Patience pays off for Alpena's Brian Dutcher, from Michigan to San Diego State

By Matt Schoch
The Detroit News

There are times he misses his younger days, fishing in Alpena.

But though he rarely gets up to Lake Huron anymore, Brian Dutcher still regularly reels in the big ones.

San Diego State head coach Brian Dutcher has won 73 games in three seasons as the Aztecs' head coach.

From Juwan Howard to Jalen Rose to Chris Webber and later Kawhi Leonard, the longtime assistant recruited a list of all-timers — McDonald’s All-Americans turned lottery picks and later nine-figure NBA earners.

But while his third season as San Diego State’s head coach came to an abrupt halt this month like the rest of the world, Dutcher is truly making waves in his long-awaited time in the big chair.

“Life’s about what you learn after you think you know everything,” Dutcher said last week, reflecting on how he spent over 30 years coaching before he became a rookie head coach at 57.

Based on his 30-2 mark this year with the Aztecs, earning national coach of the year honors from USA Today, “Dutch” certainly learned a lot from coaching mentors like Lou Henson at Illinois, Bill Frieder and Steve Fisher at Michigan, and his father, Jim Dutcher.

“I never look at coaching as a sprint,” Dutcher said. “I think a lot of young coaches are in a hurry to get here, to get there, and they take a bad job. And then you look, and they’re out of the business in three years. So I’ve always enjoyed everywhere I’ve been.

“I’ve enjoyed the people I’ve been with. I’ve always approached coaching as a marathon, a business that I wanted an opportunity to retire in. And there aren’t many coaches that can retire in this business.”

Head coach in waiting

Despite the novel coronavirus spread canceling the NCAA Tournament, there appears to be no slowing down Dutcher at SDSU, where he took over for Fisher in 2017 after the former Michigan head coach spent 18 seasons leading the Aztecs.

Fisher’s run included six straight trips to the NCAA Tournament, buoyed by Dutcher's recruitment of Leonard, now on the short list of the world’s best players.

During much of that run, Dutcher officially was tabbed as “head coach in waiting” by SDSU, a title he had for six seasons.

While those arrangements sometimes fracture in time, Dutcher said his relationship with Fisher was key in keeping him loyal to SDSU while other opportunities were out there.

“It wasn’t like I was here two years and then named coach in waiting. This is my 21st year on campus, so I’ve been a part of the rebuilding and the beauty of working with Coach Fisher, and he’s never afraid to delegate, to let good people work,” Dutcher said. “I couldn’t have done it if I had to sit on the sideline for 18 years at San Diego State, or 10 at Michigan, and watch him work, just sitting there. 

“Steve is good that way. He lets you work and you feel like you’re contributing.”

There’s no doubt Dutcher contributed for Fisher’s teams, serving as lead recruiter for Michigan, including as the primary man to land Juwan Howard, getting the Fab Five ball rolling a few decades ago, resulting in many March wins amid a seismic cultural moment.

Reflecting on that time now, Dutcher said he's most proud of the Fab Fivers as men, citing their post-playing accomplishments as evidence.

San Diego State head coach Brian Dutcher, center, and players hold up the Mountain West Championship trophy after beating New Mexico, 82-59, to clinch the regular-season crown.

'You believe in him'

Late in his first season as head coach in Ann Arbor, Howard said the same thing about "Dutch."

“I knew when I first met him that he was genuinely a good guy,” Howard said. “And then when I got a chance to really spend time with him in practice and listen to him teach, and work with him and saw how he helped develop me in many ways, it’s no surprise to see him be successful as a head coach.”

Their bond forged decades ago when Howard was a teenager in Chicago remains strong, and Howard keeps a close watch on his former coach, saying he roots for SDSU as long as he never matches up with Dutcher.

“I can see how his players play so hard, play well together because a guy like Dutch, who is a great leader — you believe in him, you trust him,” Howard said. “He’s a guy who you can truly know that he really cares for you.”

Dutcher’s first year on Michigan’s staff was 1989, when Fisher took over for Frieder to win the national championship.

Dutcher's father, Jim, was coach at Alpena Community College when Brian was born. When Brian was a grade-schooler, the Dutchers moved down state as Jim took over at Eastern Michigan, then became an assistant for Johnny Orr at Michigan.

Brian Dutcher spent his freshman year at Ypsilanti High School before Jim moved again to Minnesota to become head coach for 11 seasons. 

Brian was a student manager on his father’s teams in college, then moved to Illinois as a graduate assistant before a short stint at South Dakota State before coming to Michigan.

Now 60, Dutcher guided a special season at San Diego State, setting the tone early in the second game of the season by overcoming a nine-point second-half deficit to win for the first time in seven tries at BYU.

The Aztecs then went to Las Vegas for a Thanksgiving tournament, beating Creighton by 31 points and overcoming a 16-point hill to beat Iowa by 10 in the finals.

“You start believing like: This team is real,” Dutcher said. “We found a way to fight through the tough times, we’ve got a lot of talent, and they’re about the right things.

“Then you start to really believe and that’s what kind of happened with this team.”

SDSU won its first 26 games before falling 66-63 at UNLV on Feb. 22. The season actually ended with a second loss on a late 3-pointer by Utah State in the Mountain West Conference championship game on March 7.

Ranked No. 6 in the final Associated Press poll one spot ahead of Creighton, the Aztecs were headed to a high seed in the NCAA Tournament, primed to make the deep March run that had evaded Fisher during his successful stint.

For all the recruiting of prep phenoms that Dutcher has done over the years, his best team this season was built on transfers. SDSU will now graduate forward Yanni Wetzell, a Vanderbilt transfer, along with guard KJ Feagin, who came from Santa Clara.

Whether Dutcher can have a repeat performance next season largely hinges on Malachi Flynn, who earned second-team All-American honors in his first year with the Aztecs after transferring from Washington State. Flynn could be NBA bound instead of returning for his senior year.

Meanwhile, Fisher was along for the ride with Dutcher. The retired coach came to the office every day with his son, Mark, a special assistant for the Aztecs who has been fighting ALS since 2011.

The familial circle still extends to Jim Dutcher, who lives in Minneapolis and occasionally travels down to California to watch his son coach.

You can easily see the benefits of Brian Dutcher living his theory, not chasing opportunities and risking possible detours to the wrong spot.

And as he enjoys picturesque San Diego and its perfect weather, there’s no doubt Dutcher is sitting pretty in the college basketball world.

“I’ve been part of some craziness obviously, but I’ve had a heck of a journey coaching and I’ve enjoyed every minute of it,” he said. “I’m not really enjoying this one that much, when we can’t play. But I’ve been a part of some wonderful things in college basketball.”

Matt Schoch is a freelance writer.