Montana State University

Spring 2015

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Mountains and Minds

‘Born in a small town’ May 12, 2015 by Bill Lamberty • Published 05/12/15

Brian Fish
Brian Fish

Montana State’s first-year head basketball coach Brian Fish, who grew up in the town John Mellencamp has written songs about and in the state that inspired the movie Hoosiers, lays out a simple plan for rebuilding the Bobcats into a championship program.

“First, you have to put people first,” Fish said. “As the head coach, you’re never bigger than the university, you’re never bigger than the program.

“The second thing is putting the players first, making sure the players have what they need to be successful and letting them know you care,” he continued. “The third thing is, the more you get people to buy into you and your program, the more times they’ll go outside the box to help you with it.”

Fish’s philosophy is striking not for what it includes, but for what it doesn’t. Specifically, his philosophy statement does not include the word basketball.

“The basketball part will come,” he said. “That’s the part you look at and feel you know what you’re going to do. But, if people haven’t bought into your program, you go through too many ups and downs. We can’t do that. Consistent programs don’t do that. To be consistent, you need a consistent work ethic, you need consistency with your players. Whether it’s the players or the people in help positions … there is always a little extra they can give if they’ve bought into your program.”

Fish is the product of a small Indiana town who breathed basketball from his earliest moments without ever forgetting that the object of his passion is not a leather ball but the process of five people working together to get it into a basket.

“He’s a real personable guy, and what I appreciate as a player is that he always has our backs,” said senior center Blake Brumwell. “I think you really build good relationships because of that.”

Guard Michael Dison said Fish’s influence doesn’t end at the Worthington Arena walls.

“He’s helped me a lot,” said Dison, a Houston product who has dealt with family issues from thousands of miles away during his senior season. “He sits down with me, helps me get through things like stuff I’m going through with my family. He has confidence in me, and that helps me a lot, too.”

Fish’s path to MSU has been circuitous, but also speaks to the importance of interpersonal connectivity in his life.

Fish grew up in Seymour, Ind., also rocker Mellencamp’s hometown, and Mellencamp’s song about living in that town is now a classic. Also classic is the impact of basketball on small town Indiana.

“It affects your life in so many ways,” Fish says of the basketball culture in Indiana. “It’s constantly on TV. It’s constantly talked about at your grade schools, your high schools. When I was growing up, my high school team, in a town of about 16,000, played in a high school gym that held 8,300 people. It was the third largest in the entire country. As a kid we used to have to wait in line and draw pingpong balls to see if we got to go to the games. When you’re 6, 7, 8 years old, that certainly makes an impression.”

Not only was the game of basketball ever present during Fish’s formative years, so, too, was success.

“What’s funny is, it’s a church-driven town, and I’d be sitting in church and the starting forward on the high school team would walk in, and he was just like Michael Jordan for me. I wanted to be him. To sit there and want to be that guy was a motivating factor.”

When Fish graduated from Seymour High, he chose Western Kentucky where he was recruited by current Toronto Raptors head coach Dwane Casey, who was then at WKU as an assistant under head coach Clem Haskins. Fish spent two seasons at the school that was only a couple of hours from Seymour. But Casey left after Fish’s first season, then Haskins departed for the University of Minnesota after his second. That left Fish in limbo, and he opted to transfer to Marshall University, then coached by Rick Huckabay, who also had recruited him while he was in high school.

Fish thrived at Marshall, where the Thundering Herd was 64–29 in his three seasons with a pair of conference championships. Huckabay’s departure after Fish’s senior campaign facilitated what he calls “the luckiest thing that ever happened to me. You can’t control the first person that hires you. My first job was with Coach Altman, and I ended up with him for 15 years.” Fish graduated from Marshall in 1989 before joining Altman’s staff as a graduate assistant.

Those 15 years stand for a varied and successful career that led him to Bozeman. Fish held various roles on Altman’s staffs at Marshall, Kansas State, Creighton and Oregon. 

Altman said Fish’s outgoing nature caught his eye immediately upon taking his first Division I head coaching position at Marshall University in 1989.

“He’d just graduated from college then, he’d played there and the people at Marshall really thought a lot of him,” Altman said. “I could tell Brian builds relationships with people very quickly. He’s really a people person, and he’s an energy guy.”

In addition to his years with Altman, Fish was also assistant coach (2003–04) and associate head coach (2004–05) at San Diego, and assistant coach (1996–2002) on Billy Tubbs’ staff at Texas Christian University.

Fish said there was a key moment early in his college career that turned him to coaching.

“My first day of conditioning at Western (Kentucky), I’d trained three or four months to run the mile and win the timed mile (among team members). Two or three guys just blew by me: athletes. And, that told me that a pro career probably wasn’t part of (the plan) anymore and that coaching was probably the more logical way.”

Between his playing and coaching careers, Fish has identified some traits shared by the most successful athletes.

“A lot of the pros I’ve played with or been around are the biggest risk-takers,” he said. “They’re not scared. They play outside the box. They’re willing to do some things. And, sometimes when they get done playing, that gets them in trouble. They still take risks, but that’s what made them great players.

“Another thing is that a lot of guys like that care more about everyone else (than themselves). They’re not so self-centered. They genuinely care about other players. They know they need them to be better. The third thing is they have a constant energy, a constant pep. They’re always ready to go.”

Often, Fish said, the trick to identifying future greatness in basketball lies in finding excellence in a single area.

“Everybody would watch Kyle Korver (now playing for the Atlanta Hawks and a former player at Creighton) and say he’s not a good enough athlete. Yet, we would go every year and run a mini-marathon, and he would win it. He could run all day. You just have guys that are phenomenal at something. There’s something that stands out.”

Fish’s first Bobcat team struggled, finishing 7–21.

“People talk to me after a loss like I’m on suicide watch,” he said with a laugh. But, he’s no stranger to this scenario.

“I trust this process because I’ve seen it work at different schools, in different regions. When we started at Creighton, we won seven games. When we took over at Marshall, we were under NCAA penalties, so (players) could leave. When we took over at Kansas State, we were decimated by loss of talent. When we took over at Oregon, we only had six guys on scholarship.”

Fish said he’s armed with a philosophy forged by the coaches he’s played and worked for.

“They prepared me for this, and I owe each of those guys the hard work it’s going to take to succeed,” he said.

Fish’s certainty that the Bobcat program is moving in the right direction is concrete and convincing.

“But the difference between this team and other teams I’ve gone through this with is that we have really, really, really good guys here. This team is missing some things in terms of pieces and talent, but the kids have bought in and worked hard and done everything we’ve asked them.

“It’s like building a house,” Fish said. “You do a lot of work beneath the ground before you see anything above. But it’s important work. That’s what this year is about.” ■