Three years after NBA hall of famer Isiah Thomas arrived at Florida International eager to revitalize the program and his own tarnished reputation, the school acknowledged the experiment was essentially a failure.
FIU fired Thomas on Friday with two years left on his contract, culminating a tenure in which the Panthers went 26-65 and failed to win more than 11 games in any single season. FIU executive director of sports entertainment Pete Garcia released a terse statement indicating that the school has "decided to take the program in a different direction," a decision Thomas apparently found stunning.
"This is the most surprising thing that has happened to me in basketball," Thomas told ESPN.com. "(I've) never been fired before for basketball reasons. This is the first time.
"When I was in Toronto, I was trying to buy a team and I left. When I was in Indiana, Larry Bird told me that he liked what I was doing but he was closer to Rick Carlisle. The whole thing in New York was crazy. This is the first time someone told me that I was being fired for basketball reasons."
Even though lightly regarded FIU only has made one NCAA tournament appearance in school history, Thomas accepted the school's coaching job because he was convinced he could make a winner out of the Golden Panthers.
Thomas had failed to win a single playoff game as New York Knicks president and general manager, but he saw FIU as the perfect place to atone for those setbacks. He even took nothing in base salary his first season, instead agreeing to a deal where he received nearly half of any ticket revenue or profits from food and beverage concessions and sponsorships.
The apathy of the Miami market to college basketball and the staff's inability to lure top recruits to FIU made it difficult for Thomas to generate the buzz he originally expected.
Thomas made a small splash by landing four-star power forward Dominique Ferguson and making the final five for five-star center Rakeem Christmas, but neither recruitment turned out the way he expected. Ferguson endured academic trouble before becoming a serviceable starting forward, Christmas signed with Syracuse and few other top recruits gave FIU so much as a second thought.
The most awkward aspect of Thomas' tenure was that he always seemed to have one eye on reestablishing a foothold with the Knicks. In August 2010, Thomas even attempted to rejoin the Knicks as a part-time consultant to owner James Dolan before the NBA ruled that was too great a conflict of interest.
As recently as two weeks ago, Thomas seemed convinced he'd be back at FIU next season, telling the Miami Herald, "We're hoping that in year four, the groundwork we've been laying starts to pay off. You're not going to come to a program like this and win in a year. It normally takes four to five years."
Maybe Thomas would have succeeded had he gotten another year or two. Three uninspiring seasons, however, were all that FIU school officials could stand.
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- Isiah Thomas