Thomas to Forgo First-Year Salary at FIU

The rehabilitation of Isiah Thomas and Susan Boyle, the surprising songbird on British TV, occupy the mind of Tony Kornheiser.Video by Atkinson & Co.
By Amy Shipley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 15, 2009; 1:33 PM

MIAMI, April 15 -- Isiah Thomas will work for free for his first season at Florida International University, the former Detroit Pistons point guard said during the news conference in which he was introduced as men's basketball coach.

On a dais surrounded by a host of Miami politicians, Florida International University trustees and cheering students and supporters at the campus gymnasium, Thomas confirmed that he would receive $1.1 million over five years but no salary for the first season in his first job since he was fired last April by the New York Knicks after a tumultuous tenure there.

Thomas, 47, is still receiving money from his Knicks' contract; he is owed about $12 million over the next two years.

During a news conference that was frequently interrupted by hoots of support and applause, FIU Athletic Director Pete Garcia said Thomas suggested forgoing his first year's salary after being informed by the university's president of potential layoffs and budget cuts at the university, a large public school that has strived in recent years to escape the shadow of the neighboring University of Miami and establish itself as a major player in Division I-A sports.

"I've made a lot of money off of basketball," Thomas said. "I've done quite well within the game and because of the game. This is a university that has great potential. . . . I didn't want to be a financial burden. This wasn't done for financial reasons. . . . Hopefully, what we're doing here today will benefit some student we may not ever know."

Thomas received a royal introduction from university officials, who seemed elated to have landed a Hall of Fame player, even one with a checkered past. Madison Square Garden had to pay $11.6 million in damages in 2007 to a former Knicks employee who alleged in a lawsuit that Thomas sexually harassed her. During Thomas's final season coaching the Knicks, the team tied the franchise record for losses and fans booed Thomas from the opening tip of most games.

And last October, a man that the Associated Press identified as Thomas was rushed to the hospital from his home after overdosing on prescription drugs.

"The importance of this hire to FIU -- not to the basketball program, not for athletics, but to FIU -- it's a landmark day in our history," Garcia said, adding later: "I know for a fact, FIU's been talked about more in the last 48 hours than it has in the last 30 years."

FIU recently unveiled a nearly $70 million football stadium on its campus and in 2006 hired former University of Miami star Mario Cristobal to coach its football team. FIU is home to a predominantly Hispanic student body of 38,000. Thomas replaces former coach Sergio Rouco, who was reassigned Monday after leading the Golden Panthers to a 55-94 record over five years in the Sun Belt Conference.

"We can build a program here, we can build a really exciting program here," Thomas said. "At the end of the day, we want to be known as one of the top basketball programs in the country."

Garcia said officials at the university had done "research" into Thomas's past but declined to say whom officials had contacted or reveal any details of the vetting process. Garcia said he had known Thomas for years after meeting him through mutual friends and that his personal relationship provided answers to many questions.

"I know Isiah Thomas," Garcia said. "I guarantee you one thing: We are getting a great human being . . . The people that are his friends can vouch for what a great human being he is."

Thomas did not address specifics of his five years in New York, which followed a stint as an executive with the Toronto Raptors and head coach with the Indiana Pacers, but said he loved the city and regretted not being able to bring a championship to Knicks fans.

"In life, you have your ups and downs and I'm no different," Thomas said. "I had my ups and downs, but don't expect me to just stay down, because that's not going to happen."

© 2009 The Washington Post Company