Q & A with Cindy Fisher, who continues to enjoy success at the helm of San Diego
In 10 seasons at San Diego (this is her 11th in charge), Cindy Fisher has created one of the most consistently successful women’s basketball programs on the West Coast. So, it should come as no surprise that, in 2015–16, the Toreros are once again off to a strong start.
This past Wednesday, hours before her San Diego team was set to face Cal State Northridge on the road, Cindy Fisher took time to talk with Alley Whoops.
The Toreros won that game, and after taking down another strong California program in Fresno State, on Saturday, (USD fought back from a seven-point fourth quarter deficit for a 72–68 win) they have leapt out to an 8–1 record.
It’s not just the players she’s attracted to USD; it’s the way she’s developed them. A Toreros roster is redolent in versatility, skill, and unselfishness. This season is no different. There are stars in the form of two sisters, but there are contributors throughout. Keep an eye on this team as the season heads into conference play. The Toreros are going to make a run at a West Coast Conference title.
Alley Whoops: San Diego had endured a series of losing seasons before you took this job in 2005. What convinced you to commit to this program?
Cindy Fisher: You know, it’s kind of funny. When I was at Wyoming, San Diego State was in our conference. Every time we came to San Diego, I’d think, ‘This is a nice place, to be out of the cold.’ Here was a smaller, private, Catholic school, in the West Coast Conference, and I had it in the back of my mind. I thought, if that job ever came open, I would love to live there. The city and the university were very appealing.
So when the job came open, I threw my name in the hat, and fortunately enough, I got it. I wanted to stay on the West Coast, and before that, Wyoming had offered me a new five-year contract, but I went to coach with Connie (Yori) at Nebraska for two seasons. A lot of people thought I was crazy, but I always thought that if the right position came open, I’d be ready.
There’s been just one losing season, your first on the job. By Year Three, the Toreros were dancing. What were your keys for building the program?
I think with every coaching position, it comes down to hiring the right staff, having people you’re comfortable with day in, day out, and making recruiting a high, high priority. We were very fortunate to be able to bring in top recruits, and there’s been consistency in my staff. My top two assistants have been with me my whole head coaching career, really. So that consistency and stability helps recruiting, and you build from that base.
It’s always fun to get a sense of how previous stops informed a coach’s approach. Can you pinpoint learning experiences from your time as an assistant, as well as the head coaching term at Wyoming?
I think first and foremost, you have to be a person that is willing to make a lot of sacrifices, and spend a lot of time becoming a successful head coach. Through that, I’ve been blessed to work with people like Wendy Larry at Old Dominion. I was able to watch that program grow into a Final Four contender, and that gave me the confidence to take the Wyoming job.
That was tough to rebuild, to get to where I was proud of that program, and then leave that stiuation and work for Connie (Yori). I think she’s one of the top three coaches in the country. I learned so much from her, and not only just on the court, but she’s really a disciplinarian, and very structured. I took what I learned from her and Wendy, and then Carla Taylor when I was an assistant at Weber State, another one who’s been in the game for a long time
I’ve been very blessed to work with great people, and then come up with my own philosophies based on my experience. I sit in on men’s practices all the time, I love picking people’s brains. You have to commit yourself to this game, to have success.
The Hoods have been nothing short of sensational to start this season. What did you talk about with them this summer, re: taking on an even greater role this season?
They’re winners. They come from La Jolla Country Day, and coach (Terri) Bamford has put together so many successful seasons. So they understand what winning is, what it means to compete, and they don’t like to lose. That’s part of it, they’ve been around that kind of culture, and a big part of their success comes from just working hard.
Maya Hood is one of the hardest-working players I’ve coached. And they both really are. Malina, this being her senior year, she still that sense of urgency. She wants to leave a legacy, and being our only senior (Maya is a redshirt-junior), so there’s a lot on her shoulders.
Maya’s playing out of position, since our starting 4 went down with an ACL injury—and Maya is 5–10, but she has the heart of a lion, and she can guard anyone in the country at that size. It’s been kind of fun watching her transition.
Katherine Hamilton and Cori Woodward each have nearly 2:1 assist-to-turnover ratios. How happy have you been with your lead guards? What do you expect from them, in terms of setting the tone?
Cori has just come out of the woodwork. She’s evolved into an amazing point guard, and her leadership, composure on the floor, and understanding of the game keeps gets better.
She joked the other day, while we were watching film of the Washington State game, she said ‘If this was two years ago, I’d have had 11 turnovers by now; now, I’ve only got two!
Her confidence has skyrocketed. And with Katherine Hamilton as your other guard, they’re both very good combo guards. Kat is as good an athlete as there is in our conference. She’s a player who can take ‘it’ to another level. And she’s become steady, too.
The past four seasons have had 20 wins, and these are in the realm of 25 each term. Is it exciting to sense that this program is now getting primed for a surge in the next level?
I attribute it to players that want to get better, and learn and understand that development plays a big part in that. We’ve been a program that takes kids other people might be questioning, who are right on that bubble, and we go with them.
Take Sophia Ederaine from last year. A lot of people passed on her, because they thought she wasn’t big or skilled enough. She weighed 140 pounds at 6–3, but we took her, and by senior year, she was the country’s leading shot blocker, and the WCC Defender of the Year.
It’s developing players, seeing their potential, and making sure they want to get better. They might not be there right at the moment, but they’re willing to put in the time. We’ve been fortunate. This year, Malina Hood, and Maya too, they were both recruited out of high school, but Maya was highly recruited. I loved both, and Malina has evolved into a top guard in the country.
But Katelyn McDaniel, it was a horrible decision not to give her a sixth year of eligibility — she missed the cut-off by half a game. She’s having a successful career in Germany, doing really well. She’s another one of the players that have succeeded in this program: a little undersized, but with a work ethic to get to anther level.
Are there particular accomplishments you’re particularly proud of? The 15–0 start, tops for any USD team in history, in ‘13–14? The NCAA tournament appearance? WNIT Final Four?
You hit on all of them! They all stick out. I think some of the big wins for us, over the years, a lot of success hosting the Maggie Dixon Classic over Christmas, we’ve had some big wins, and some really nice big-conference wins. San Diego State is such a rival, and that’s a big game every year you’re proud of.
The thing for us is watching the players develop. We have one or two or more play pro overseas every year. It’s why I do what I do. Watching the development of these ladies, being strong and confident so that when they leave they can go do whatever they want.
The only loss this season has come to Washington State. What were you looking for, in terms of testing your team, in that game? What did you come away happy with? What needs to be worked on?
I think the biggest thing I’ve been happiest with is the effort. Playing through every possession, not getting rattled if things don’t go well. A couple of kids have gotten into foul trouble some games, and one game, Maya and Malina were both on the bench. The young kids gave quality minutes in that one to end the first half.
So it’s quality effort, being strong in the post. We’re not super-deep in the post, so we have to be calculated in what we do. We’re outrebounding teams now, but that’ll be much harder as we move into conference play and face teams with serious height, like Gonzaga, BYU, and Saint Mary’s.