Isiah Thomas arrived at Florida International knowing that he was taking a risk.
Three years later, the school didn’t see enough reward.
The Basketball Hall of Fame player was fired Friday by FIU, after his teams went 26-65 in his three seasons. His hiring came out of nowhere in 2009 — ”No one thought we could pull this off,” FIU director of sports and entertainment Pete Garcia proudly said at the time — and in the end, so did his firing.
FIU announced the decision in a simple three-line statement.
”We want to thank Isiah Thomas for his three years here at FIU,” Garcia said. ”However, we have decided to take the program in a different direction.”
A call and text message to Thomas were not immediately returned, but Thomas told ESPN, "This is the most surprising thing that has happened to me in basketball. I [have] never been fired before for basketball reasons. This is the first time."
”Speechless,” said DeJuan Wright, FIU’s leading scorer this past season.
”What do I do now…never felt so lost!” FIU guard Tanner Wozniak wrote on Twitter moments after the firing was announced. ”Why?”
The simplest answer is that FIU didn’t win.
The Panthers were far from being a basketball power before Thomas arrived after a stint as coach and president of the New York Knicks. The school’s last winning season was the 1999-2000 campaign, and its winning percentage of .315 since, according to STATS LLC, is 329th out of 344 Division I men’s programs that competed over the past 12 years.
So FIU turned to Thomas, but never won more than 11 games in any of his three seasons.
”We just needed a break here or a break there, and it’s not happening for us,” Thomas said last month, shortly after FIU’s 8-21 season ended with a loss to eventual Sun Belt tournament champion Western Kentucky. ”I know we’re getting there. We’ve had so many close games. If we keep working, good things will happen.”
If so, they’ll happen for someone else at FIU.
Garcia and Thomas met Friday morning, and the coach was told of the school’s decision.
The timing may be perceived as somewhat unusual, given that FIU’s season ended a month ago and that many offseason coaching changes are discussed and at times negotiated during the Final Four, which was last weekend in New Orleans.
University officials said Garcia did not plan to make any further public statement about the decision on Friday, only noting that the search for the team’s next coach would begin immediately.
Thomas signed a five-year deal with FIU, taking nothing in base salary for his first season and agreeing to a deal where he would receive nearly half of any gross revenues from ticket sales, commissions collected on food and beverage concessions and sponsorships.
But FIU never generated the buzz that both it and Thomas envisioned. The Panthers averaged 1,071 fans at home this season, nearly four times that many on the road.
”I like taking something from the bottom and trying to build it to the top,” Thomas said in 2009. ”There’s a lot of risk in that, and there is a lot of reward in that.”
Thomas was chosen as one of the NBA’s 50 Greatest Players after his career with the Detroit Pistons. His NBA coaching career started with the Indiana Pacers, and during a three-season stint there he never had a losing record and never missed the playoffs.
From there, he went to New York, first as president, then eventually its coach.
With Thomas as president, the Knicks never won a playoff game, even though they often had the NBA’s highest payroll. ”Fire Isiah!” chants were common at Madison Square Garden, and he went 56-108 in his two seasons on the New York sideline, getting fired as coach following the 2007-08 season.
He remained with the Knicks in an unspecified role even after getting ousted as coach, even after a lawsuit brought by former team employee Anucha Browne Sanders that cost MSG $11.6 million. Sanders alleged she was sexually harassed by Thomas, who continually maintained his innocence and was never found personally liable.
And even when he was at FIU, the Knicks hired Thomas again, albeit briefly. Thomas accepted a job as a consultant with the team in August 2010, then had to decline the position less than a week later because it would violate certain NBA rules, including those prohibiting team officials from having contact with college players who are not eligible for the draft.
Thomas aided the Knicks during free agency in the summer of 2010, speaking to LeBron James and trying to sell him on choosing New York. James eventually signed with the Miami Heat. When the Knicks signed Amar’e Stoudemire that summer, Donnie Walsh — who replaced Thomas as president and later fired him as coach — thanked Thomas during the news conference.
This past offseason, when FIU hosted James, Dwyane Wade, Stoudemire, Carmelo Anthony and other players for a charity game during the NBA lockout, the players used official NBA basketballs. They were all stamped ”New York Knicks.”
”I’ve had my ups and downs,” Thomas said when FIU hired him. ”But don’t expect me to just stay down, because that’s not happening.”