Wednesday April 15th, 2009

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 Ron Berkman ...

"I'm glad to welcome you all and to welcome Isiah Thompson as FIU's basketball coach," Berkman said.

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 50-year-old professional league, an ugly sexual harassment suit and the systematic destruction of the New York Knickerbockers, one of the NBA's proudest franchises. Isiah Thomas has yet to answer for any of that, and he didn't really answer any of the tough questions Wednesday. Nor did FIU athletic director Pete Garcia give a satisfactory answer to why his department -- funded primarily by athletic and football fees totaling $14.21 a credit hour levied on FIU's mostly athletics-apathetic student body -- decided to take a chance on a man whose treatment of a female employee helped contribute to an $11.6 million punitive damages award that his former employer, Madison Square Garden, eventually settled for $11.5 million. That's more than half of FIU's projected athletic budget for the 2009-10 school year.

"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 Anucha Browne Sanders, the former Knicks vice president of marketing who testified in court that Thomas regularly referred to her in the most vulgar terms. So would anyone who loves the Knicks, the team Thomas decimated with his perplexing moves as team president -- do Jerome James, Eddy Curry and Stephon Marbury ring a bell? -- and further damaged in two seasons as coach.

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 Dennis Johnson hand check. When a reporter from a Spanish-language television station asked a long question en espanol, Thomas flashed those pearly whites and said, "Muy bien." That drew a laugh and a cheer from a largely sympathetic crowd that included basketball players, fellow FIU coaches and even a group of Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity brothers decked out in their letter jerseys. Thomas also made one surprising admission that had to crack the armor of even his toughest critic.

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 Raja Bell, Carlos Arroyo and A'Mod Ned, the football player who became a blogosphere sensation after he hobbled into the infamous FIU-Miami brawl on crutches.

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 Mike Jarvis, late of St. John's, coaches 45 miles north at Sun Belt Conference rival Florida Atlantic. Or that John Brady, who led LSU to the Final Four in 2006, coaches at conference foe Arkansas State. Or that Western Kentucky, the reigning Sun Belt champ, has won NCAA tournament games in each of the last two seasons.

"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 Billy Donovan probably stopped polishing his pair of national championship rings long enough to laugh. In Tallahassee, Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton probably stopped dreaming up personnel combinations for his loaded roster long enough to chuckle.

Sure, Miami coach Frank Haith could walk up and down down Collins Avenue and not get recognized, but Thomas has done so much damage to his own reputation in recent years that recruits who might be swayed by all-time great point guard Isiah Thomas also will be keenly aware of NBA franchise destroyer Isiah Thomas.

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 Rich Coffey told the New York Daily News in 2006. "He's a very poor business person. He doesn't listen to people. He's always right. He makes poor decisions, and I'm talking about the CBA in particular. Who he listens to are people who tell him what he wants to hear."

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 same insult to describe the same woman. That debate should make for easy small talk in the state house.

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.

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