From Whence Did Fish Ball Spring?

  • Many (including yours truly) have written about Steve Fisher’s role in the 1989 ring at Michigan, and in the cash payment scandal at the time of the Fab Five.

    Few, on the other hand, have asked: from whence did Fish ball spring?

    “Fish” refers to the former Michigan, and now 15-year San Diego State University Aztec Head Coach, Steve Fisher.

    “Fish ball” refers to the distinct and up-tempo style of basketball Fisher’s SDSU and and Michigan teams have played.

    I will be brief…for once.

    Fish assisted Michigan Head Coach Bill Frieder for nearly 8 years.

    Frieder assisted Michigan Head Coach Johnny Orr for a goodly number of years.

    Johnny’s teams liked to run.

    Frieder’s teams liked to run.

    Fish’s teams like to run.

    But there is something a bit more distinct about Fish Ball, something that, in my humble opinion and fading memory, distinguishes Fish Ball from Orr’s and Frieder’s running teams.

    Oh, Wikipedia on the black mirror, what other coaching bloodline feeds into Fish? What makes his team’s look a little more protestant in their running game than Orr’s and Frieder’s? That makes Fish himself seem a bit of a faint echo in demeanor to the Indiana Rubber Man, i.e., John Wooden, without the halo that the Rubber Man may not have deserved himself.

    Les Wothke, who Fish assisted at Western Michigan, and who hired Fish for his first high school job in Fish’s home state of Illinois comes up with a bit of searching. Wothke was apparently unremarkable, though he did eventually coach Army for 8 years. But I could find little on Wothke that told me much about Fish.

    A check on Fish’s college coach turned up an interesting and forgotten coach, one who probably ought to be remembered, too.

    James Collie, actually James Collie, Ph.d., WWII veteran and later coach of Illinois State University for some 21 years, was Fish’s college coach. Collie was largely responsible for putting Illinois State on the basketball map. He coached a running game. Illinois State became known as the Running Redbirds under Collie. Collie won a lot of games and went deep a couple of times in the old NCAA College Division tournament. Bespectacled Collie was known as Gentleman Jim and was said to be much loved by his players. He was reputedly not one to ever lose his temper at his players, but merely to become a little irritated. Before Illinois State he had coached a two tiny NAIA colleges–McKendree in Illinois and Friends College in Kansas. I found no record that James Collie ever played college basketball. But he attended Murray State, a college long known for running on the wood. But then I found what I was looking for. Collie had gotten a masters degree and a Ph.d. at Indiana University in 1948 and 1952; that put Gentleman Jim in Bloomington in the height of the Branch McCracken era. Branch McCracken! But,of course, Gentleman Jim Collie must have soaked up what McCracken’s running game that descended from Everett Dean, who McCracken played for. Those were simpler times. There was less to learn from a coach about schemes. I can’t prove it. I can’t swear to it. But I have a hunch that Fish Ball is a mix of the rough and tumble lineage of Johnny Orr and Bill Frieder stuff. But also a lineage that goes back to Gentleman Jim Collie of Illinois State, and very faintly back to McCracken and Dean, which Collie must have watched for half a dozen icy winters in Bloomington, while laboring away on degrees, recalling his war years and wishing he were back with the game he had loved growing up. He had been to war. He must have known what all vets knew. Yes, you’ve got to look out for yourself, and find something that pays, because no one else will. But life is precious and precarious. War teaches a lasting lesson. It can all be over in a second. Everything. You. Your buddy. The replacement you never knew. Gone. You better go for what ever you want to go for, because in a moment’s notice, the world can turn upside down and you are suddenly staring down from here to eternity.

    It was lucky that Gentleman Jim went for it and lived it with all the gusto his proper demeanor allowed. After 21 seasons of coaching he resigned. He had contracted MS. He hung on at the Illinois State University for many years in administrative capacities. When he died, donations made in his behalf funded a scholarship in his name that is still given to players to this day. KU assistant Tim Jankovich got another shot at head coaching at Illinois State, the program that Gentleman Jim Collie put on the map. Good done echoes down through the years in unexpected ways and makes unexpected connections.

    Watch Fish Ball when KU plays SDSU. Fish is no saint. But he also carries within him the germ of the game of Gentleman jim Collie. Fish has a kind of game that is different and deeply rooted in the deep legacy of the game. Its worth a look.

  • Not sure what pace this game will be played, but it should be a good game.

  • @jaybate 1.0 - I think you just redefined the word " brief ". lol

  • @jaybate 1.0 Nice job, jb. Enjoyable read.

  • @jaybate 1.0 Question. Dr James Naismith, the inventor of the game and the first coach at KU clearly had a major impact upon the sport. How far reaching was that impact, that inspiration? Being one of the first coaches of the game, could these other coaches that you mention have distant ties to the DR?

  • @jaybate 1.Great post. You are a curator of Bball history.

  • @jaybate 1.0 Fish is still carrying a grudge from losing Kevin Young to chummin’ ole’ Bill…what a catch? Maybe the best “6th” man in the nation even though he started.

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