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Was FIUs firing of Thomas really about winning?

caines | 4/19/2012, 5 a.m.

A little over a month ago, Florida International University [FIU] mens basketball team Coach Isiah Thomas, 51, was optimistic about a young squad of mostly freshmen and sophomores that, while being eliminated from this years playoffs in the first round, had made great progress. He was also proud of his team-leading seniors who were going to graduate on time in the spring and seemed genuinely excited about his newest batch of recruits. But it clearly wasnt enough for officials at the University who announced on Friday, April 6, that Thomas had been relieved of his duties and that a national search for the FIU Panthers next head basketball coach had begun. Pete Garcia, executive director of sports and entertainment, issued a brief statement: We want to thank Isiah Thomas for his three years here at FIU, he said. However, we have decided to take the program in a different direction. Nine days later, it became apparent that FIU had already found its new direction hiring Richard Pitino, 29, the son of Louisvilles head coach Rick Pitino, to take over. But theres still a lot more that isnt so clear. And we were unable to get anyone from FIU to answer our questions. Thomas offered his perspective as did several other Blacks connected with the school. Thomas: I was shocked We were looking forward to a breakout year next season and were confident that with the recruits we had in place and given the fact that we played more close games last season than anyone else in the conference, we were on the right path, said Thomas, who went 26-65 in three seasons at FIU. When you take over a program without a tradition [as opposed to a Duke or Notre Dame] you must first establish a solid academic record. Then the winning comes. Seventeen of my 19 kids graduated with their degrees. When I arrived we were at ground zero. I was under the impression that FIU wanted to follow the same path improve graduation rates and then improve our winning record. I thought we had five years to make that happen. Thomas has always chosen to become active in the cities where he played basketball or coached the game. He was part of the No Crime Day initiative that was led by Mayor Coleman A. Young while he was a Detroit Piston. He has spearheaded literacy drives and educational support programs in his hometown of Chicago. He most recently adopted Miami Northwestern Senior High School and many say he has been a mentor to the young men who made up his mostly-Black basketball team. Still, when the decision was made to remove him, campus police escorted him and his staff off the campus in the direct view of his players. And according to Thomas it came without any warning. He has been a real partner to the citizens of Miami-Dade County a fine partner, said City Commissioner Michelle Spence-Jones. He helped us with relief efforts in Haiti and had a lot to do with the new Hadley Gym Learning Center and helping us turn things around at Northwestern. He was more than a basketball coach that I can say without hesitation. How will players fare without Thomas? Senior co-captain DeJuan Wright sent a letter to Rosenberg on behalf of the team which can be viewed on the ESPN website. In the two-page letter, Wright emphasizes that he and his teammates came to FIU, not to make it to the NBA, but to receive Thomass mentorship and guidance in their efforts to become positive citizens. It [Thomass being escorted off the campus by the police] was quite embarrassing for us to witness and hurtful they deserved a better way to leave, he wrote. Wright added that while the players appreciated their time at FIU, without Thomas there as their coach and mentor, they wanted the freedom of choice to move in another direction. In other words, in an unprecedented move, the FIU players have asked for athletic releases in order to find a coach and program which will fit in our growth. The University has not made a statement as to whether the players request will be honored. Hashim Ali, 45, and Marcus Bright, 28, a member of Thomass staff and an academic advisor for the team, respectively, both said they were dismayed by the character assassination and demonization of Thomas by the media. Thomas was working in support of the Black community, he was involved in the demands for justice for Trayvon Martin and he was a mentor to the team and other young Blacks in Miami, Ali said. Garcia is not making this a positive environment for young Black males at FIU. They need someone that can mentor Black males and can relate to some of the special issues we must face every day. By D. Kevin McNeirkmcneir@miamitimesonline.com