Alpena native Brian Dutcher leads San Diego State to Final Four

San Diego State head coach Brian Dutcher holds the remains of the net after a Elite 8 college basketball game between Creighton and San Diego State in the South Regional of the NCAA Tournament, Sunday, March 26, 2023, in Louisville, Ky. San Diego State won 57-56. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

ALPENA — Amid the excitement and buzz surrounding one of the biggest games of his career, Brian Dutcher may seek out just a quiet moment or two for himself to soak it all in.

In a coaching career that’s taken him everywhere from Minnesota to South Dakota to Michigan to California in more than three decades, the Alpena native is just two wins away from college basketball’s pinnacle.

Dutcher will lead his San Diego State Aztecs against Florida Atlantic in the first of two Final Four national semifinals tonight at NRG Stadium in Houston. Tip-off is scheduled for 6:09 p.m. and the winner advances to play either Connecticut or Miami in Monday’s national championship game.

“It’s a great profession, but it’s hard,” Dutcher said. “I’ve enjoyed every place I’ve been and I’ve always taken time to smell the roses along the way.”

For a kid who was born in Alpena, attended Ella White Elementary School, spent summers on Grand Lake and watched his dad coach basketball once upon a time at Alpena Community College, basketball has long been in Dutcher’s blood and coaching in a Final Four is something he doesn’t take for granted.

In this year’s NCAA Tournament, the fifth-seeded Aztecs defeated College of Charleston and Furman to reach the Sweet 16. They then knocked off top-seeded Alabama to reach the Elite Eight and outlasted Creighton for a 57-56 win to reach the Final Four.

That advanced the Aztecs to their first Final Four and made Dutcher the oldest coach to make his Final Four debut in more than two decades.

“It’s been a blessing,” Dutcher said this week of San Diego State’s season. “I went to three of them as a coach at Michigan with Coach (Steve) Fisher. I’ve spent 24 years here and to see it all come to fruition like it did is very rewarding.”

Dutcher will appear in his fourth Final Four as a coach and first as a head coach. He was part of Michigan teams that made back-to-back title game appearances in 1992 and 1993 during the program’s Fab Five era under Fisher.

He was also part of Michigan’s staff during its national championship win in 1989. Dutcher was originally hired by Bill Frieder — a former Alpena High School JV basketball coach — but came under Fisher’s tutelage after Frieder left for Arizona State on the eve of the NCAA Tournament.

Though Dutcher never coached in Alpena, his love of coaching was fostered by watching his dad, Alpena Sports Hall of Famer Jim Dutcher.

One of Hall of Fame’s inaugural inductees, Jim Dutcher won more than 100 games as ACC’s coach and led the Lumberjacks to the National Junior College finals. From there, he went on to coach at Eastern Michigan and Minnesota, where he won Big Ten Coach of the Year honors in 1982.

Brian Dutcher worked for his father as an undergraduate at Minnesota and later coached high school basketball in Minnesota and as a graduate assistant at Illinois before moving on to South Dakota State University.

“I worked for him as a student manager,” Dutcher said of his father. “I knew I wasn’t good enough to play, but I wanted to coach. It’s a case where the son always wanted to do what his dad did and that’s what happened.”

Dutcher was one of Fisher’s most trusted advisors for more than two decades and followed him to San Diego State in 1999. He’s been there ever since and became the head coach in 2017 following Fisher’s retirement.

Working alongside Fisher, Dutcher had a hand in the recruitment and development of numerous NBA players, including Chris Webber, Juwan Howard, Jalen Rose and Kawhi Leonard.

In six seasons as San Diego State’s coach, Dutcher has won 76% of his games and has guided the Aztecs to four NCAA Tournament appearances, three Mountain West Conference Tournament titles and three regular season Mountain West titles — including both the regular season and tournament titles this season.

Dutcher said the Aztecs’ success this season is the realization of years of hard work and the belief that someday the program could get to a Final Four.

“Coach Fisher and I thought we could do it,” Dutcher said. “We put in a lot of hard work, had a lot of good players and had some really good teams.There’s a lot of talkers in coaching but with Coach Fisher I learned that his greatest quality is he was always a good listener.”

This year’s Final Four may be devoid of traditional blue-blood programs — three of the four teams remaining are making their first Final Four appearance — and that suits Dutcher just fine.

As part of one of the most surprising Final Fours in recent memory, Dutcher is happy for the opportunity his team has tonight.

Regardless of the result, he’ll have the support of many Northeast Michiganders tonight, including an uncle and several cousins who still live in the area as well as friends, well-wishers and former classmates.

“Everybody wants parity and everyone wants Cinderella, but it’s like they don’t want too many Cinderellas; they want blue bloods,” Dutcher said. “I know those of us who are here for the first time are really happy for our opportunity.”


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