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Thursday, April 16, 2009

Isiah Thomas: Latest Big-Time Coach Looking for Success at a Small-Time Program

You can now add the name of former NBA player, coach and executive Isiah Thomas to the long list of “big time” coaches who have retreated to the perceived safety of non-major college basketball to try and rehabilitate a damaged reputation.

With the announcement that Thomas will take over as head basketball coach at Florida International University (FIU), he is following a path that has been tried by many, but with surprisingly mixed results.

The history of college basketball is filled with coaches who enjoyed tremendous success at the highest level of competition, but for one reason or another fell from grace and no longer commanded the interest of top programs.

Many smaller schools are constantly looking for opportunities to increase exposure and contend with the major athletic programs, so lower-level Division I schools are often willing to overlook any baggage and accept their new coach with open arms.

What is different about the hiring of Isiah Thomas is that he has absolutely no experience coaching at the college level. You can also argue that with the exception of his stint as head coach of the Indiana Pacers, where he posted a 131-115 record in three seasons, his post-playing career has been anything but successful.

Thomas was an abysmal failure during front office stints with the Toronto Raptors and New York Knicks. During two seasons coaching the Knicks, he posted a record of 56-108.

He also is credited with driving the Continental Basketball Association (CBA) into bankruptcy during his stint as owner of the league.

Most coaches who have made the transition from a major program to a lower-level Division I school have struggled not only with the increased challenge in recruiting players to a non-marquee school, but also with the realization that they are no longer at a school where the coffers of the athletic foundation are filled with cash.

Because in most cases the school is paying their marquee coach significantly more in salary than they had previously paid, there is immediate pressure to increase revenue through ticket sales, advertising, and booster contributions.

However, while the addition of a big name coach usually provides an immediate bump in interest and exposure, that increase is often temporary. If the new coach isn’t able to immediately put a winning team on the floor –often a challenge because the coach generally inherits a team that has not had recent success– it isn’t long before the new coach must begin to accept the realities of life at a non-major program.

When Lefty Driesell coached at James Madison University –after being forced out at the University of Maryland following the death of Lenny Bias– the quote floating around the school was that Driesell “had an unlimited budget, and he exceeded it.”

Driesell arrived at James Madison in 1989 amid great fanfare and expectations that he could raise the national profile of the college. After posting first round NCAA Tournament upsets each year between 1981-1983, the basketball program had struggled with only one winning season in the immediate three years before Driesell’s arrival and fans were excited about the prospect of “Lefty” taking the team back to the NCAA Tournament.

He immediately elevated expectation and alienated the other members of the Colonial Athletic Association (CAA) by saying that getting to the NCAA Tournament should be easy because all you have to do is win the conference tournament.

It proved to be an ominous statement as Driesell took JMU to the championship game of the CAA Tournament five times during his eight-year tenure, but registered only one tournament title. After he left in 1996, the JMU program struggled for more than a decade before registering a winning season in 2009.

Driesell finished his coaching career a peg further down the coaching totem pole at Georgia State University. He retired ranked 9th all-time among Division I coaches with 786 career victories.

In addition to Driesell, a number of other former big-time coaches posted only moderate success at smaller schools.

Hugh Durham, who led both Florida State and Georgia to the NCAA Final Four, became head coach at Jacksonville University in 1997 and posted a 106-119 record in eight seasons.

After leading the University of Alabama to eight NCAA appearances and four SEC Championships, Wimp Sanderson became head coach at Arkansas-Little Rock in 1994. In five seasons, he led UALR to an 85-58 record, but never reached the NCAA Tournament and made only one trip to the NIT.

After leading the Los Angeles Lakers to an NBA title and Loyola-Marymount to the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament, Paul Westhead arrived at George Mason University in 1993 amid high expectations. In four seasons, he led the Patriots to a 38-70 record. After spending most of the past decade as an NBA assistant, Westhead was recently named the head women’s basketball coach at the University of Oregon.

One coach who was able to parlay his reputation into success was Gene Bartow. After leading Memphis State to the NCAA Championship game in 1973 and UCLA to the Final Four in 1976, Bartow left the spotlight to start the athletic program at the University of Alabama-Birmingham (UAB).

Bartow enjoyed tremendous success during his 18 seasons at UAB, including nine trips to the NCAA Tournament. The team made seven consecutive trips to the NCAA Tournament from 1981-1987 –including a trip to the Elite Eight in 1982.

A number of current coaches have also found success away from the bright spotlight of major college coaching.

Despite registering a 146-104 record and reaching the NCAA Tournament five times during eight seasons at the University of Virginia, Jeff Jones was fired after posting an 11-19 record during the 1997-98 campaign.

In 2000 he moved from the bright lights of the ACC to the shadows of the Patriot League as head coach at American University. Jones recently completed his ninth season at American by leading the Eagles to a 24-8 record and their second consecutive trip to the NCAA Tournament –where they gave eventual Final Four participant Villanova all they could handle in a first round matchup.

Todd Bozeman experienced amazing highs and dramatic lows during his turbulent tenure as basketball coach at the University of California, Berkley, from 1993-1996. In 1993 he became the youngest coach ever to lead a team to the “Sweet 16” of the NCAA Tournament.

Three years later –following a number of NCAA rules violations– he was slapped with a “show-cause” order than basically prohibited him from coaching in college basketball for the next eight years.

In 2006 he became head coach at Morgan State in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference and in 2008-09 led the Bears to a 23-12 and their first-ever appearance in the NCAA Tournament.

It is difficult to predict whether Thomas has the patients and temperament that will be needed to overcome the pitfalls and build Florida International into a successful winner. He inherits a team that has posted a 23-39 mark over the last two seasons and hasn’t had a winning record since the 1999-2000 season.

Given the reputation hits that Thomas has taken in recent years, the job at FIU may be exactly what the one-time NBA star needs. Being in the Miami market will provide him with some notoriety and exposure, but he shouldn’t have the constant scrutiny that he endured during his tenure in New York.

If he is able to turn FIU into a consistent winner, Thomas will not only be resuscitating the Panther basketball program, but also his own damaged reputation.

It won’t be easy, but considering the flair for the dramatic that Thomas has shown throughout his career, you can bet that his time at FIU will be interesting to watch.

1 comment:

  1. Good column! A lot of research went into this. Sometimes we even forget where these coaches are when they end up off Broadway.


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