DALLAS — Steve Fisher is aging like a president. The crow’s-feet seem to multiply each year, the jowls seem to droop as if a world war was tugging them down. The hair is thinning, the eyes seem more tired. You look at pictures of Fisher when he first got this head coaching job five years ago. Compared to now, he looks like a kid.
Thursday, Fisher turned 49 years old. One year shy of half- a-century. There are those who say that coaching Jalen Rose will age you that much by itself. Not to mention Chris Webber — just trying to keep him safe from his adoring public could kill you — and Jimmy King and Ray Jackson, whose bad judgment concerning free beer gave Fisher sleepless nights this season. And Sean Higgins, a few years ago, he was a piece of work. And Michael Talley, who moped and complained his last two seasons. That’ll age you. And the travel. And the stress. And the media, can’t forget the media. Has there ever been a college team as covered as this one? Whenever Fisher looks at a TV or a newspaper he sees his players, often wrapped around the word “controversial.”
“I won’t lie to you,” Fisher says, “when they (the Fab Five kids) are all gone, I won’t miss the noise. I probably prefer it a bit more quiet.”
But that’s Fab Five noise he’s talking about. There’ll be new noise. It never ends in college basketball. This week, even as he was preparing for tonight’s tournament showdown with Maryland, a crucial game, a game that could end the whole season, Fisher dashed off to a high school gym to see a recruit play ball. That is the job. The well goes dry. You replenish or die. More players! More players! More players!
No wonder he has those presidential creases in his forehead.
But at least Bill Clinton — who, by the way, is here to root for his favorite team, Arkansas — still gets to be president when the buzzer sounds. What does Fisher get? For all his labor, for all the whistles, the practices, the fast-food meals, the prop planes to jerkwater towns, meetings with academic advisers, boxes of game film, packs of hotel keys, alumni letters, media teleconferences, NCAA paperwork, phone calls in the middle of the night, parents complaining that their sons aren’t getting enough playing time — for all that, if Michigan loses to Maryland, Fisher’s “reward” will be people debating his job. They’ll wonder if he blew it.
Nice job, huh? Sure, sometimes it’s glory, a Sports Illustrated cover. And sometimes it’s this: Last week, in Wichita, Fisher emerged from a team meeting. He looked at freshman Bobby Crawford and rolled his eyes.
“Bobby,” Fisher said, exasperated, “pull your pants up.”
Bobby, pull your pants up?
Sometimes it’s that. Long and winding road
I have a theory as to why Steve Fisher faces such an uphill battle for national respect. It’s in two parts.
The first is how he began. He inherited the Michigan job, won a championship in six games, and was given the position full time. Quadrupled his paycheck. I think a lot of people — particularly in the coaching community — resented that. Michigan is a plum job, and had there been an open search, the line would have been longer than the one for Streisand tickets.
Instead, Fisher got it. And he got it with a Rumeal Robinson and a Terry Mills. Had he taken over a down program, turned it around, then led it to a national championship, he would no doubt be hailed as a miracle worker today, a roll-up- the-shirtsleeves guy who could go anywhere and be great, a Rick Pitino — who, by the way, has never won a championship of any kind.
But because he inherited both team and talent, there is this vague notion that all of Fisher’s successes — the NCAA championship, the runner-up finishes the last two years — have been done with mirrors. That if you gave him straw, Steve Fisher couldn’t weave it into gold.
This is unfair, and untrue, because people forget that Fisher actually had a straw situation only three years ago, when his team lost more than it won, and its star player was a guard named Demetrius Calip.
Back then, people whispered that maybe Fisher was the wrong guy for the job, a mistaken hire made in the euphoria of winning the 1989 title.
That he bounced back, that he recruited a team for the ages, should be proof enough he can build from scratch. But before he could glean any credit, he was getting hosed for the bald-headed mayhem of the Fab Five.
Which brings us to Part Two.
A telling tale
Did you ever hear the story about how Fisher and his wife, Angie, decided to get married? He was at her apartment on New Year’s Day, 1974, watching the Rose Bowl. They had been going out for a while, and Angie wanted some answers. She slipped a piece of paper in front of Fisher, which read: If we don’t get married this summer, I am leaving you.
Check a box
X–Yes, I will marry you
X–No, I won’t marry you.
Fisher checked the “yes,” they kissed and Angie went off to call her family, while Fisher continued watching the game.
Besides being a cute story, this tells you a little something about Steve Fisher. He will go with the flow. He will take the path of least resistance. He is not the blabbermouth on a airplane, he is not the town speed demon, gunning his engine at a red light. When an assistant tells him the players would really like to wear big shorts, Fisher shrugs and figures, how’s it gonna hurt? When he gets together with other coaches, Fisher stands with a Diet Coke and listens to their stories and laughs like a spectator, never steering the conversation to himself.
He is passive on things he feels aren’t really important — but this creates an image that he’s passive on everything. That is not true. But because he’s not out there tooting his horn, making convention speeches, getting himself elected the head of this or that coaches’ committee and jockeying for a chair on ESPN or CBS, there is a tendency to, well, overlook him. At least as far as the good stuff goes.
“Do you think if your team had lost to Boston College in the second round
(as North Carolina, the defending national champion, did last Sunday), that people would be as understanding as they’re being to Dean Smith?” Fisher is asked.
“If I had won 800 games and been around 30 years, I would hope they would,” he says. “Dean Smith is a great coach, and will go down as one of the best in the business.”
You see? Right there, he had a chance to attack, and he opted for praise.
This gets you points in church, but not in the temple of public perception. Fab family
In the middle of an interview Thursday, Fisher glances up and says, “Can you excuse me for a second?” He is looking toward the door, where his youngest son, Jonathan, has just entered and is running his way, arms open.
“Hey, big fella!” Fisher says, lifting the boy. Both their faces light up, and the father’s crow’s-feet and fatigue fairly melt away. If there is salvation for Steve Fisher, it lies in moments like these, the smiles of his towheaded sons, for whom Fisher is a father that Papa Walton would envy. He still reads them stories. Still lies down in their beds for nightly chats. While some coaches send their families as far away as possible during tournament time, Fisher doesn’t feel right if the clan isn’t around when the game is over.
And yet, even within his own family, Steve Fisher is not a dictator. When he talks to Mark, his teenage son, he listens as much as commands. There are these prolonged silences sometimes between asking Fisher a question and getting an answer. He stares off. He looks at his feet. He lives in these silences, and few people understand what he is doing.
I believe he is thinking.
“Can you still see yourself doing this coaching stuff on your 59th birthday?” he is asked.
He laughs. “I don’t know. At 39, you say, ‘No way.’ At 49, you say,
‘Probably no.’ At 52, you may say, ‘Why not?’ “
“Can you see changing a whole lot in the next 10 years?”
“No, I’m probably done changing. I’m pretty much who I am and who I’m gonna be. I’m happy. I like what I do. I’m not suffering from middle-aged crazy or anything like that. . . .
“People sometimes misunderstand me. They think I never dreamed I would have a job like this, or go through what we’ve gone through. But I’ve always been quietly ambitious. I always felt I would find a way to get what I wanted, and I’ve been fortunate, when I most needed something to happen, it seemed to happen.” Don’t look back
He admits that there is some jealousy in the coaching community for what he has done, and how he got to do it. He shrugs it off. He also says if he knew then what he knows now, he would have done some things differently with the Fab Five. Maybe sheltered the players a little more. Maybe controlled their free-form statements. Maybe nixed the shorts.
But he doesn’t look back, because that can really make you feel old, and the way things are going, who needs that?
“You know, I don’t feel any older,” he says of his birthday. “But I look in the mirror and I know something’s happening.”
He laughs. Every day, before practice, Fisher tries to give his players one quote or slogan. He writes it down and discusses it before they start. One of these recently was a Winston Churchill line: “I may not be the lion, but I have been given the lion’s voice.”
It’s a good summation of Fisher’s unique position. He has never been a natural lion. But he was given the fur, the mane, the claws and the voice, and in his own quiet way, he has taken command.
“What did your players think of that quote?”
“To be honest,” he says, smiling, “they didn’t get it.”
And you wonder why he’s aging?