Thomas ready to prove his doubters wrong

Isiah Thomas sits in the bleachers, takes a lengthy pause and flashes that trademark smile when told what the overwhelming majority of his new peer group whisper about him and his decision to take over the program at Florida International.

“He won’t last a year,” one says. “Maybe not even until the first game.”

“Wait ’til he gets on those bus rides,” questions another. “He’ll quit.”

“It’s a train wreck waiting to happen,” another chimes in.

Thomas just laughs.

“That’s funny,” he says. “This is how I’ve spent every year of my entire life — in gyms, on buses and on planes going to games.”

“I’ve been grinding it out my whole life,” he added.

Thomas’ hiring sent shockwaves through the entire basketball world at all levels a few months ago when he opted to accept the job at FIU down in Miami.

Here he was, one of the top players to ever put on an NBA uniform, a former NBA coach and general manager, taking over an anonymous Sun Belt league program that won just 55 games over the past five seasons.

It made little sense.

To those that don’t know Isiah.

Those in the college ranks always talk about a spot in the NBA as a dream job — one that doesn’t entail having to make endless recruiting calls and worry about your phone ringing in the wee hours because of something one of your supposed student-athletes did wrong.

It’s rare that an “NBA guy” is successful in the college game. Just ask Clyde Drexler, who glided out after just two seasons.

Thomas isn’t in financial despair, and even if he was, the paycheck he’s earning at FIU wouldn’t exactly be worth making the move to low-major college basketball.

Thomas signed a five-year deal and doesn’t even know the specific financial terms that came along with the contract. The money was so insignificant to him that he decided to donate his first season’s salary to charity.

“It may be hard for people to understand, but I love it,” Thomas said. “I love basketball. This is what I do 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. This is my lifestyle.”

Thomas’ lifestyle now involves trying to make sure the day he was hired to replace Sergio Ruoco isn’t the last that the college hoops world will hear of him.

Many critics said it was a terrible decision by FIU, that he failed miserably in New York with the Knicks and would fail once again in the college ranks. However, it’s difficult to question his track record for evaluating players.

He drafted Tracy McGrady, Marcus Camby and Damon Stoudamire as lottery picks and then grabbed guys like Trevor Ariza, David Lee, Wilson Chandler and Nate Robinson either late in the first or in the second round.

Thomas has wasted no time at FIU, either.

He’s landed a pair of prospects who have been recruited by legitimate high-major schools. Some will argue whether they are legitimate top 100 players, but at least Thomas has people talking about FIU.

First, it was 6-foot-10, 250-pound Chris Coleman, a Buffalo, N.Y., native who spent last season at Mount Zion Academy in North Carolina. Then Thomas and his staff got one of the top point guards in Georgia with the pledge of 5-foot-10 floor leader Phil Taylor.

“Wow,” said one Division I head coach after watching both commits play. “Those guys could play at a BCS school.”

While Thomas isn’t allowed to comment on recruits until they sign letters of intent, he quietly believes both of them have a chance to play at the next level and told one fellow coach that Taylor compares to Mike Bibby.

“I know what the pros are looking for,” Thomas said.

While the clear consensus is that Thomas will struggle to sustain the approach he’s displayed thus far since taking over, the Hall of Famer does have his advocates — including two of the winningest college coaches the game has ever seen in his former college coach, Bob Knight, and current Duke head man Mike Krzyzewski.

“I think he’s going to be successful,” Krzyzewski said. “I’ve known Isiah since he was a player, and he’s the ultimate competitor. He’ll find those instincts again as a college coach. My feeling is he was held back a little bit as an NBA head coach because the transition from a player to a coach is very difficult, especially because Isiah was a great player.”

IUPUI head coach Ron Hunter has gotten a chance to be around some big name guys with the Indiana Pacers: Larry Bird, Larry Brown and Thomas. He first met Thomas a decade or so ago and has little concern that he’ll be able to adapt.

“I think he’s at the right spot,” Hunter said. “It’s the right job for him because it’s not high-profile. He doesn’t need that because his entire life has been high-profile. He just wants to coach basketball.”

Thomas started the beginning of the July recruiting period in Cleveland. Then he went to Philadelphia before making certain to see some of the top local teams in Fort Lauderdale. After a week off, he was back in the gym in Las Vegas for a few days before stops in Los Angeles and Phoenix.

“You just put your head down and work,” Thomas said. “That’s all I’m doing right now. My main objective is to turn our program around.”

“We can play for the championship,” he added. “We’re a Division I school that can play for the championship. We want to go out, recruit and get the best players.”

That may be a little far-fetched, but Thomas does sound like someone who’s going to stick around awhile.