MINNEAPOLIS — There are 350 Division I men’s basketball programs in the NCAA. There remains one unbeaten: San Diego State, 18-0 overall and 7-0 in the Mountain West heading into Saturday’s game against Nevada.
This is Brian Dutcher’s third season as Aztecs coach. Before that, he served as the lead assistant and then head-coach-in-waiting to Steve Fisher for 18 seasons (1999-2017).
There was plenty of success in that time, including a pair of Sweet 16 seasons: 34-3 in 2010-11, with Kawhi Leonard as a sophomore, and 31-5 in 2013-14.
There had to be offers across the spectrum of mid-major conferences for Dutcher to become a head coach much earlier than 2017, at age 57?
“I knew for certain we had the commitment from our administration to have the best possible program,” Dutcher said. “We’re in a great city now with only one major league team. We’re the ‘pro’ basketball team in the eighth-largest city in America.
“This is the best job in our conference. As a coach, that’s what you want … the best job in your conference.”
Jim Dutcher, Brian’s father and the Gophers coach from 1975 to 1986, said: “Brian and Jan, and their daughters, Erin and Liza … they love San Diego. I don’t think Brian would have had the same patience in waiting to be a head coach in any other city.”
Or with any other mentor.
Fisher and Dutcher were assistants to Bill Frieder at Michigan in 1989. Word leaked right before the start of the NCAA Tournament that Frieder had agreed to take the job at Arizona State.
Athletic director Bo Schembechler bellowed, “A Michigan man will coach Michigan,” dismissed Frieder, and with Fisher in charge the Wolverines won the NCAA title.
The Fab Five came in the fall of 1991, played in two national title games, and went. So did booster Ed Martin, with NCAA rules-breaking generosity to players that wiped out records and cost Fisher his job in October 1997.
Dutcher stayed as an assistant to Brian Ellerbe for a season, then came back to Minnesota to work for one year with his father in the investment business.
Fisher was cleared by the NCAA and was hired as San Diego State coach in March 1999. His first hire was Dutcher as an assistant.
Eric Musselman, a coaching vagabond with a great appreciation for San Diego, could only offer good luck to Fisher and Dutcher in trying to build an Aztecs program.
“We moved to San Diego in 1975 when my dad (Bill) left Minnesota and became the coach of the ABA’s Sails,” Musselman said. “That team died quickly, and Dad started moving around, but I lived in San Diego from the fourth grade to the 10th.
“I would go to Aztecs games — me and about 200 other people, in a place called Peterson Gym. It was ‘crickets’ in there.”
There was a new on-campus arena by the time Fisher and Dutcher arrived. It’s now called Viejas Arena. Fisher and Dutcher inherited a four-win team, won five games in 1999-2000, and then the program-building took hold — until the Aztecs became must-see entertainment in the uncrowded San Diego sports market.
“It wasn’t quite as wild in the arena for a couple of years, but it’s back now,” Dutcher said. “Nevada’s here on Saturday … it will be crazy.”
Brian Dutcher knows arena crazy well. He was graduating from the University of Minnesota and video scouting when the Gophers won the 1982 Big Ten title with his father Jim as the coach.
Eric Musselman had his ears split as a kid during his father’s four years coaching in Williams Arena. He’s now 14-2 in Season 1 at Arkansas, after spending the previous four seasons at Nevada as a rival to San Diego State in the Mountain West.
“Remembering what San Diego State basketball used to be, and what Steve and Dutch turned it into — it was just amazing,” Musselman said. “I think that arena (Viejas) is the toughest place to play in the country. The walls shake.”
Musselman’s fast turnaround at Nevada was based on numerous transfers. Dutcher has three of those with the Aztecs — including Yanni Wetzell, a New Zealander who was hooked on his San Diego visit by the chance to go surfing.
Jim Dutcher, daughter Barb and her husband Mark flew to San Diego to take in the home games with Nevada on Saturday and Wyoming next Tuesday.
Meantime, a dozen of Musselman’s longtime San Diego basketball friends — mostly from the outdoor courts of La Jolla — are flying to Arkansas for the Razorbacks’ game on Saturday vs. Kentucky.
Brian Dutcher has spent the past 21 years coaching and living in San Diego. Eric has been a head coach or assistant in six NBA stops, four in minor league basketball and four in colleges in a quarter-century of coaching.
Considering Eric’s fondness for San Diego, he was asked if he would trade his coaching resume with Dutcher?
“I wouldn’t trade this life and the experiences in coaching for anything,” Musselman said. “But, and I’ve actually told people this, if I could come back in a second life, I’d want to be Dutch.”
©2020 Star Tribune (Minneapolis)