SAN DIEGO – Coaching brethren Tom Thibodeau and San Diego State’s Brian Dutcher shook hands and met for the first time at a Timberwolves training camp workout the other day.
Despite their unfamiliarity, each knows well the road the other traveled, with both making stops in Minnesota.
Thibodeau was as an NBA assistant coach for more than 20 years before he became a head coach for the first time with Chicago in 2010 at age 52.
Dutcher worked more than 30 years as a college assistant — including the last 27 beside Steve Fisher at Michigan and San Diego State — before the coach-in-waiting waited no more.
At age 57, the son of former Gophers coach Jim Dutcher finally was promoted to Aztecs’ head coach when Fisher retired after last season. He had been named the university’s “coach-in-waiting” in 2011.
“This is not a hard place to wait,” said Dutcher, who assisted Fisher for 18 seasons in sunny San Diego and helped build a program that won four games before they arrived into a six-time conference champion and an NCAA Sweet 16 tournament team twice.
He moved from one corner office into another, more expansive one that still five months later is only partially decorated. Fisher had named him associate head coach long ago and given him many of a head coach’s duties, but now every final decision will rest on him.
“Even though I actually moved offices like 10 feet, the move six inches from the assistant’s chair to the head coach’s chair is, like I said in my press conference, the hardest distance to travel,” Dutcher said.
A large glass case displays a photo of Dutcher with former mentor and boss Lou Henson, but still has plenty of room to display conference championship rings he owns: As a student manager for his father at Minnesota, as a graduate assistant with Henson at Illinois, as Fisher’s assistant first at Michigan with the famed “Fab Five” class he helped recruit and then at San Diego, where he helped recruit and develop a guy named Kawhi Leonard.
Still unframed and unhung is a photo of former Gophers Kevin McHale, Flip Saunders, Trent Tucker, Randy Breuer, Mychal Thompson, Ray Williams, Mark Olberding and Jim Brewer before they played an exhibition game at the Metrodome against the 1984 U.S. Olympic team that featured Michael Jordan, Patrick Ewing and Chris Mullin but cut Charles Barkley and John Stockton.
On Monday, Dutcher chatted with Wolves assistant coach Ryan Saunders, another son of a coach whom Dutcher has known since Ryan Saunders was a child.
Gophers coach Bill Musselman recruited Ryan’s father, Flip, to play at Minnesota, but Flip Saunders stayed to play for Jim Dutcher after Musselman was fired.
“It was good to see [Ryan], I hadn’t seen him in a long time,” Dutcher said. “I told him his dad might have been the best point guard I had ever seen at the University of Minnesota. It was always amazing to see Flip not only control the game, but control the arena. He could get the crowd up anytime he wanted. He just was the conductor.
“Flip orchestrated not only the team, but he orchestrated the entire environment in the arena. I had never seen anything like it, especially from anybody who was my age. Those years [at Williams Arena] were some really good years.”
Dutcher moved with his father and his family from Michigan when he was in the ninth grade and lived in Minnesota for almost a decade. He attended Bloomington Jefferson and the University of Minnesota. His first coaching job was a year spent as an assistant at Apple Valley High while he did his student teaching. From there, coaching took him to Illinois, South Dakota State, Ann Arbor and a place in San Diego they call Montezuma Mesa. He won a NCAA title and reached two other Final Fours while at Michigan, where his father once coached, too
After all those years and all those stops, he will work his first game as a head coach when San Diego State opens its season on Nov. 2.
“A lot of young coaches look at the business as a sprint and sometimes it works out for them,” Dutcher said. “But sometimes you get where you want to be so fast and then you don’t have success and you’re out of the business and you can’t get back in, you know? I’ve always enjoyed where I’ve been. I’ve never got consumed with where I want to be next.”
San Diego State hasn’t made the NCAA tournament since 2015, but remains a program that has sold out its games the past six seasons. It has led all California universities — including UCLA, USC and Cal — in attendance each of the past seven years, averaging 12,196 people a game last season.
“In Southern California, that just doesn’t happen,” Dutcher said. “You look out here: You can do anything. You’re not sitting in the snow wondering, ‘What are we going to do tonight?’ ”
He hasn’t lived in Minnesota in more than 30 years, but he returns with his wife, Jan, every summer to visit his family, including three sisters who still live there, and his wife’s family.
He has tried to convince his father to spend winters — basketball season — in San Diego, without much success. The best he can do is get him to visit for a three-game homestand at a time.
“I thought he was brighter than that,” Dutcher said, “but he likes it there, even in the winter.”