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July 9, 2013

SDSU's Dutcher plays pivotal role in Aztecs' past, present and future recruiting efforts

When San Diego State was still in the process of pursuing former Tulane transfer Josh Davis, associate head coach Brian Dutcher arranged for he and head coach Steve Fisher to go on what Fisher would later call "a whirlwind recruiting trip."

It all began when the two SDSU coaches left San Diego on a sunny Saturday morning to fly to Raleigh, North Carolina for a meeting with Davis' mother.

"We were one of the few schools that actually took the time to go in and see the family other than just Josh," Dutcher said. "That went a long way into convincing Josh that we were a good place."

After a productive evening in Raleigh, Fisher and Dutcher caught a 7 a.m. Sunday flight out to New Orleans to meet face-to-face with Davis himself.

And that's when things got interesting.

Just as the plane approached New Orleans, Mother Nature unleashed her fury and almost caused the two SDSU coaches to miss their scheduled meeting with Davis completely.

"It felt like a cross between a tornado and a hurricane when we landed," Fisher described. "We couldn't get to where we wanted to go because of all the flooding that occurred."

Finally, Fisher and Dutcher made it to Tulane's campus to meet with Davis. But the adventure took another twist when the duo got back to the airport after the meeting and missed their flight home.

"I had Dutcher run ahead to get to the gate before they closed it, and he's there fighting with the people at the gate," Fisher recalled. "The plane hadn't left but they wouldn't let us on the plane. One or both of us could've been arrested for the harassment that we gave the gate agent."

But what seemed like a poorly timed setback turned into a blessing in disguise. With the extra time before the next flight home, Dutcher was able to go back out and have lunch with Davis, and had another opportunity to make an impression on the 6-foot-8, 215-pound forward and sell him on the idea of taking his talents to America's Finest City and playing for San Diego State.

"Dutcher can be the good cop or bad cop depending on the circumstance, and he was a little bit of both on that trip," Fisher smiled.


*****


That story had a happy ending, which came on May 15 when Davis committed to SDSU while on an official visit to Montezuma Mesa.

Each member of the staff played a part in landing Davis -- who averaged 17.6 points per game and 10.7 rebounds per game last season and was arguably the best fifth-year transfer on the market -- and making his visit a special one, but Dutcher in particular was the one who took point in his recruitment.

"Once we got going, Brian made it a personal call to do everything he could to build a relationship and do what we could in a short time to get this kid," Fisher said. "And we did."

"He was such a wonderful, sincere kid that there was an instant connection between us and him and he just felt that of all the coaches that were in there, he felt most comfortable with us," Dutcher added.

Just a week before Davis committed to SDSU, the Aztecs had also landed Arizona transfer Angelo Chol, a former Top 75 big man in the 2011 class whose on-court production didn't match his promise and potential over a two-year career in Tucson and who got lost in the shuffle when Sean Miller landed a bevy of five-star forwards in the 2012 and 2013 recruiting classes.

Chol attended nearby Hoover High, and the Aztecs recruited him out of high school. What helped in SDSU's pursuit of the 6-foot-9 power forward was Dutcher's relationship with Chol's mentor and high school coach Ollie Goulston, whom the staff has known since Fisher and Dutcher first came to town in 1999.

"He's got an affinity for Dutcher and I think he's got a trust in him," Fisher said of Goulston. "So often the only time you call somebody is when you want something and we've talked about not doing that, but building relationships, and that's what he's done. (Dutcher)'s gone out and said, 'Hey let's go to lunch Ollie,' or 'Come on over and watch practice.' He does these kinds of things with no agenda."

But Dutcher is also making a mark on SDSU's high school recruits as well. Two of the Aztecs' top 2014 targets, point guard Jordan McLaughlin and shooting guard Trey Kell, have mentioned that they have good relationships with Dutcher. The father of four-star small forward Cameron Walker (a Top 50 prospect in the 2015 class) also says he recently had a good conversation with Dutcher and the family is beginning to develop a stronger relationship with the SDSU associate head coach as well.


*****


SDSU has an iconic head coach with a storied history (Fisher) that immediately draws the attention of every recruit he talks to, and an assistant coach (Justin Hutson) that is considered in recruiting circles to be one of the best talent evaluators and recruiters out West, so oftentimes the work that Dutcher does on the recruiting trail may go overlooked.

But that doesn't mean he isn't an integral part of the staff when it comes to the recruiting side of things.

"You always want to bounce stuff by Dutch, you always want to know his opinion and he's honest and sincere and has a great personality," Hutson said. "So when you add all those things in, it makes him a great recruiter. He's also got a great eye for talent, he really does.

"Nobody knows the business better than Dutch. He really knows people, he really knows the business of college basketball. In college basketball, your lifeblood is recruiting, and he really knows the business of recruiting."

With almost 30 years of collegiate coaching experience dating back to 1986 when Dutcher was an assistant at South Dakota State, you'd be hard-pressed to find a more experienced and qualified No. 2 man in the business. He's been with Fisher since the beginning of Fisher's head coaching career at Michigan, where the two orchestrated the 1991 "Fab Five" recruiting class of Chris Webber, Jalen Rose, Juwan Howard, Jimmy King and Ray Jackson, which many consider to be one of the greatest recruiting classes ever assembled in NCAA basketball history.

"He's well-schooled in what he's doing," Fisher said of his right hand man. "His number one strength is his ability to communicate and relate with people. Young or old, suburb or city, he knows how to communicate with people and knows how to get access but then how to get trust and respect with those you deal with.

"Then you have a track record that you build up over years of doing it that others speak highly of who you are because of how you've dealt with them, be it an AAU coach, a high school coach, a player or a parent. That speaks volumes for you. So he comes with a resume that's built over years."

Dutcher has been at SDSU since the beginning of the rebuilding process, when he and Fisher took over a floundering program coming off a 4-22 season and a decade and a half of futility. At first, it wasn't easy to persuade blue-chip prospects to come and play for a perennial loser. The new coaches had to sell what their dream was, what their vision was for the program. They had to talk about their past at Michigan more so than the present state of the SDSU men's basketball program at that time.

But pretty soon, they started landing some impact guys that would revitalize the program and get the ball rolling on the rebuilding project. Randy Holcomb was the first nationally prominent player to sign with the Aztecs during the new era and was the building block of Fisher's second recruiting class. Soon after, Al Faux and Tony Bland transferred in, and the trio led San Diego State to its first ever Mountain West Tournament title in the 2001-02 season and an appearance in the NCAA Tournament.

"That first recruiting class ended up winning us a conference title within three years," Dutcher said. "Then all of a sudden we went from a vision to reality. We can win here. We've got good players, we're attracting good players, we have a great university and facility and we can win at this place."

And win they did.

It took SDSU another four years to win the conference championship and make it back to the NCAA Tournament, but in 2005-06 the Aztecs began a stretch of eight-straight seasons with at least 20 wins, a streak that continues on to this day.

Of course the most memorable season in that stretch came in 2010-11, when the Aztecs broke into the national rankings for the first time ever and won the Mountain West regular season and tournament titles. SDSU ended the year with a 34-3 record and lost to eventual national champion UConn in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament.

Many fans felt that magical year would be a turning point for recruiting.

"I think the biggest kick I got out of recruiting is when we went 34-3 and everyone's saying, 'Boy, you're really going to be able to get good recruits now,'" Dutcher says. "And my comment back was, 'How are we going to get better recruits than the team that just went 34-3?' That's the misconception that people have."

The misconception Dutcher is referring to is the belief that landing higher-ranked recruits will automatically translate to more success on the court. While there's no doubt that landing highly-touted prospects certainly helps the chances of having a successful program, the coaching staff has built the program on scouting and evaluating talent and finding the guys that slip through the cracks or have a chip on their shoulders, as well as landing impact transfers. Players that are athletic, skilled, fit into the free-flowing, up-tempo system and that buy into the program. Of course there was Kawhi Leonard and Winston Shepard, who were four and five-star recruits coming out of high school, but SDSU has made a living on finding and developing unheralded gems like Jamaal Franklin, Chase Tapley and D.J. Gay.

"I think if we just continue getting the recruits we've always gotten -- guys with high ceilings and high motors that want to get better and aren't finished products when they get here that have an ability to continue to grow as players -- those are the guys we've had great success with," Dutcher says.

SDSU's four consecutive years of making it to the NCAA Tournament has opened some eyes in the recruiting community. Over the past several years the Aztecs have been in the mix for some of the top prospects in the country, and landed a couple too. SDSU's success has given the program exposure, and Kawhi Leonard, Malcolm Thomas and Jamaal Franklin have shown that players can get to the NBA from San Diego State as well.

"You can come, get a great degree, play in a winning program and if all your cards line up and you work hard, you'll have a chance to play in the NBA," Dutcher said. "That's like the perfect storm in recruiting."


*****


After the Sweet 16 season, some people speculated that Fisher might retire.

"Is he done? How much does he have left in the tank?"

"Well, Fisher isn't getting any younger and he's going to be losing four starters. He's definitely going to retire instead of facing another rebuilding project, right?"

"SDSU just went 34-3. Doesn't Fisher want to go out on top?"

Naturally, that made SDSU easy prey for other schools that were recruiting against the Aztecs.

"Recruiting can get dirty," Fisher said. "People were starting to tell recruits that Fisher wasn't going to be there to coach them their whole career and SDSU would need to find a new coach."

To ease those questions, SDSU gave Fisher and Dutcher contract extensions and appointed Dutcher the head coach in waiting.

"It's been critical with putting at ease (the question of) who's going to be my coach," Fisher said of Dutcher having the title of head coach in waiting. "Nobody knows whether I'm going to be here tomorrow but me, and I don't know for sure ... So strictly from a recruiting perspective it's helpful for them to know here's the current coach, here's the next coach. One or both of us will coach you your entire career. It's immensely helpful."

The plan that SDSU has in place doesn't happen very often. Very rarely do you see two coaches work side-by-side for 25 years and have one of them stay and plan to assume head coaching duties when the other retires. With that plan in place, whenever the transition happens it looks like it'll be a pretty seamless one.

"Dutch has been with Coach forever, so a lot of good things had to have rubbed off," Hutson says. "It definitely helps, and Dutch has been an integral part of the success we've had. So we need to let them know that there's going to be continuity. I'm sure Dutch is going to have his own twist on things when he becomes the boss, but we're going to do a lot of things similar to when Coach was here."

As the associate head coach, Dutcher already performs all the same duties that a head coach does: coaching, scouting, game planning, organizing the team and of course, recruiting.

As the head coach in waiting, he's also prepared to take the reins of the program after helping build it up to where it is now, whenever that time may be.

"There's a comfort level where Coach can say, 'Well I don't know how long I'm going, but when I retire Coach Dutcher is going to take over and he's been with me for 25 years,'" Dutcher said. "I think it gives every (recruit) a comfort level to know that Coach might not be there my whole career -- hopefully he is -- but if he's not then they know who they're going to be playing for. It's not going to be some guy they bring in from the outside that they've never met and don't know. It's somebody that they've met in the recruiting process and feel good about.

"I hope he stays another five years and that would be great for us and the program. But understand whenever he decides that he's done I feel as if I'm ready and we'll continue the great tradition that we're starting to build here at San Diego State."

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