The matchup itself is a big deal with the GMC lead on the line, but Fishman will also be seeking his 400th career victory. He’s 399-131 in 22 seasons as the only head coach in West program history.
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“It’s been an awesome trip. I don’t know how else to explain it,” Fishman said. “When I talk about all the girls that have come through the program and all the relationships, some of which are still pretty intense and others that have a lot of feeling and emotion, that’s what it’s all about.
“The blessings started early with the kinds of student-athletes and parents that I’ve had an opportunity to work with here at Lakota and Lakota West. My wins and losses are about the kids. I just happen to be the puppet that’s calling the shots.”
Fishman, 55, is not a native Ohioan, having grown up in the Queens and Flushing areas of New York City. He started coaching and teaching at Liberty Junior School in 1991-92.
Rylee and Blake Fishman have played for their father as Firebirds. Andy’s son Tate is a junior on the West boys squad.
“This is a way of life,” Andy Fishman said. “I love being around kids. It keeps you young, it keeps you in touch, and it just keeps things real. I’ve always said if I’m not having fun, that’ll be the end. I could never ask any less of myself, and I will never ask any less of the kids because they don’t deserve it.
“I’m still having a lot of fun. Seeing this year’s team grow from what we looked like this summer to what we’ve been able to accomplish since we started practice, this is an amazingly rewarding experience.”
He’s quick to toss credit in all directions. He points to administrators like Stu Eversole, Craig Ullery, Dick Hamilton, Elgin Card, Gerry Weisgerber, Scott Kaufman, Ed Rudder and Ron Spurlock, along with fellow coaches like Mike Mueller, Cindy Feltman, Tracey Kornau and Steve Cummins.
Fishman said his assistants through the years have played major roles in the team’s success. His current staff includes Carlton Gray, Andrea Schwartz, Quinessa Johnson, Brittany Braun, Emily Niehaus and Kevin Thomas, the program’s director of basketball operations.
Fishman, who’s been teaching special education for 32 years and got to savor a Division I state championship in 2015, touched on many subjects during an hourlong interview last week at West. He smiled a lot … and cried a little … as he looked back on his early life and coaching career.
• Fishman expected to be a football and boys basketball coach when he started in the Lakota system at Liberty. Instead, he ended up coaching girls basketball and volleyball.
His volleyball experience before becoming a coach? “Well, I played on the beach in New York,” he said. “It wasn’t so hard to become a junior high coach back then. Now it is.”
• The first student he met at Liberty was an incoming seventh-grader named Brooke Wyckoff. Fishman coached her that season, and she went on to star at Lakota High School (which split into East and West in the fall of 1997) and Florida State University before moving on to the WNBA.
“I tell the story all the time,” Fishman said. “She’s shooting a volleyball into the basket in the Libery Junior gym as I’m interviewing and they’re asking me what I want to coach.”
• How did Fishman and his wife Felice end up in Ohio in the first place? He tells the story like this:
“I was in my fourth year in New York City Public Schools, and Felice was teaching in New York City Public Schools as well. We’re sitting in a one-bedroom co-op apartment that we owned, and we just started talking about what we were going to do with life.
“We loved New York City and had a great time growing up there, but we both agreed something needed to change. So the deal was if she moves away from her family — even though we both had family there — that she would get her dream of being a stay-at-home mom. We both believed that if you have the opportunity and want to have a parent at home, that’s the way you should go.
“We had some family out here. My aunt and uncle moved away from New York, and they live in Clifton to this day. My brother had moved out here. We were here visiting for spring break, and I went ahead and used some resources to interview at different places. I ended up having an opportunity to basically go to any school district that I wanted as a male special education teacher, and I chose here.
“So we packed up the 280ZX and got a U-Haul … I think the other car that we drove here might have been a Chevy Malibu … and we made the trek here.”
When Felice got pregnant and gave up a teaching job at Sycamore, Andy decided “to coach anything and everything and do all the extra stuff” so that his wife could follow her stay-at-home plan. He recalled Eversole grooming him into being the ticket coordinator for Lakota football on Friday nights.
“The first people to invite me into their homes here were the Eversoles and the Wyckoffs,” Fishman said.
• Growing up in New York was exhilarating in some ways and very difficult in others. Fishman played all kinds of sports as a kid — he mentioned basketball, football, stickball, street hockey and sockey (soccer on ice) — yet never played for his high school. He played semipro football for several years while in college.
“You learned how to play everything on the blacktop,” Fishman said. “That’s the way sports were in New York. To be honest, the playgrounds were actually safer than the high schools. There was law and justice in your ability on the playground.”
• His fiery nature as a coach started during his youth. Fishman admitted he was not a good loser in his younger days, and that was something he had to work through.
“Everybody in my family will tell you I was the sorest of losers,” he said. “It took me years to develop how to lose with dignity and class, and I think it’s so, so, so important. You learn that life is usually not fair and it’s not always forgiving, but no matter what happens, you can always forgive and be a level above it.”
Never was his maturity as a coach more on display than in March of 2008 when West, making its first appearance in a D-I state final, lost to Mount Notre Dame 69-67 on a controversial last-second layup.
Fishman didn’t explode with anger, instead reacting with calmness and restraint. He admitted it was a defining moment for him and how he needed to lead.
“Ultimately, you hope that your team models your own behavior,” Fishman said. “It’s not something that I had to think about very much because when I’m in school and when I’m coaching, I feel like I’m always on stage and always performing. I always have to be sharp because the crowd will know if I’m not my true self. If the leader of the program loses it at that moment, then everyone is going to lose it.
“I knew it was going to be the hardest thing that any of us were going to have to deal with in our lives. To this day, I feel horrible that it went down that way for those girls because they deserved a better fate and those parents deserved a better fate. Those seniors weren’t going to get another chance.
“No one’s ever in between when dealing with adversity. You’re either going to be consumed with it or you’re going to be able to be above it. There’s nothing magical about it. I’ve had other very challenging moments in my life, and I’ve always had to make that choice.”
• By his own admission, Fishman isn’t the easiest coach to play for. West plays at a consistently high level, and he expects his players to push themselves to excel at that level.
“I feel like I’m very fair,” Fishman said. “Excuses don’t work very well in our program. There’s always a way to do the right thing and make things happen for yourself.
“We have certain standards, and you have to put them in front of yourself if you’re going to put them in front of other people. Otherwise, there’s nothing genuine and everybody knows you’re a phony. Every praise that a player gets here has to be earned because they know the truth. They’re not stupid. Don’t pacify them. Don’t belittle them. Show them respect by being truthful and real with where they are.
“Everybody’s not going to be happy. I know there are people who were in this program that probably feel they’ve been wronged. Hopefully they see a little more clearly when they approach young adulthood if they didn’t have the guidance to see that while they were here. We care too much about people in this program to ever do anybody wrong, but as much as we care about the people, we also care about the standards of the program. You’ve got to be fighting every moment to win.”
• Why does Fishman have such a strong connection with female athletes?
“I’ve always said that I am a man who is very much in touch with his feminine side,” he said. “I fell in love with the way the girls allowed themselves to be coached. I feel like I’ve been able to push just hard enough not to push people away.
“I’ve always just wanted to develop girls who felt like after they played in our program, they could conquer the world. That’s what I wanted for my own daughters. We’ve always tried to make this program like nothing else. We want it to be crazy special and crazy intense and crazy demanding and crazy rewarding.”
• Fishman’s personal side includes loves of fitness, reading, eating at home (he said Felice and Blake Fishman are excellent cooks) and dining out, going to the pool and beach, and music.
His musical tastes range from classic rock to folk-rock to rap. Not surprisingly, as an East Coast guy, Bruce Springsteen has always been No. 1 on his list.
“I’ve seen him in concert so many times,” Fishman said. “I know every word to every song.”
• He doesn’t know how long he’ll continue to teach and coach. Fishman is confident he can make it to 35 years as a teacher. Beyond that, who knows?
“To have longevity and sanity, you have to have perspective,” he said. “Being able to do something at a high level for a long time is a great challenge. If you don’t have perspective, this will tear you up.
“I think back to when I started. I was a bit untamed real early and didn’t have as much balance as I have now. For those girls to play as hard as they did and play through my mistakes as a coach and for those parents to still love me and support me … I’m just so thankful. I was probably something they hadn’t seen before coming from New York and my brash style. I’m sure people mistook my intensity and passion for something else.
“Without that support in the early years, we wouldn’t be sitting here today. That’s what it comes down to for me, the fact that I’m still here. That’s what I’m most proud of.”
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