There's a lot for Brian Dutcher to absorb when he thinks back to the key role he had in recruiting Juwan Howard and the rest of the Fab Five to Michigan.
His fondest memory is forging bonds that will last a lifetime. The toughest is the firing of his boss, Steve Fisher — who so famously led Michigan to the 1989 NCAA title as interim head coach — although that led to the two reuniting at San Diego State and turning a laughingstock into a West Coast power.
Finally, there are smiles when Dutcher recalls his role in outfitting that trend-setting freshman class in those long, baggy shorts.
Dutcher will be back on the sideline at Crisler Center on Saturday afternoon when his Aztecs play No. 24 Michigan, where Howard is the third-year coach.
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Ultimately, Dutcher is hoping his Aztecs (5-2) can get a resume win against Michigan (4-3), which is coming off a 72-51 loss at North Carolina.
“This could be a win that puts us in the NCAA Tournament. We have to approach it like that,” said Dutcher, who found out Wednesday that dynamic sophomore guard Lamont Butler has a broken left wrist and will be out for a few weeks.
It’s a business trip, for sure, but Dutcher, 62, said he’s looking forward to reconnecting with people he’s known for years, starting with Howard, 48.
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Dutcher described his relationship with Howard as “Family. That’s what it’s always been with Juwan, whether it was his junior year of high school, when we first kind of got to know each other, all the way through the recruiting process, the three years we spent together in Ann Arbor, and then post-Ann Arbor, following his career as an NBA player.
“We’ve shared in each other’s lives and it’s going to be great to see him when I get to Ann Arbor and share some of those memories, but at the same time we’re going in there to try to win a basketball game and he’s going to do the same,” Dutcher said.
Dutcher said it was a “perfect storm” to get this game. After Kentucky pulled out of a commitment to play at Michigan, Dutcher reached out to Howard, who filled the slot with the Aztecs.
Howard said he began bonding with Dutcher during the recruiting process when “I just saw the purity in his heart that he really cared about me.”
They stayed in touch during Howard’s career as an NBA player and assistant coach, and Howard has visited Dutcher and his family in San Diego, as well as Fisher and his family.
“They are genuinely family of mine,” Howard said. “When we compete on Saturday, we’re both going to be so locked in to getting our teams ready but at the same time it would never interfere with the special bond we both have.”
Fisher and Dutcher were assistants on Bill Frieder’s Michigan staff in 1988-89. Frieder was fired just before the NCAA Tournament started because he had taken the Arizona State job. The late Bo Schembechler, who was athletic director at time, announced “a Michigan man is going to coach Michigan,” and promoted Fisher.
The Wolverines won the national championship and Fisher got the job on a permanent basis.
Two years later, the Wolverines signed the Fab Five, one of the greatest recruiting classes of all time. Joining Howard were Chris Webber, Jalen Rose, Jimmy King and Ray Jackson.
“Dutch was the lead recruiter on Juwan, and Juwan was the linchpin for the whole group,” Fisher said. “He visited the first weekend, along with Jimmy King and Ray Jackson, and then Juwan helped us recruit."
Dutcher said the legacy of the Fab Five is that they “showed how freshmen can play immediately in college basketball. There was an era where freshmen had to redshirt in college basketball. And then to start five of them and play for a national championship, I think it kind of opened the door for freshmen to come in and be impactful in college basketball programs.”
Besides their talent, the Fab Five had a swagger that included wearing black socks and long, baggy shorts.
“I ordered them, so I know what it was like,” Dutcher said. “Michael Jordan was wearing a tad longer short than everybody, and of course he was everything in basketball at that time. We weren’t the first to wear long shorts; Illinois had long shorts, some other programs had longer shorts. But I put a couple inches and then a couple more inches on them.”
Fisher was fired in October 1997 after an investigation questioned his role in arranging complimentary tickets for the late booster Ed Martin. The NCAA put the program on probation and banned it from postseason play for violations that happened under Fisher during the Fab Five era.
The Fab Five reached the national championship game in 1992 and 1993. Michigan later removed the Fab Five’s Final Four banners from Crisler Arena as part of self-imposed sanctions that stemmed from one of the NCAA’s largest financial scandals.
“Obviously, it’s more personal to Steve. He was fired. He was never accused of committing any NCAA violations,” said Dutcher, who stayed at Michigan for the 1997-98 season and then left. Fisher was hired at SDSU in 1999 and brought Dutcher with him.
Fisher was 386-209 in 18 seasons at SDSU, leading the Aztecs to eight NCAA Tournament berths and five in the NIT.
Dutcher succeeded Fisher in 2017.