From the Ground Up
Isiah Thomas quietly building FIU’s hoops program.
by Scott Brand
It’s shouldn’t be any surprise why NBA Hall of Famer Isiah Thomas operated the past two seasons virtually off the radar. The head coach of the Florida International University (FIU) basketball team has taken a backseat to some of South Florida’s highest profile storylines like the Miami Heat championship run, a recent Miami Hurricane NCAA football investigation, and—even in his own backyard—FIU’s surging football and baseball programs.
Following nearly six tumultuous years as president and coach of the New York Knicks, Isiah wholeheartedly welcomes this publicity respite. “I had been on the public stage since the age of 17, performing at the highest level and over time my energy level was depleted,” he admits. “Perhaps now, here in Florida, I am like Ponce De Leon in a quest to discover the Fountain of Youth.” While Isiah obviously has not accomplished what the 15th century Spanish explorer set out to achieve, he does appear to be recharged in his latest coaching gig.
“I find being around the kids so refreshing,” Isiah said. “They have such energy, unbridled optimism, and naivety that allow them to dream so big and work so hard.”
Isiah’s charter for this year’s team remains the same as his first two seasons—to transform FIU into a mid-major powerhouse.
According to Isiah, winding up at FIU was a matter of chance, just like his childhood days, trying to survive on the dangerous streets of West Chicago. As Isiah says, “Every day you could find yourself a victim of circumstance.”
Isiah grew up with significantly different aspirations than other basketball players with his talents who fantasized about becoming NBA stars. As Thomas penned in his book, The Fundamentals: Eight Plays for winning the games of business and life: “My boyhood dreams were mostly about well-stocked refrigerators: huge refrigerators that were bursting at the hinges with mouth-watering roast chickens, heaping plates of spaghetti, and thick juicy steaks.”
To get to his short-term dream, he often, as he termed, “trolled” the streets late at night searching for loose change or fast food wrappers with cheese remnants. On one occasion, when he was 12 years old, he found himself with a gun pointed to his head. But just like his legendary on-court instincts that enabled him to elude carefully designed trap defenses, he managed to escape unscathed.
“When I flew into Miami for the head coaching job interview, I knew very little about FIU,” Isiah confesses about the program that’s last NCAA Tournament appearance was in 1995. “I thought I would simply meet with school officials, see some friends, have some fun in South Beach and it would end there.
“But when I stepped on to the campus, something happened. I was amazed at the sheer size of the school (44,000 student body),” Isiah recalls. “After a great interview, I called my wife and told her, You know, I think I could make this work.”
For FIU Executive Director of Sports and Entertainment Pete Garcia, the pursuit and eventual signing of Isiah was a result of him simply bumping into Isiah in the Dolphin Stadium Executive Suite during a Florida State Oklahoma football game and them talking with each other the entire time. Garcia, the former University of Miami recruiting coordinator, instrumental in bringing over a dozen future NFL stars to “The U,” first met Isiah during his days assistant coaching with the Cleveland Browns.
After the game, Garcia, known to work the luxury suite, maintained a dialogue with Isiah by initially seeking his professional input as to how to build a basketball program. The relationship continued to flourish until Garcia eventually inquired about Isiah’s interest in coaching the Golden Panthers. After a back-and-forth exchange, Isiah eventually accepted the job, his first foray in the college basketball coaching ranks. Garcia, the architect behind the resurrection of the football program and dazzling assent of the baseball team, inked Isiah to an incentive-laden, performance-based contract for a whopping $0 annual salary.
Following a humbling first season in which FIU managed to squeak out a paltry seven victories, Isiah was added to the payroll. Despite the fact that FIU only marginally improved in Isiah’s second season by notching 11 victories, Garcia remains unconcerned with his performance. “He’s building the program one step at a time and you don’t take shortcuts,” Garcia says. “You do it the right way and it takes a bit of time.”
Entering year three, there is no doubt Isiah has experienced some turbulence, having amassed a less than pedestrian 18-48 record, but he also grinded out some wins last season. In ’10-11, Isiah’s squad had one of the most potent offenses in the Sun Belt Conference, averaging 71.7 points per game. The Golden Panthers appeared to have successfully adopted Isiah’s signature pressure defense—ranking 28th in the nation in steals per game. And the team advanced to the Sun Belt Tournament semifinals.
FIU competed hard on a nightly basis—losing six games by four points or less and 10 out of 11 conference games by six points or less.
Isiah particularly thrived in the recruiting trail, stacking up blue-chip prospects like college students pile up pizza boxes in their dorm rooms. One such player Isiah lured away from the likes of recruiting powerhouses Kentucky, Louisville, Indiana, Texas and UCLA, was 6-9 forward Dominique Ferguson, one of the nation’s most coveted high school players.
“I came to FIU for the chance to play for Coach Thomas,” Ferguson says. “It is not often you get to learn the game of basketball from one the NBA’s 50 greatest players of all time. He breaks the game down to its fundamentals and teaches us how to play the game the right way.”
Sometimes the ability to recruit high school All-Americans and junior college studs can be trumped by other extenuating circumstances, like NCAA eligibility requirements. FIU could have fielded a Sun Belt Conference title contender and probably much more with the list of star high school and JuCo players, who could not gain entrance into the school due to their academic shortcomings.
Then there were the players who had to sit out the first semester to improve their academic standings. In 2010 it was the talented freshmen duo of Ferguson and Phil Taylor, whose grades did not initially meet university scholastic requirements. This year, highly touted 6-11 center Joey De La Rosa’s academic status hangs in the balance.
Starting the season without key parts has become problematic for Isiah, as the players joining the team in mid-flight lack proper conditioning and the team’s chemistry has been compromised. As for the players who did qualify, Isiah—also a current student at the University of California, Berkeley—apparently convinced his players to buy into the academic component by example. All five of his seniors graduated and received their degrees.