Sports Law Blog
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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.