exciting,” Dutcher said. “It keeps me up a little bit more at night trying to find a way to word things — it’s not the message, it’s the way you deliver it. I think about ways to deliver a message that help us understand and try to help them get better.”
Under Fisher, fans grew to expect NCAA Tournament berths. The Aztecs went to the NCAAs a school-record six straight times from 2010-15.
Dutcher, who turns 58 on Monday, knows what it will take to get back there.
“Win close games,” he said.
Simple, but it makes sense.
There was a time when if the Aztecs had a late lead, they didn’t lose. They had won 164 straight games when leading with five minutes to go. That streak ended late in the 2015-16 season.
“Coach Fisher would always say, and it’s true, the difference between winning and losing is this much,” Dutcher said, holding his thumb and index finger close together. “I think we all remember the years we went on that streak where if we had a lead in the last five minutes, we never lost a game. We started losing some of those games and some of it’s coaching, some of it lies on us, some of it lies on players performing down the stretch. … The difference is not great between winning and losing and we have to find a way to take that last step to start closing out games again.”
Dutcher first joined Fisher at Michigan in 1989, when Fisher was promoted to interim coach and led the Wolverines to the national title. Dutcher had a hand in recruiting the Fab Five. Fisher was fired in October 1997 because of the program’s involvement with booster Ed Martin. He and Dutcher were reunited when Fisher was hired at SDSU in March 1999.
UNLV coach Marvin Menzies, who worked with Dutcher during Fisher’s first four seasons on Montezuma Mesa, said Dutcher will provide valuable continuity.
“He had a wealth of knowledge even years ago, so I can only imagine how much he’s chomping at the bit to move over those 18 inches, which he’s getting a chance to do,” Menzies said “I think Dutch will do a great job, he’s a great hire and a great move by their administration.”
While Dutcher has taken over Fisher’s corner office in the athletics building, Fisher remains a university employee, working on development. Fisher also drives his son, Mark, who has ALS, to and from campus where he remains part of the coaching staff.
Dutcher said he’ll maintain the culture and tap Fisher for advice.
“That’s a beautiful thing. What better mentor to have in my first year than Steve Fisher?” Dutcher said. “I’m going to embrace the fact that he’s still around. I’m not going to be intimidated by it or worried about it. I’m going to rely on it. I’ve been with the man for 27 years. Anything he says, I’ll be more than happy to listen to.”
AP Sports Writer John Marshall in Phoenix contributed.
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