WOMEN’S BASKETBALL HEAD COACH CINDY FISHER IS TENACITY, PERSONIFIED
The girl, all of 7 or 8 years old, would walk outside her Cheyenne, Wyo., home, put chalk to cement, designing basketball plays. Then she would pick up her basketball and execute her creation, hoisting the ball to the driveway basket.
Capping her fantasy, the girl returned to the chalk, pretended it was a microphone and made like Marv Albert, broadcasting her exploits.
“In my life, as far back as I can remember, I was on the basketball court,” says USD’s Women’s Basketball Head Coach Cindy Fisher.
Chalk and cement have been replaced by a felt-tip pen and grease board. The driveway? Long gone. Try the 5,100-seat Jenny Craig Pavilion.
Fisher, 51, is in her 11th season as the Toreros’ head coach. Before her arrival, USD had suffered five consecutive losing seasons. Fisher’s first team went 9-19. Since then, the Toreros have rattled off nine straight winning campaigns, advancing to the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Tournament once and the Women’s National Invitation Tournament (WNIT) five times.
The Toreros are riding a streak of four straight seasons with at least 22 victories.
“I tell you, in game situations, X’s and O’s, she can outcoach anybody,” says Mary Falcosky, Fisher’s longtime No. 1 assistant.
The secret to Fisher’s success is a combination of many things: pursuing your passion, stiff-arming pain, preparation, refusing to accept the word “can’t” and creating a family environment.
“Coach Fisher,” says Amy Kame, who played at USD from 2010 to 2014 and now plays professionally in Australia, “she’s like a second mom to me.”
According to the 2014 U.S. Census, Wyoming’s 2014 population was 584,153, making it the least populated state in the United States. By comparison, New York City’s population was 8,491,079. To hear Fisher’s high school head coach talk, you could have airlifted Cindy out of Cheyenne, plopped her at Harlem’s famed Rucker Park outdoor court and the girl would have felt right at home.
“She was very, very hardworking, determined, intense, stubborn, all those things wrapped into one,” says Robert Black, who coached Fisher at Cheyenne Central High and now is the head women’s trainer at Indiana University. “She really loved the game.”
Influenced by her older brother, who quarterbacked Cheyenne Central to a state championship football game, Fisher dabbled in all sports that had a ball and many that did not. She played volleyball, softball and ran track. She golfed, skied and rode horses.
Says Ray Fisher, Cindy’s 75-year-old father: “Cindy was a sports nut. Anything she did, she went at it like she was crazy. She was a black diamond downhill skier. She couldn’t walk a horse. She had to run a horse.”
But of all those sports, it was basketball that most tugged at Fisher’s heartstrings. The Cheyenne Central boys’ varsity basketball coach lived on the same street. Cindy was a close friend of one of the coach’s sons. Beginning in grade school, Fisher stood against a gym wall with the varsity players, emulating their stretching routines. She stuck her head inside team huddles.
“It was amazing how they accepted her,” says Ray Fisher.
When she was 12, Fisher and two boys were making their way to run on the high school track. There were three kids and one bike. They alternated, two on the bike, one running. Fisher was on foot when the boys darted across a street.
“I followed them,” recalls Fisher. “Halfway across, I heard a car screech on its brakes and jumped back. I didn’t get out of the way quick enough. My foot caught under the tire. The car skidded a couple of feet.”
Fisher spent the next month in a hospital, recovering while her shattered left ankle was being rebuilt.
That experience left an imprint: “When our players get hurt, I don’t have the empathy I should have,” Fisher admits. “You go through something so traumatic at a young age and still play … ”
She doesn’t complete the sentence. “You want your players to be tough,” she adds. “You say, ‘It’ll be OK. You sprained an ankle. You’ll live.’ Now, ACLs I have a bit more sympathy for.”
Fisher, a 5-foot-6 point guard, played three varsity seasons at Cheyenne Central, directing the Indians to the state playoffs for the first time in school history. She played basketball for one and a half seasons in community college.
She wanted to continue playing at Kearney State (Neb.) but the summer before classes were to start, she slipped off a lifeguard tower, hurt her hip and accepted that her playing days were history.
“With the ankle, the knee [a dislocated kneecap in junior high], the hip, I think God was trying to tell me something,” says Fisher. “To move onto coaching.”
After 10 seasons as an assistant, Fisher landed the head-coaching job at Wyoming in 1998. She coached there five seasons, the Cowgirls increasing their win total each year. She recruited players in San Diego, played one tournament game at the USD Sports Center with its 1940s-era stage and said, “I’m going to coach there some day.”
What specifically, were the magnetic lures that drew her west?
“It was a beautiful campus,” says Fisher, sitting in her office just a bounce pass off the JCP floor. “I’m Catholic. I love The Immaculata. I just love everything about this university. It’s who I am. It’s small. It’s academic. Something drew me to this place.”
There are common traits to Fisher’s USD teams. They play in-your-face, aggressive defense. They run the floor. They’re athletic.
“When it’s all flowing,” says Fisher, “it’s just a beautiful game.”
As a coach, Fisher is as demanding as she is caring. “She’s not afraid to get in your face if you’re not doing what you’re supposed to be doing,” says Kame. On the flip side, Kame adds, “As a woman going through college, you’re going through some pretty personal times. Her door was always open.”
At practice one day in November, Fisher preached about not coasting. “Take some risks, put yourself out there,” she urged. “Be a little bit more. I go back to my childhood. I had a lot of things going against me. But nothing should hold you back. Not brains, not size, not relationships.”
Replies Kame, “She doesn’t want anybody to be mediocre.”
Fisher is the mother of two sons, Rocco, 3½, and Ryder, 21 months. And, of course, she’s also constantly raising 14 daughters, ranging from ages 17 to 22.
“I’m so blessed to be here at USD,” says Fisher. “Especially now, when I’m in the prime of my coaching life. I just love being a leader to these young women. It’s everything to me.” — Don Norcross
View a video of Cindy Fisher.