Howard Fisher, Head Coach, Men’s Basketball College of the Canyons | Hoop Story #090

Howard Fisher, Head Coach, Men’s Basketball  College of the Canyons | Hoop Story #090

By: Jaredan Levin

Dedication. That is what comes to mind amidst a conversation with Howard Fisher. Having just wrapped his 24th year and 23rd season as head men's basketball coach at College of the Canyons in Santa Clarita, CA, Howard has been in many unique situations across his career. His journey is one that came with adversity, adjustment, and knowledge. And he has seen the college game, as well as the overall game of basketball, change a great deal during his tenure.

Howard began his basketball journey at University High School in West Los Angeles. He ended up playing junior college basketball but had a different JUCO tenure than most. An architecture major at the time, he ended up switching not only his major but his life path during his redshirt year.

“I had to sit out a year and went back to my high school to help out there for the year,” Fisher said. “And at that point, I kind of figured maybe this is something I'd like to do. And I transferred schools, changed my major, and worked summer camps, [including] John Wooden basketball camp, and made some friends there that helped me get on the path to coaching.”


One of those friends ended up being Jeff Dunlap, a former UCLA player, who was an assistant at College of the Canyons and said that they needed another assistant. In August of 1989, Fisher met with Coach Lee Smelser and was hired. Coach Smelser was the first head coach in program history and Fisher is the second.

“I was very fortunate in that regard and learned over time, a lot of the workplace hires are based on who you know and being in the right place at the right time,” Fisher said.

During his decades as a coach, Fisher has seen the game change from the no three-point line and no shot clock era to what it is today.

“Now you have going for two-for-ones–trying to manage the game a little bit differently–and the 30-footer for some people is a great shot,” Fisher said. “The game has evolved away from the dominant post player so that it's a little bit more perimeter oriented. And I think it'll evolve back at some point to where there is more post play.”

Fisher believes that although many of these stylistic changes can be observed at the high school and collegiate levels, it all stems from changes in the ways that NBA teams play.

“It's a trickle down effect,” Fisher said. “The NBA wants higher scoring games. In the 90s, there were a lot of defensive and low scoring games from the New York Knicks and Detroit Pistons. And now the All-Star game last month was just about 200 points a team. Offense sells tickets.”


Southern California remains a hotbed for basketball talent, even amidst the junior college ranks. This makes for some particular dynamics within teams and even within conferences. College of the Canyons plays in the Western State Conference (WSC) and Fisher’s teams have won the conference four times, with him winning conference coach of the year in each of those seasons.

“I think our level is unique because of the array of levels of players,” Fisher said. “We have Division I players all the way down to some players on teams that won't play four-year basketball.”

Because of the vastly different sets of talent on any given night, Fisher and his staff must prepare adequately for the specific sets they might see from their next opponent.

“You can play one team one night where you're being pressed for 40 minutes, and the next game is a half court grind out,” Fisher said. “So you have to have players that can adjust from game to game and style to style. You know, you look at what Virginia did [in the First Four]. I think a lot of people were surprised at how low scoring their game was, at least on their side. But you have coaches who've had success at all levels doing different things, different philosophies and different styles.”

Different philosophies and the subsequent adjustments are necessary to build a successful team, sometimes from the near ground up, as many players will only attend a junior college for a year or two before they transfer elsewhere.


“We have players, sometimes one year, two years, even being here three years, you know, playing two, sitting out one, and then having success at the next level,” Fisher said. “It's something that junior college coaches have always dealt with. It's a regular occurrence. And now some of the four year schools are getting a feel for that [with the transfer portal].”

Due to these inherent challenges, building a successful team and program in the junior college space has always come down to the ability of coaching staffs to educate players, both to get them to the highest possible level they can but also for team success, according to Fisher.

“It's changed the game as far as what you can teach, the level of teaching and the level of experience because a lot of the four year schools are trying to get players who've already played and shown levels of success at high levels,” Fisher said.

Coaching a team that’s different every year is not unfamiliar to those in the collegiate ranks but in junior college, when players’ goals are often to make it to a higher level, it becomes more prominent. According to Fisher, there is no “secret sauce” when it comes to finding the right balance and getting a team to gel, but it takes some flexibility and know-how. But his top goal for his players every season is to see them matriculate to a four year school.

“It depends on the coach and their philosophy,” Fisher said. “You have to build team chemistry. Almost every coach is going to want you to do the same thing. It's just a matter of how they communicate it, how they demand it and how the teammates participate in it. You have to have buy-in from the team. They have to have respect for each other, the coaches and what the game plan is.”

The ease of the process or variety of techniques used differs year to year based on a number of factors.

“It varies from year to year based on the group, their level of maturity, their level of competitiveness, and the level of camaraderie,” Fisher said. “We've had teams where everybody's brand new, we've had teams where we had nine returners, so it just is trial and error and also based on the personnel.”


Fisher brings a wealth of coaching experience and connections outside of the junior college ranks as well. He has coached three times internationally as a head coach.

In his first such experience, Fisher led Team USA to a bronze medal in the 2006 Maccabi Australia International Games in Sydney, Australia, on a team featuring some of the top Jewish players in the nation.

“Australia was my first experience having high level players: Division I, II, and some pros,” Fisher said. “My first couple of practice plans were based on being a community college and junior college coach. I had 20 minutes set aside for a certain drill and it took five minutes. The understanding was significantly higher. So I had to adjust. It was a great experience and I made some great friendships.”

In 2007, Fisher coached Team USA in the Maccabi Pan American Games in Buenos Aires, Argentina to a silver medal.

“For me, Argentina was important,” Fisher said. “Part of my family went to Argentina when they left Eastern Europe. So getting to see where they came to the United States from was very informative.”

In 2017, Fisher coached the USA Youth Men's Basketball team to a gold medal at the 20th World Maccabiah Games in Israel. His team beat Israel, featuring Deni Avdija of the Washington Wizards, in the championship game.

“Great experiences, some of them very different,” Fisher said. “But great relationships, not just with the players and the staff, but the people in the [Maccabi USA] organization in Philadelphia, and those who have since left the organization or are involved on the periphery.”

Overwhelmed with the recollection of many memories and moments, Fisher struggles to name his top highlight. But he remembers having many mentors, some of whom did not have the mind for his lofty ambitions.

“A lot of my mentors were very influential and positive,” Fisher said. “A couple said ‘You know, you don't want to get into this business, just find yourself a nice little High School’.”


Fisher took that message to heart and was determined to see success at the collegiate level. He recalls his “A-ha moment” in coaching being in 2000, when he first took over the College of the Canyons program.

“[It was] our first game after I got the job in late July,” Fisher said. “And I had recruited not knowing who the head coach was going to be. And our first game that year was at Santa Ana College. And we won the game. And I felt I could do this job. It validated all of my years as an assistant, working for different people, playing for different people, all of those experiences, and that I can have success doing this.

Fisher currently lives with his family and is looking forward to the Cougars’ upcoming 2024-25 season.

Photos Courtesy of COC Athletics

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