MIAMI — On a breezy South Florida evening six days ago, students and faculty poured into the U.S. Century Bank Arena on the sprawling campus of Florida International. The mood was festive in the often-overlooked land of the Golden Panthers, with rock music blaring from a nearby tent and the parking lots filling up fast.
Okay, so it happened to be graduation night.
The big question now at FIU is if the crowds will return to this arena in six months when the basketball team takes the court, hoping to earn a degree of respect with the guidance of NBA Hall of Famer and new coach Isiah Thomas.
Of course, that isn't the only question. Ever since Thomas was hired on April 14 to revive FIU's foundering program, the blast of national publicity has raised some eyebrows due to the odd-couple pairing.
Is it a match made in heaven? Or is it a marriage of convenience between a school craving a higher athletic profile and a once-towering sports figure looking for a way to enhance an image tarnished two years ago by a messy scandal?
At least, wrote Greg Cote of the Miami Herald, FIU didn't stand for "Forgotten-Ignored-Undercovered."
"The school is just starving for attention in the South Florida sports market, where it's completely dominated by the Dolphins, the Heat, the Marlins and the University of Miami sports," Cote said. "They wanted to make a splash. And if you're Isiah Thomas, it's a reputation rebuilding job where all you can do is seem like a hero, assuming you don't get accused of sexual harassment again."
Indeed, the last time the sports world got a good look at Thomas, the former Indiana University and Detroit Pistons great was embroiled in controversy.
It went far beyond his oncourt problems as president and coach of the New York Knicks, who stumbled to 56-108 in two seasons at the helm amid a wave of poor personnel decisions. In 2007, Thomas was at the center of a sexual harassment suit that resulted in the team's owner paying $11.6 million to a female executive who had worked for it.
Thomas was not held personally liable, but his reputation was sullied — and took a further beating in the New York media in October over a 911 episode. He was treated at his Westchester County house for what was called an accidental overdose of sleeping pills but later added a layer of confusion by insisting his 17-year-old daughter had taken the pills, not him.
So Thomas, who turned 48 three days ago, arrives at his new job with some substantial baggage along with the $12 million the Knicks are paying him through next year and a five-year contract with FIU.
In his introductory news conference, Thomas stressed money played no part in his decision to join FIU, and he promptly backed that up by announcing he would donate his $275,000 first-year salary to the school. Instead, he spoke about the challenge.
"I like taking something from the bottom and trying to build it to the top," he said. "There's a risk in that, and there is a lot of reward in that."
The rewards have been harder to come by following Thomas' exemplary playing career, marked by a forgettable tenure as an executive with the Toronto Raptors, the demise of the Continental Basketball Association after he purchased it, his dismissal as coach of the Indiana Pacers after three first-round playoff eliminations, then the Knicks fiasco.
Asked about his New York history, Thomas replied in general terms. "When you rise all the way to the top of your profession, no matter who you are, the journey to the top is great," he said.
"And then you've got to come back down."
FIU is tucked away just off the Florida Turnpike, a little more than 8 miles away from its better-known cousin in Coral Gables, the University of Miami. Until Thomas' hiring, its biggest claim to fame in recent years was the sideline-clearing football brawl it had with the Hurricanes in 2006.
Though the school boasts an enrollment of 38,000 — making it one of the 25 biggest universities in the nation — FIU is largely a commuter school. Perhaps that is one reason the basketball team averaged only 681 fans last season, though the fact the Golden Panthers have lost at least 20 games in three of their past four years hasn't helped either.
Then there's the built-in identity problem: FIU is frequently confused by outsiders with FAU, Florida Atlantic University (which, by the way, has had its own star at the football helm in Boca Raton since 1998, former Miami national championship coach Howard Schnellenberger).
How Thomas' presence impacts FIU's image and profile will have to play out. There have been some early light moments, such as the news conference gaffe by provost Ronald Berkman (who introduced "Isiah Thompson").
But there has also been a serious side. Dr. Laurie Shrage, director of FIU's women's studies program and a philosophy professor, stated in an e-mail to the New York Times: "This hire sends the wrong message about FIU's commitment to the success of all students, faculty and staff, regardless of their gender."
Shrage said she received e-mails from members of her department, and they planned to hand-deliver a copy of the school's sexual harassment policy to Thomas. But she says she pulled back after receiving assurances from the school's human resources department that Thomas, as with all new employees, will be made acquainted with it.
Still, she wishes top administrators would go a step further.
"I think it's their responsibility to say, 'Look, this hire doesn't change anything about our intolerance toward sexual harassment and intention to enforce our own policy,' " she said by phone. "A simple comment would help calm concerns that they're not entirely indifferent and insensitive to the kinds of situations women face."
The mood on campus appears largely positive. Students and others interviewed by the St. Petersburg Times expressed some excitement and a willingness to give Thomas a chance.
"He's going to be really good for school spirit," said freshman Scott Sakowski, 19. "I don't know the details of the sexual harassment suit, but as long as he stays out of that, if he brings us a powerhouse program, it'll be great."
Alumnus Vanessa Baldomero, 23, looks forward to greater FIU recognition: "I know he has some baggage, but I guess any publicity is good publicity."
"I think it's a momentous occasion for our university and athletic program," added student body president and chairman of the Florida Student Association A.J. Meyer, 23. "He's going to join the community together and bring the student body to these games. And he definitely is going to put our name on the map."
David Fulwider, a parent and Miami resident on campus to watch his daughter graduate, called Thomas' hiring "a coup."
Then there was Dr. Subbarao V. Wunnava, the recently retired professor who spent the past 32 years at FIU teaching engineering and computers. "To give his first-year salary back to the school — it's remarkable."
Asked about Thomas' past, Wunnava replied, "Show me somebody who is perfect in life."
Athletic director Pete Garcia believes he has hit the jackpot in Thomas, with whom he has had a long friendship.
"I know him," he said. "I know him as a man. He's been married for 23 years and has a beautiful family with a daughter and son. He's a terrific father, husband and son. If you're on the outside, you could be skeptical. But knowing Isiah gave me an advantage other people didn't have."
Still, Garcia and FIU are taking a calculated risk, according to Darin David, director of Dallas-based Millsport, a national sports marketing agency.
"Isiah Thomas brings them immediate attention and impact," David said. "Yet the downside is there could be bad PR, especially if there are any incidents similar to what was reported about his time with the Knicks. It's a risky thing to take on, but there is that risk-reward involved. My hunch is for every booster or alumni they might lose, they'll gain two or more fans jumping on board."
Garcia has no doubts. He raves about Thomas' passion for coaching and his work ethic. "And he's going to shock people with players he'll sign," he added.
Thomas started the process last week, recruiting four top junior college transfers, including Marvin Roberts, the nation's top junior college scorer last season. Yet is Garcia worried Thomas will leave after rehabbing his image?
"There are no guarantees in life," he said. "But he has a unique opportunity to build something from the ground up and make it great. And I believe that's what he's going to do."
Dave Scheiber can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8541