GREENBURGH, N.Y. - Isiah Thomas was desperate to get back into the game and recover some of his Hall of Fame reputation that had been soiled during his calamitous tenure with the Knicks. So Tuesday he decided to take a chance on a wayward program that was willing to take a chance on him and become the coach at Florida International University.
"Coming back to the college game has always been a dream of mine," Thomas said in a statement released by FIU, "and I didn't want to pass up an opportunity to go somewhere where we can build a basketball legacy together."
Thomas, 47, who reportedly agreed to a five-year contract with the Miami-based mid-major, will be introduced Wednesday at an 11 a.m. news conference at FIU. He has one year left on a three-year contract extension he signed in March 2007 with the Knicks, who are owned by Cablevision, which also owns Newsday.
After he was replaced by Donnie Walsh as team president last April and then shortly afterward relieved of his coaching duties, Walsh decided to keep Thomas in the organization as a consultant but gave him permission to seek other opportunities. Walsh said Thomas informed him of the FIU opening when the two were in Italy this month to scout the Eurocup tournament.
"I'm happy for him," Walsh said Tuesday after the Knicks held their final practice of the season. "He's back in basketball in an active way as a coach and I think it's a great thing for him. It's kind of what I wanted for him the day I let him go."
Thomas had coaching success under Walsh with the Indiana Pacers, when he posted a 131-115 record and three playoff appearances from 2001-03. He was 56-108 in two seasons as the Knicks coach. But it was the five years he spent as president of the Knicks, where he ran the payroll up to unprecedented levels ($124 million in 2005-06), fired three coaches and was involved in a litany of controversies (from clashing with his protÃÂ©gÃÂ©, Stephon Marbury to a sexual harassment lawsuit filed against him by former Garden executive Anucha Browne Sanders) that have tarnished his image.
And in October, Thomas made headlines again when he allegedly overdosed on sleeping pills. He told a reporter that his teenage daughter had the real medical issue - she had fainted at school the day before - and Thomas was ridiculed for using his daughter to shield himself.
So, as a result of his myriad issues, just about every NBA option was closed to him - even the Clippers politely declined his offer to assist Mike Dunleavy in the front office - and Thomas began to focus more on the college level as March Madness neared. He joined Walsh at the Pac-10 tournament and made a rare television appearance on Billy Packer's NCAA Tournament preview show in March. He was joined on the show by his college coach and mentor, Bob Knight, who also played a major role in Thomas' decision to explore college coaching. Thomas won a national championship with Knight at Indiana in 1981.
Former Virginia coach Pete Gillen was believed to have the inside track on the FIU job until Thomas suddenly emerged.
FIU hasn't had a winning season in almost 10 years - 16-14 in 1999-2000 - and has made just one NCAA Tournament appearance in its history (1995, lost to UCLA). However, FIU has turned out two players who went to the NBA: Carlos Arroyo and Raja Bell.
Thomas' biggest challenge will be to build the program from a team that went 13-20 this past season. Recruiting in the Sun Belt Conference is always a serious challenge, even for a charming basketball legend. But after years of dealing with multi-millionaires at the NBA level, those close to Thomas believe the college game will be a refreshing change.
"He really wanted to do this," Walsh said. "In going to those tournaments, I could tell he really feels like he can help younger players."