No one would have been shocked if, upon his departure from the Knicks last year, Isiah Thomas decided that his coaching days were behind him. His experience as New York's president and coach can only be described as a career killer, and the $14 million the Knicks owe him gives him a cushion against having to work again. But Thomas still has a coaching jones, one he's willing to satisfy even in a basketball backwater. Last week he became coach at Florida International in Miami, which plays in the Sun Belt Conference, went 13--20 last season and hasn't been to the NCAA tournament since 1995. His new boss, athletic director Pete Garcia, is a longtime friend. "I love it," says Thomas. "Strange, but I do."
Strange, indeed. The Knicks made the playoffs just once in his 4½-year run, which ended after the 2007--08 season; a fellow team executive sued Thomas for sexual harassment in 2007, costing the team's parent company $11.6 million in a settlement; and Thomas was hospitalized after overdosing on sleeping pills last October, a tabloid drama heightened when he told reporters it was his 17-year-old daughter who was treated, not him.
What do the Golden Panthers get for hiring such a controversial figure? A free year of coaching—Thomas is donating next season's FIU salary (reported to be around $300,000) to the school—and lots of publicity they wouldn't have gotten had they hired, say, an unknown Big Ten assistant. "People know about us now," Thomas told the Associated Press. "We've got national attention and national exposure, so we've got to [build] a basketball program that reflects that."