'That's love!': How Michigan's Fab Five legacy runs through San Diego State at Final Four

SAN DIEGO – Brian Dutcher’s phone has been going a little crazy since Sunday. After his team beat Creighton that day to advance to the Final Four, the San Diego State men’s basketball coach got slammed with congratulatory text messages and calls, including five that seemed to travel through time from 30 years ago.

Flash back to April 1993. That was when Dutcher last coached in the Final Four, then as an assistant at Michigan under then-head coach Steve Fisher. It also was the last time they all were together as players and coaches – Dutcher and the five freshmen he helped recruit to Michigan in 1991.

Thirty years later, they remain one of the greatest recruiting classes in college basketball history:

Chris Webber, Juwan Howard, Jalen Rose, Jimmy King and Ray Jackson.

Each is now 49 or 50. But they were and always will be “The Fab Five.”

“I’ve heard from all five of them,” Dutcher told USA TODAY Sports on Tuesday. “They texted me 'Good luck,' 'Congratulations,' 'Go get ‘em.' "

They also told him to keep it going. They fell short the last time, when they lost to North Carolina in the national championship game, 77-71, on April 5, 1993. They had the same fate the year before, either, when they became the first starting lineup of five freshmen to play for the national title but lost to Duke.

Now they are back with their hearts, if not their bodies.

The Aztecs play Florida Atlantic in a national semifinal game Saturday at 6 p.m. ET in Houston.

“If they make it to the championship, I might have to interrupt my life and fly out there and go represent,” Rose told USA TODAY Sports in an interview Wednesday.

And if they win it all?

“I don’t physically get a (championship) ring, but in my heart, I get a diamond,” Rose said.

Former Fab Five guard Jimmy King put it like this: “I wouldn’t say it would be vindication for us, but at least it would be a completion,” King told USA TODAY Sports

It’s that personal for the Fab Five. Here’s why.

Michigan's Fab Five from left, Jimmy King, Juwan Howard, Chris Webber, Jalen Rose and Ray Jackson.
Michigan's Fab Five from left, Jimmy King, Juwan Howard, Chris Webber, Jalen Rose and Ray Jackson.

Fab Five family reunion

This has been quite a month for Dutcher and San Diego State. Since March 24, the Aztecs have won the biggest two games in school history, first against No. 1 seed Alabama in the Sweet 16, then against Creighton with a last-second free-throw to earn a trip to the national semifinals.

Now they’re going to their first Final Four ever, the capstone of a decades-long success story that began with a meeting in Michigan in 1988, when Dutcher got hired at Michigan and met Fisher, then an assistant coach under head coach Bill Frieder.

Since then, their run includes some of the most iconic moments and remarkable achievements in college basketball. And it all sort of feels like a family reunion now that “Dutch” is back in the Final Four, 30 years since his last one.

Fisher retired in 2017, handing the reins to Dutcher, his right-hand man for nine seasons at Michigan and then 18 more as his assistant at San Diego State from 1999 to 2017.

Dutcher, 63, still gave Fisher credit on national TV after those last two tournament wins.

Then Fisher’s phone started making noise. It was more messages from the Fab Five, who communicate with each other with a group text. Fisher, 78, also heard from Los Angeles Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka, a bench player on those same Fab Five teams.

Fisher is fired up about the Aztecs, too.

“Oh yeah,” Fisher said in a phone interview this week. “It’s an amazing accomplishment that has excited a fan base, a community, a city and a state. It’s absolutely fantastic.”

But it would not have been possible without what they did together long before that.

Wounds remain from Michigan tenure

Fisher plans to attend the game Saturday with his son, Mark, a non-coaching assistant to Dutcher. This is unofficially Steve Fisher’s fourth Final Four, only this time as the godfather of a program he built from from the bottom in 1999.

The present built upon that past, though not all of it is remembered fondly. It still includes a bit of heartache for Fab Five players after Fisher was fired in 1997 in the wake of a booster scandal involving illicit payments to Webber and other Michigan players. Neither Fisher nor Dutcher were linked to the major NCAA violations involved, but the team was required to erase that era from the record books and vacate its Final Four accomplishments in 1992 and 1993. To this day, no banners commemorating those Final Fours hang from the rafters of the Crisler Center.

“If you go to that campus, you don’t see his (Fisher’s) or Dutch’s name anywhere,” said Rose, now an analyst for ESPN. “You may see a picture of the Fab Five in the athletic department somewhere. Other than that, the university tried to cleanse itself of our coaching staff and of us.”

The scandal seems quaint by today’s standards, when college players are allowed to be financially compensated for use of their names, images and likenesses, unlike back then. “Now it becomes almost like they’re holding a grudge if you just look at the landscape at intercollegiate basketball or sports,” Rose said of Michigan’s lack of recognition of the Fab Five era.

Rose said those wounds started to heal after Michigan hired fellow Fab Five star Juwan Howard as head coach in 2019. They remain hopeful the banners will be raised eventually.

“It’s a slower-moving process than we would like and that’s all,” King said.

Now that Dutcher is back in the Final Four, Rose said it also reinforces the notion that it’s not the banners that matter. It’s the relationships. He said it only adds to a larger Fab Five legacy that will be judged by history as one of the best stories in the history of sports.

The extended history

It starts with Fisher and Dutch setting off a sequence of wild accomplishments that lead all the way to NRG Stadium in Houston this week:

►First they won a national championship at Michigan in 1989 after Frieder was not allowed to coach the team in the NCAA Tournament. Frieder had taken a new job at Arizona State, leading to sweeping changes that suddenly left Fisher in charge as head coach, with Dutcher right at his side at age 29.

►Then they recruited the Fab Five, who arrived in the fall of 1991, and went to two more Final Fours, making it three in five seasons.

►They started over together at San Diego State in 1999 after Fisher’s dismissal. Fisher wasn’t even the school's first choice. A deal to hire then-Utah coach Rick Majerus fell through, leading the Aztecs to hire Fisher, whose success at Michigan got him the job and opened some doors in a seaside city that otherwise ignored SDSU basketball.

Back then, the Aztecs were one of the worst programs in America, having finished 4-22 the year before with only three tournament appearances in their previous 29 years.

“It was apathy at best,” Fisher said. “Nobody came. Nobody cared.”

Fisher said he spoke at more than 80 community events his first year to drum up interest in his program, even giving away game tickets at dorms and fraternities.

Now San Diego State is one of the best basketball programs in California over a 13-year stretch dating to when future NBA superstar Kawhi Leonard came to campus as a freshman in 2009-10. Dutcher recruited him, too.

San Diego State soaring in California

The recruitment of Leonard – and the success that followed up to now – mark one of the greatest sustained resurrections in the history of the sport. The Aztecs have had more tournament appearances (10) than any of the other 25 Division I teams in California since Leonard's arrival and have the fifth-best winning percentage in America (.759) during that time, behind only Gonzaga, Kansas, Duke and Kentucky.

Dutcher now is in his sixth season as head coach, a run that includes a 26-0 start in 2019-20 before the NCAA Tournament was canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

His success this season can be traced back to the same ingredients that made his teams so good in those previous tournament runs: defense, continuity, loyalty and recruiting.

Dutcher’s roster is led by several senior transfer players, including guard Matt Bradley (California) and guard Darrion Trammell (Seattle), who sank the winning free throw Sunday to beat Creighton.

Trammell, 22, also knows about Rose and the Fab Five even though he was born in 2000. He learned about them after watching an ESPN documentary that debuted in 2011.

“After the documentary, I kind of started following (Rose) a little bit and watching his game,” Trammell said in an interview this week with USA TODAY Sports. He knew it tied to San Diego State, whose history is a big reason he transferred there.

“I just had the idea that San Diego State was always at the top of the Mountain West, always in the tournament, always seems to be the underdog somehow still,” Trammell said. “I just liked the idea, their culture and things like that. I heard about the Fab Five. I heard about their staff being over there and how they recruit.”

That legacy lives on for a reason.

That Fab Five fame

The Fab Five story still resonates: Those five freshmen played for the title against defending champion Duke in 1992. Then the same five players tried to slay heavyweight North Carolina as sophomores in 1993. And they did it with a style and brand of their own, with black socks, baggy shorts and a certain amount of individual swagger.

Dutcher was the lead recruiter back then, Fisher said. It came naturally to him as an upbeat and personable Michigan native and son of a longtime coach, Jim Dutcher, who had his own set of legendary players at Eastern Michigan (George Gervin) and Minnesota (Kevin McHale).

Brian Dutcher “related well with people,” Fisher said. “He’s easy to like and someone that is not a self-promoter. He’s someone who does his job and is happy doing his job and goes home. And he’s happier when he goes home with his family. That doesn’t happen all the time at all places.”

Dutcher called the latest run a result of a “shared vision” with Fisher.

“Even though I’m the one coaching in the Final Four, this is something we both thought could happen,” Dutcher said.

It’s happened before, and there was a different kind of reminder of it on the wall behind him this week in San Diego when he was interviewed by CBS – a framed No. 5 jersey of Rose from the Indiana Pacers and a framed No. 4 jersey of Webber from the Sacramento Kings.

“That’s love!” Rose said. “That’s my guy right there!”

He plans to watch Saturday from Atlanta. King also plans to watch from Michigan, where he is back in school hoping to complete the academic work he started 30-plus years ago.

“I anticipate there will be more (text) messages this weekend than last,” King said. “I anticipate this being even more of a family affair, a love affair, than last week. This will be huge.”

Follow reporter Brent Schrotenboer @Schrotenboer. E-mail: bschrotenb@usatoday.com

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: San Diego State's Final Four run becomes a Fab Five family reunion