Stunned by their school's decision to cut loose Isiah Thomas last Friday afternoon, members of the Florida International basketball team found a clever way to support the fired coach.
As a speaker introduced a highlight video from FIU's season at Monday night's end-of-the-year banquet in the team's honor, the Golden Panthers got up from their table, walked in a single-file line in front of the podium and exited the building en masse.
Freshman guard Tanner Wozniak said seniors DeJuan Wright and Jeremy Allen suggested the walkout before the banquet as a way for the players to show their displeasure with Thomas' dismissal. FIU fired Thomas with two years left on his contract, ending a three-year tenure in which the Panthers went 26-65 and failed to win more than 11 games in any single season.
"We didn't want to disrespect the program at all or anything," Wozniak said by phone. "We just wanted to show our support for Isiah Thomas. He was a great coach, a mentor and a father figure to us. He didn't have a winning record, but you can't build a program in three years."
The timing of Thomas' firing was what shocked both him and his players most. Instead of beginning the search for a new coach immediately after an 8-21 season, FIU waited a month to get rid of Thomas, decreasing the pool of available candidates and making it more difficult for the new coach to land a recruiting class with the spring signing period starting Wednesday.
When Thomas called a team meeting Friday afternoon following a routine spring workout, Wozniak said players thought it might be to finalize plans for Easter brunch on Sunday. Instead, the coach walked in with a dazed look on his face and announced to the team, "I want to let you know that I have been let go and the whole entire staff has too."
"Everyone was stunned," Wozniak. "We didn't know what to think at first. He was saying his good-byes to everyone and everybody took it pretty hard. It was a pretty hard time because we all loved him as a coach. He was there for us every time."
The perception of Thomas during his stint at FIU has always been that his hiring was more of a publicity stunt than anything else. As the losses mounted, skeptics questioned why FIU would put faith in a man with no prior recruiting experience, limited success as a coach and seemingly as much interest in reestablishing a foothold with the New York Knicks as building the Golden Panthers into a winner.
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Although Wozniak understands the criticism because Thomas didn't win, he also insists the perception of his coach's lack of commitment to FIU is unfair. Wozniak noted that Thomas always had an open door when his players needed advice, always emphasized academics and has even checked in with all his players this weekend to make sure they're handling the upheaval.
The turmoil in the program has left Wozniak and his fellow underclassmen unsure whether to remain at FIU or to consider a transfer.
"There's a lot of uncertainty right now," he said. "We all want what's best for ourselves. We're going to give the new coach a look, but we're going to keep our options open."
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