Steve Fisher makes return: 'I loved my experience at Michigan'

James Hawkins
The Detroit News
Former Michigan coach Steve Fisher heads to his seat for Sunday's game against Michigan State.

Ann Arbor — It had been over 20 years since Steve Fisher last set foot inside Crisler Center.

So, when Fisher returned to be honored with Michigan’s 1989 national title team he led as interim coach, he wondered how he would be received by the fans.

His answer came in the form of roaring applause during Sunday’s showdown that saw No. 10 Michigan State take down No. 7 Michigan, 77-70.

"(Wife) Angie and I are thrilled to be back in town,” Fisher said before the game. “When we drove into Ann Arbor, a lot of memories flashed back, a lot of great memories. I looked at her and I said, 'I haven't been back in Crisler since 1997.' That's a long time. But I'm here and I'm excited to be here.”

Fisher, 73, was introduced at halftime along with 11 members of the 1989 title team as part of a 30-year anniversary celebration for the program's lone national championship. 

After he was promoted on the eve of the NCAA Tournament and took over for Bill Frieder, Fisher helped the Wolverines "shock the world" with an improbable six-game postseason run with wins over Xavier, South Alabama, North Carolina, Virginia, Illinois and Seton Hall.

“I talk often about when the team wins, everybody's boat rises,” Fisher said. “In this case, nobody's goes higher than mine. I became the head coach at Michigan.

“When things happen like it happened to me, it's usually somebody else. All of a sudden, it's me in the crosshairs of what happened in the sport of basketball that probably never happened before and won't happen again. But it did happen.”

Fisher went on to lead the Wolverines to six more NCAA Tournament appearances, highlighted by back-to-back national title game appearances with the famed "Fab Five" in 1992 and 1993.

But Fisher's legacy took a complicated turn in October 1997, when he was abruptly fired due to fallout from the Ed Martin payment scandal and his role in arranging complimentary tickets for Martin.

Fisher denied having any knowledge of the money Martin, a former booster, gave to several players during his time with the program. While Fisher was never punished by the NCAA, he was still found at fault for allowing Martin access to his players.

The scandal eventually led to the university imposing its own sanctions on the men’s basketball program and removing the 1992 and 1993 Final Four banners from the rafters in 2002. The NCAA followed up with its own penalties in 2003.

“Things happen in life,” Fisher said. “I loved my experience at Michigan. I didn't like the way it ended. But I loved my experience at Michigan."

According to Fisher, the last time he was in Crisler Center was when he watched his former players beat No. 1-ranked Duke on Dec. 13, 1997, two months after he had been fired.

Fisher added he's only been back to Ann Arbor a few times since then, like for Bo Schembechler's funeral in 2006. Yet, Sunday's return to campus was largely spurred by his former players and friends, including Michigan coach John Beilein.

"John Beilein and I have been friends for a long, long time," Fisher said. "He is a fantastic coach and a better human being. I think most people that know him would say that. He's one of the reasons I came back, John Beilein."

Fisher said he never thought he’d leave the Midwest and he didn’t want to follow Frieder to Arizona State, which was a possible destination before he “drew the winning number” and landed the Michigan job.

But after nine seasons and 185 wins at Michigan, Fisher headed out west in 1999 when he was hired by San Diego State, where he inherited a program coming off a 4-22 year and had only one winning record in the previous 14 seasons.

Fisher led the Aztecs to 386 wins and eight NCAA Tournament appearances in 18 seasons before retiring at the end of the 2016-17 campaign.

“Sometimes what you think is your most crushing professional disappointment turned out, for me, to be the greatest opportunity to go to a place, America's finest city, and we spent 18 years there as the head coach,” Fisher said. “I'm still employed there. It's an environment where because they weren't any good and because we became good, there's an immense appreciation for what we did.”

And 30 years later, the same rings true at least for what Fisher helped the Wolverines achieve in 1989.

“Having Steve and Angie in the house was absolutely fantastic,” Beilein said. “I know it's been a long time and we could never get them back here because he was still coaching. This sort of happened to work out and I couldn't be happier. I know he's happier.

"It's been a long time since he was in this building and I think it goes a long way with our program.”

Twitter: @jamesbhawkins