Hiring Isiah Thomas as FIU's Basketball Coach is Risk

Jeff KalafaAnalyst IIIApril 18, 2009

MIAMI - APRIL 15:  Isiah Thomas (R) laughs with Darrell Walker, assistant coach of the Detroit Pistons, before Thomas was introduced as the new head coach for Florida International Univeristy men's basketball team at U.S.Century Bank Arena on April 15, 2009 in Miami, Florida.  (Photo by Doug Benc/Getty Images)

In between Dolphins draft talk, Heat/Hawks playoff talk, and the Marlins torrid start, Florida International University's hiring of Isiah Thomas as their next basketball coach reached the front of the South Florida sports pages earlier this week.

Most of the commentary about this controversial hiring was doubtful at best.  Many analysts, in Miami and around the country, came right out and criticized the decision as "horrible."

Pete Garcia, FIU's athletic director, was one of the few who praised Thomas and stood by his decision but the initial press conference failed to impress when local reporters threw out tough personal questions and the school's Provost, Ronald Berkman, twice called their new coach "Isiah Thompson." 

Thomas said he was going to donate his first year's $225,000 salary back to the school.  He said, "I did not come here for the money."  Remember, the New York Knicks owe him $10 million and are going to pay it over the next two years, but nice gesture anyway.

Thomas detractors point to his flawed record as a coach and administrator and paint him as a man filled with personal issues, that won't go away.  They also question Thomas' resolve to recruit, something he's never done before.

Others wonder if Thomas would be able to handle life in the Sun Belt Conferencea  world about as far removed from the NBA as Burger King is from a top New York steakhouse.

Thomas' record as an administrator is not impressive.  After three years as part owner of the Toronto Raptors, he was fired as the lead game analyst on "The NBA on NBC" before taking over as the chief executive of the Continental Basketball Association.

While in charge, other CBA execs felt that Thomas ran the league into the ground. After the league folded, he went on to coach the NBA's Indiana Pacers for three years until Larry Bird, in what was his first move as new GM, replaced him with Rick Carlisle. 

Thomas eventually wound up with the Knicks and he made a series of moves that set them back years in their development.

He replaced Larry Brown as coach, created huge salary cap problems, allegedly instigated a brawl with the Denver Nuggets and tied the franchise all-time record of 59 losses. 

Things got worse;  While with the Knicks, he was accused of sexual harassment and Madison Square Garden, his employer, was ordered to pay Browne Sanders $11.6 million.

And the personal problems didn't stop there.  In October of 2008 he was rushed to the hospital for what many called an overdose. Thomas didn't help things when he apparently tried to cover it up and claimed it was his 17-year-old daughter who was the one being treated.

Does this look like the man you want running a college basketball program?  Of course not, but Pete Garcia and Provost Berkman think FIU needs a boost.  They want recognition, and they want it now.

After reviewing Thomas' failures, this hire doesn't seem like the right move but the main reason this decision could backfire on the university is that it breaks one of sport's universal laws - Great players don't make good coaches!

I'll repeat that: Great players don't make good coaches.  This seems to be the rule and there are very few exceptions.

Some say it's because great playersand Thomas was one of greatest everdo not have the patience for lesser players.  Others claim lesser players became good teachers when they taught themselves technique that didn't come naturally.

The greatest coaches of our time were not standout players.  Vince Lombardi, Don Shula, Bill Parcells and Tom Landry in Football.  Red Auerbach, Phil Jackson, Pat Riley and Larry Brown in basketball.  Casey Stengel, Earl Weaver, Tommy Lasorda, and Jim Leyland in baseball.  The list goes on and on.

The greatest coaches in college basketball were marginal players at best.  John Wooden, Dean Smith, Bob Knight, John Chaney, Mike Krzyewski, Rick Pitino, Jim Calhoun, Billy Donovan and John Calipari.  If I left your coach out, forgive me.

Thomas signed a five-year contract with FIU but most people  don't envision him being around too long.   It's not that they are "Doubting Thomases"; They doubt Isiah Thomas.