Isiah Thomas has lofty goals. And "lofty" is being kind.
Thomas, the former college hoops- and NBA star-turned failed coach/executive with the New York Knicks, is Florida International's new coach. He's either unafraid of losing games (been there, done that) or a supremely confident in his abilities, because it'll take a small miracle to win there.
"I like rolling up my sleeves. I like taking some from the bottom and building it to the top. There's a lot of risk in that and there is also a lot of reward in that. But that's how I grew up. I want to take FIU to the next level and I know it's going to take a lot of hard work, but I'm willing to pay the price to do that," he said Wednesday.
Indeed. Thomas' salary for the first year will be donated to the school's athletic department. Give Thomas credit – he knows how to set the stage.
But it's not the ideal place for someone who has no previous college coaching experience to start from scratch.
The Golden Panthers' last winning season was the 16-14 campaign in 1999-2000, and that team featured future NBA point guard Carlos Arroyo. In just under 30 years, the program's had seven winning seasons and been to one NCAA tournament (in '95).
Since joining the Sun Belt Conference in 1999, FIU is just 69-132. Home game attendance is dismal. It's also on NCAA probation for multiple rules infractions. Was this really the best place to start over?
"Coming back to the college game has always been a dream of mine, and I didn't want to pass up an opportunity to go somewhere where we can build a basketball legacy together," Thomas said earlier this week.
No, this isn't one big joke. It just seems like it.
And unless Thomas quickly becomes a top-flight recruiter, good coach and first-rate schmoozer, it'll end as a joke too.
By all accounts, Thomas is a charming guy. He's talked his way into prime jobs before, most notably with the Knicks and their owner, James Dolan. Use that charm on FIU's massive Miami fan base (the school's enrollment tops 38,000 and most of them don't leave the Miami area) and convince people to come to the games and donate to the program.
Still, this is Miami. They love the Dolphins, but the Marlins, Heat and Hurricanes all struggle to fill seats on a regular basis. Maybe FIU should give away tickets.
Recruiting will be a little tougher, though some think Thomas should be able to do well. Knicks president Donnie Walsh is one of them.
"If you really think about it, some of these kids that are coming out of AAU that are going to college for one year, that's a pretty good sell," said Walsh, who worked with Thomas while at the Pacers from 2000-20003. " 'Come down to Miami, spend a year with me.' I think he's positioned to do well recruiting there."
True, the South Beach pitch is effective. And Thomas is noted as a shrewd, hard-working guy. But he's behind the game when it comes to AAU contacts and working with high school coaches. He's not Michael Jordan. He's not LeBron James. Name dropping to 17-year-olds won't be enough.
Plus, FIU isn't going to be on TV. Prospects won't get any national exposure like they would at any school in the ACC, Big East, etc..
But the biggest concern? Thomas is a lousy coach.
Maybe he was doomed to fail with the Knicks roster he built (he was 56-108 in two seasons), but he was set up to win as the Pacers coach. And he barely did that.
In 2000, he inherited a team that finished 56-26 and lost to the Lakers in the NBA Finals. During the next three seasons, Indiana was 41-41, 42-40 and 48-34. It never won its first-round playoff series. After Thomas left, the Pacers finished 61-21 and lost in the Eastern Conference finals.
So how will he fare with a roster full of moderately talented players? Other ex-NBA coaches without any college coaching experience haven't don well.
N.C. State's Sidney Lowe was either an NBA assistant or head coach for more than 13 years. In three years with the Wolfpack, he's 51-46 and has never made the NCAA tournament. He's been to the NIT once, after his debut season.
Paul Westphal went to Pepperdine after stints with the Phoenix Suns and Seattle Sonics. He never caught on in Malibu, finished 139-90 in seven years, with one NCAA tournament berth.
Jeff Bzdelik's first head coaching job was at Maryland-Baltimore Country, but spent from 1988-2004 in various NBA positions. His college return began with two solid seasons at Air Force (50-16), yet has struggled at Colorado. He's won just 21 games total the last two years.
In the end, Thomas will certainly be worth the gamble – the price is right, at least – but the odds of FIU turning into an elite team are slim. It's win for the school, both in terms of price and publicity, but this isn't going to turn out well for Thomas.