SAN DIEGO — Leading San Diego State’s basketball team to its most successful season ever has landed coach Steve Fisher a sweetheart of a contract extension.
On Monday, Fisher was given a four-year extension that includes a clause that his long-time assistant, Brian Dutcher, is the head-coach-in-waiting.
Fisher gets a $150,000 raise to $800,000 annually, with a 5 percent escalator in ensuing seasons. That bumps him up to the level of football coach Rocky Long.
The deal could keep the 66-year-old Fisher at SDSU through the 2014-15 season, perhaps beyond. Athletic director Jim Sterk said there’s no penalty if Fisher retires before the four years are finished.
Dutcher joined Fisher on the University of Michigan staff in 1988. When head coach Bill Frieder announced on the eve of the 1989 NCAA tournament that he was leaving for Arizona State, then-athletic director Bo Schembechler promoted Fisher, declaring that “a Michigan man will coach Michigan, not an Arizona State man.” Under Fisher, the Wolverines won the national title.
Fisher was hired in 1999, two years after he was fired at Michigan, and inherited one of the country’s worst programs. The previous season, the Aztecs won only four games while going winless on the road. His first team went 5-23, including 0-14 in the Mountain West and, once again, winless away from San Diego.
Fisher has turned what had been a sad-sack program into a consistent winner, highlighted by a breakthrough season in 2010-11. The Aztecs set a school record by going 34-3, secured their first two wins ever in the NCAA tournament and were ranked in The Associated Press Top 25 for the first time.
The Aztecs reached the West Regional semifinals before losing to eventual national champion Connecticut. It was their sixth straight 20-win season, and seventh in 12 years under Fisher.
“I would say that I, right now, feel as if, seriously, I would be talking to him at the end of year three going into year four, saying, ‘Do you think we could do another two-year extension?’” Fisher said. “I don’t know. It’s nice to have the stability to say I’ve got a four-year contract. I don’t know what I would do that I would enjoy more, and if we could continue with a measure of success — it would be impossible to duplicate what we did — but if we can keep the program moving forward, who knows, I might still be here after four more years.”
Fisher had a cancer scare a few years ago but said he’s fine.
“I’m not looking to be pushed out the door or run out the door anytime soon,” said Fisher, who is 232-152 at SDSU, with four NCAA appearances among eight trips to the postseason. “I think based on a whole host of factors, I feel like I hit here at the right time, it was the right place for me, things happened in a fashion that people grew in their like for what we’re doing. I’ve made a lot of friends and I feel I’ve entrench myself in this university community. I think over time things happened, and for me it’s happened here in a very, very positive way.”
After Sterk was hired by SDSU in early 2010, Fisher raised the possibility of Dutcher succeeding him. Sterk said he wasn’t opposed to it, but wanted some time to decide.
“In my mind, Brian is more important than the extension of my contract,” Fisher said.
The head coach said he’s given Dutcher plenty of responsibilities since they’ve been together.
“I’ve watched Brian for years. He has been a non-head coach only in name. Over the years we’ve been here, he’s done everything that a head coach could do, should do and would do.”
Fisher said Dutcher has had more than 20 inquiries or interviews by other schools, but that he’s been able to talk him out of leaving.
“He’s been invaluable to the growth and success of everything that I’ve had a part of,” Fisher said.
Dutcher thanked Sterk for giving him the opportunity, saying: “’They don’t come along often, and I’m grateful for that. ... My goal now is to help coach Fisher build on this tradition of excellence he started here at SDSU and continue great things in the future for the program.”
Sterk said Dutcher’s head-coach-in-waiting designation is a commitment by both sides but isn’t binding. “It does give him the assurance that he’s our first choice, we’re his first choice, and hopefully it creates a good marriage down the road.”
Dutcher said there’s not a dream job somewhere else.
“I’m in line for my dream job right now, so that’s the best part of all this,” said Dutcher, who added that he’s not a job-chaser. “I love being here in San Diego, with my family, with coach Fisher, with this university. So to draw me away from this would have to be something spectacular. I don’t think there’s anything better than what I’ve had here. That’s why this day has come, that I’ve been blessed to work with great people and be given the opportunity of a lifetime.”
Fisher and Dutcher will have a big job trying to keep the Aztecs playing at a high level after losing four starters. Point guard D.J. Gay and forwards Malcolm Thomas and Billy White were seniors, and star sophomore forward Kawhi Leonard left for the NBA draft. Additionally, center Brian Carlwell was denied a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA.