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Wednesday, April 15, 2009
Isiah Thomas, FIU Basketball Coach?

Beginning when I was around 16, I wanted to be a college basketball coach. I was a student manager in college, worked as a coach at summer basketball camps throughout college, and my first job after college was as assistant coach at a D-III school in Chicago. Basically, I was trying to set up the career trajectory that Nets Coach Lawrence Frank followed about 10 years later--short Jewish kid from NJ becomes manager at Big Ten school, parlays it into coaching career. It seems to have worked out slightly different for him than it did for me.

This biographical detour is to say that, 15-20 years ago, I was perfectly happy with the notion that D-I basketball coaches made (at a minimum) five times as that of the ordinary humanities professor--in fact, I was hoping to have one of those paying-five-times-as-much jobs. I noted how out-of-whack coaches' salaries were, but bought the now-largely-challenged economic arguments about the real financial value college sports brings to the university. Of course, I never envisioned an economic downturn this severe that would affect universities (particularly mine) this severely. Nor did I envision my life at a small, underfunded public university in a state with no income tax and no significant commitment to higher education.

All of which is to express genuine bafflement and uncertainty at the news that FIU has hired Isiah Thomas to be its men's basketball coach, with a press conference to announce the hiring today. In no particular order, a jumble of thoughts:

1) It certainly is putting FIU on the college-sports map, at least for now. We lead PTI last night. The last time FIU was part of a national college-sports story was after the brawl with Miami during a football game.

2) I do not know right now how much Thomas is making, but I imagine there was a premium to get him and his name down here--not U-Conn/Jim Calhoun territory, but certainly more than Thomas' predecessor and probably more than the average coach at this level. This seems troubling at a university that just eliminated entire departments and has spent the past several years (and likely will spend the next few years) slashing its budget, including the budget of the College of Law. True, if we are serious about college sports, we have to spend money--but is this the right time.

3) More important is the question of whether this is worth the money, no matter how much Thomas is making. Thomas has not been a good coach (with the Knicks and Indiana Pacers) and his record as GM/Owner suggests that he is not a particularly good judge of talent, although he did make some good draft moves. He also ran the old CBA out of business, so his management skills are questionable. The school has hired his name. But the 17-year-olds he will be recruiting know him only as the guy who ran the New York Knicks into the ground, not as a Hall-of-Fame, championship-winning college and NBA player. So what are we getting for this money? No one knows for sure.

4) Then there is the fact that in 2007 Thomas and the Knicks were hit with an $ 11 million punitive-damages verdict for Thomas' sexual harassment of a female Knicks employee (the case settled before compensatory damages were determined). FIU AD Peter Garcia's response to that (in the ESPN link above) was, basically: I know Thomas and he is a wonderful husband and father, it's in the past, and everyone makes mistakes (although some mistakes are larger than others). This seems like an awful lot of baggage to carry into the job. And it calls into question how well he can or will control his program and his players, especially on the always-dicey issue of relations between student-athletes and the rest of the student body.

If it sounds as if I am rooting against this, not at all. I hope Thomas turns FIU into a mid-major power--the Gonzaga of the South; it would be psychically, if not financially, good for us. I am not optimistic right now, but I can be convinced. And I certainly will go to some games to check it out. But this is a tremendous financial--and legal--risk for the school to take and a bad time to be financially risky.


And, right on schedule, Isiah donated his entire salary right back to the university.

OK, so maybe that didn't make you feel stupid enough. If not, try and count all of the coaches that were good in college and abysmal in the NBA. I imagine you've run out of fingers by now. I think Isiah is as likely as anyone else to fit that category.

Stick to the "law" part of sports law, please.

Anonymous Anonymous -- 4/15/2009 1:17 PM  

First off College Coaching is a lot easier than coaching in the Pro's.

Isiah might have more pull than you think with the younger players - he's made a couple of instructional DVD's. And while his NBA experience has been awful - it's still NBA experience which is more than many college coaches. He can flash his NBA championship ring, his NCAA championship ring, and if the kids aren't impressed, the Fathers and "uncles" will be.

And his drafts have been above average. His trades were lousy.

Blogger Michael -- 4/15/2009 1:36 PM  

Anonymous (and why is it that the commenters who throw around personal insults and suggestions never seem to give their names): He did an incredibly classy act; I give him credit for it. Had I known he was going to do this at 7:30 a.m. this morning, when i wrote the post, I would have included it in the post and complimented him for it. 20/20 hindsight brilliance is quite impressive, unless anyone anyone predicted he was going to do this. More important, standing alone, that does not necessarily disprove anything I wrote (other than being a counter piece of character evidence balanced against that whole sexual harasser thing).

It tells me nothing about his salary the year(s) after next, when, according to everything we have been told, schools and departments at FIU still will be lopping off 3-7% of their budgets. So the university still may be spending money it does not have or spending money while it is gutting academic programs.

At the very least, there is a perception problem--we get a stream of e-mails from the administration telling us about how tight money is and how the school has to tighten its belt, yada, yada. Now we have a basketball coach who, at least in future years, is probably going to be quite expensive. Unless, of course, he is going to coach for free every year until the recession ends.

It also tells me nothing about whether he will be any good as a coach. You tell me to try to count all the coaches who were good in college and abysmal in the NBA. Well, how many of those *started* in the NBA, failed, then went to college and found success there? Rick Pitino, PJ Carlesimo, Mike Montgomery, Tim Floyd, etc., etc. -- all were moderately-to-highly successful college coaches who tried the NBA and failed. But the hiring school in every case could say "well, he had some success his first time in college, so we have something to go on." FIU hired Thomas only able to say that in every non-playing thing he had done--GM, owner, coach, league operator--he had, at best, done "eh" and at worst failed miserably.

Now, maybe Michael is right and his player evaluation skills will be good enough. And I acknowledged in the original post that his drafts were OK. But (no pun intended) the jury remains out.

Oh, and Anonymous: In telling me to stick to the "law" part, are you trying to say that I was the *only person* doubting/criticizing this move this morning? Should *everyone* stick to law?

Blogger Howard Wasserman -- 4/15/2009 3:56 PM  

My main concern is that FIU has just picked someone to lead their young student athletes who was sued and lost in his last job for serious sexual harassment. Is this the kind of leader and/or role model that we want for the FIU students athletes?

Add that to the fact that Isiah has not been successful as a coach, leader or manager since he stopped being a player 15 years ago.

I think FIU is hoping that his name recognition brings in recruits that wouldn't normally come to the school. However, I believe that this puts recruiting over a quality coach, leader and mentor.

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