FIU's hiring of Isiah Thomas as its basketball coach is a risky move
MIAMI -- The fun began Wednesday when a nattily attired young man grabbed a microphone and sternly reminded the assembled media that in matters pertaining to the athletic program at Florida International University, the only acceptable nomenclature is FIU. Not Florida International or Fla. Intl., but FIU.
The concern over the athletic department's brand seemed a bit perplexing given the recent history of the man school officials and attendant muckety-mucks had assembled to introduce. But apparently the marketing wonks at FIU don't understand that calling it KFC instead of Kentucky Fried Chicken doesn't make the two-piece meal any less greasy.
Next came the introduction of the guest of honor, courtesy of FIU -- or is it Florida International? -- provost
"I'm glad to welcome you all and to welcome
Thompson, Thomas. What's in a name? Everything, when that name was once synonymous with tough, brilliant point guard play, but has more recently been linked with the bankruptcy of a
"I know Isiah Thomas, and I guarantee you one thing," Garcia said. "We are getting a great human being."
The former owners of the teams in the Continental Basketball Association, which the former Detroit Piston ran into the ground in 2001, would disagree. So would
But, hey, Garcia thinks he's a swell guy, so that should be good enough for a department that relies almost exclusively on public dollars.
For someone who hates interviews, Thomas certainly knows how to win a press conference. Though he and Garcia failed to provide specific answers to specific questions, Thomas smiled and deflected the arrows just as he would a
Thomas will coach his first season for free. While Thomas's contract calls for him to earn a little less than $300,000 a year from 2009-14, he won't take a dime this season with the hope that he can provide some relief to an athletic department suffering in a down economy. Certainly some Knicks fans will cluck their tongues and say that Thomas made plenty of money when the franchise paid him millions to not coach or manage personnel this past season. Still, the gesture seemed sincere, like the act of a man willing to pay for a chance to reinvent himself.
Thomas, who never has coached at the college level, admitted he has a lot to learn about NCAA rules, and he said he planned to study for his NCAA-mandated recruiting test -- he can't contact a prospect until he passes -- as soon as the press conference ended. "I want to take FIU to the next level," Thomas said. "I know it's going to take a lot of hard work, but I'm willing to pay that price."
Thomas will have his work cut out for him. The Golden Panthers, who routinely draw home crowds in the hundreds, went 13-20 last season and haven't had a winning season since going 16-14 in 1999-2000. The athletic program's most notable alumni include
But, according to Garcia, Thomas's mere presence will cause Florida and the nation's best players to beat a path to this giant commuter school on Miami's western edge. Never mind that
"In the last 48 hours, I've gotten over 500 texts and e-mails from potential student-athlete basketball players," Garcia said. "Obviously, we're going to do everything by NCAA rules, but the kinds of athletes that Isiah Thomas will attract to FIU are going to be the best anywhere -- not only for this state, but for the entire country. ... We're not going to leave any stone unturned."
In Gainesville, Florida coach
Sure, Miami coach
And what happens if history repeats itself? FIU, which might have to lay off athletic department employees soon, can't afford to shell out millions in settlement money. "We researched this thoroughly," Garcia said. "We looked into it." After the press conference, Garcia admitted that he didn't talk to a single Knicks employee during the vetting process. Thomas, who has repeatedly denied Browne Sanders's claims, said he has put the case behind him.
"It's safe to say that the last two years have definitely taken a toll on my family," Thomas said. "But I'm extremely comfortable, and I think the university is comfortable in their findings in what were the facts of the case. ... I think all of us are comfortable in the people we are and what we stand for."
Garcia kept referring to nebulous "mutual friends" from his days with the Cleveland Browns. Asked how long he'd known Thomas, Garcia never offered a specific date for the genesis of their relationship. The lone concrete detail he provided was that he and Thomas attended the BCS national title game together. That game was played in January. So what happens if Thomas acts toward FIU employees the way he acted toward those who ran CBA teams?
"Just the rudest person that I have ever run into in my entire life," former Fort Wayne (Ind.) Fury general manager
According to Garcia, Thomas will be an ambassador for the entire university. He may help raise money for the medical school or accompany the president to Tallahassee to visit the state legislature. Remember, this is a man who, in a deposition, said that it is more offensive for a white man to call a black woman a bitch than for a black man to use the
Still, this is America, and we love tales of redemption. That seems to be what Thomas seeks. "This is a restart and a rebirth," he said. Later, he spoke humbly of his fall from grace and offered a promise. "I've had my ups and downs," Thomas said. "But don't expect me to just stay down. Because that's not happening."
But can Thomas overcome his recent body of work? Certainly, if he wins at a program that hasn't made the NCAA tournament since 1995, a larger school will scoop him up. But if the wins don't come so easily -- and they might not -- and the old habits resurface, will FIU decide the price of its free coach might be too high?
Though Garcia insisted Wednesday that he didn't hire Thomas merely for the attention bump his program would receive, Garcia didn't hesitate to mention all that coverage during the press conference. "FIU has been talked about more in the last 48 hours," Garcia said, "than it has in the last 30 years." Asked later about that statement, Garcia didn't seem to care that most of the attention was negative.
All the school asks is we refer to it as FIU.