FIU Flashback: Isiah Thomas’ cautionary tale of why not all players should be coaches

Former FIU HC Isiah Thomas (left) and Athletics Director Pete Garcia (right) in a press conference. Photo by FIU.

Brian Olmo / Staff Writer

What hell looks like varies from person to person. 

For some, it’s the classic depiction of a red-horned devil poking and prodding with a flaming pitchfork while you’re shackled to the ground with steel chains. For others, it’s just nothing; an endless void of eternal darkness. 

But for FIU basketball fans from 2009 to 2012, it was something much different: a period of time stained by losses, drama and the horrific tenure of an infamous head coach. 

Struggling to string together successful seasons, the Panthers weren’t horrible, but the team was on the bottom end of being middle-of-the-pack. In 2008, they had a 14-20 overall record, including a 3-13 record on the road. 

Terrible? No. Great? Also no. 

There was a shared sentiment among executives and fans alike that big change was needed, and that started at the head coach position. 

Detroit Pistons legend, Isiah Thomas, was tasked with the monumental challenge of rebuilding a young program. 

Thomas is an NBA legend and Hall of Famer. He has two NBA championships, a Finals MVP, 12 All-Star appearances and is widely regarded as a top 10 point guard of all time. 

Unfortunately, none of his playing success translated to coaching. At all actually.

Saying Thomas’ record as a coach is shaky would be a gross understatement. He started his post-playing career as the head coach of the Indiana Pacers, taking over from Larry Bird. 

Thomas was in charge of overviewing the team’s transition from being a veteran-dominated squad built for the playoffs to a young and promising but inexperienced group. 

Talents like Jermaine O’Neal and Al Harrington were developing into certified bucket-getters and Pacers legend Reggie Miller was old, but still productive when healthy and was a beloved leader in the locker room. 

Thomas had the firepower to work with and saw his most success in 2003 when the Pacers had a 48-34 record and were the third seed. He was even an All-star game coach. 

Isiah Thomas in a huddle with Pacers players. Photo by

But none of that seemed to matter as the team fell 4-2 in the first round of the NBA playoffs on May 1, 2003. The sixth-seeded Boston Celtics torched Indiana the entire series. 

This marked Thomas’ end with the Pacers.

Next up was a disastrous five-year stint with the New York Knicks as President of Basketball Operations, where baffling decisions became the norm.

One of Thomas’ most notorious moves was to trade away future draft picks to Chicago for big man Eddy Curry, which did not pan out at all. 

But hey, surely those picks New York gave up wouldn’t be anyone big, right? 


The Knicks traded away picks that would later become All-stars LaMarcus Aldridge and Joakim Noah. Ouch. 

After a disastrous time as an executive, team owner James Dolan gave Thomas one more shot as the team’s head coach, wanting to see progress or Thomas was out in New York. 

Thomas posted a winning percentage of .341% as head coach, the fifth lowest in Knicks’ history. 

He was promptly dismissed on April 18, 2008.

All of that leads us to April 14, 2009. Thomas signs a five-year, $1.29 million contract to become the next head coach at FIU. 

The transition from being the executive of an NBA team to the head coach of a relatively small college basketball program was surely jarring for all parties involved.  

Isiah Thomas coaching an FIU basketball player on the sideline. Photo by New York Magazine. 

Thomas’ first season as head coach for the Panthers was not a pretty one. Frequent losing streaks plagued FIU, only being broken up by the occasional win. The team ended the season on a rancid nine-game losing streak and finished 7-25 overall. They never won more than two games in a row. 

On the bright side, the team did have promising players. Guard Antoine Watson and forward Marvin Roberts would take turns leading the team in scoring, averaging 10.4 and 15.6 points per game respectively. 

And then Thomas made what could only be described as a boneheaded move and attempted to rejoin the Knicks as a consultant while still holding his coaching job with FIU. 

He wanted to have his cake and eat it too. 

This decision was met with immediate outcry and backlash from the media and Panthers fans. After a losing season, the last thing fans would want is for the head coach’s time and loyalty to be divided. 

Thomas announced on Aug. 11, 2010, that he wouldn’t be working with the Knicks because holding both jobs would have violated the NBA’s bylaws. 

Season two for the Thomas-led Panthers saw a slight improvement from last year. The team won four more games for a record of 11-19, but the losing streaks continued. They were also worse on the road than last year, going 2-11 away. 

FIU won their first game against Denver, 53-49, in the Sunbelt Conference tournament before crumbling to the Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders 38-73. Ending their season on a 35-point blowout felt emblematic of what’s to come. 

Once again, the Panthers limped into a third bad season under Thomas. It was the same old song and dance. A year riddled with losing streaks followed by an early exit out of the Sunbelt Conference Tournament.

FIU was stuck in a “Groundhog Day” situation: the same poor result repeating itself. 

From 2009 to 2012, FIU never had a season where they won more than 11 games. Thomas was fired on April 6, 2012, after going 26-65 in three seasons. 

Thomas was shocked by his dismissal. 

“When I was in Indiana, Larry Bird told me that he liked what I was doing but he was closer to Rick Carlisle,” Thomas told ESPN. “The whole thing in New York was crazy. This is the first time someone told me that I was being fired for basketball reasons.”

He wasn’t given any reason for his firing from FIU and still had two years left on his contract, totaling up to $660,000. Thomas believed that he was just around the corner of a breakthrough. 

“We had a nice group of kids working in our gym today and our coaches were pretty excited about the foundation we had laid here,” Thomas said in an interview with PantherNOW. “Four out of the top 50 players in the state of Florida had already given us verbal commitments, so I’m not sure [what the decision was]. We’re all kind of stunned.”

Could Thomas really have turned things around at FIU given two more years? Could he really have gotten the Panthers into the NCAA tournament? Who knows? 

But in the world of fast-paced and ever-changing college basketball, there is no time for hypotheticals. He was replaced with Richard Pitino, son of former Celtics coach and executive Rick Pitino. The Celtics and the month of April have really not been kind to Thomas. 

We’ll never know if the Pistons legend was the final part needed for the engine of a successful team. All we’ll ever be stuck with is what could’ve been. 

Follow Brian Olmo on Twitter at @Brian_Olmo11