- The Washington Times - Monday, April 13, 2009

MIAMI (AP) - Isiah Thomas is on the verge of starting his coaching career over at Florida International.

The Hall of Fame point guard and former New York Knicks coach is deliberating whether to take over FIU’s basketball program, a person with knowledge of the school’s search told The Associated Press on Monday night.

The person, speaking on condition of anonymity because university officials have not authorized anyone to reveal search details, said FIU was “very hopeful” that a deal could be closed with Thomas on Tuesday morning. He would replace Sergio Rouco, who was ousted after five consecutive losing seasons, including a 13-20 campaign this year.

If Thomas accepts, he would be introduced in Miami on Wednesday. He did not immediately respond to messages left on his phone by The Associated Press on Monday night.

Thomas became the Knicks’ president in 2003, their coach in 2006 and was fired in 2008 after, among other things, a sexual harassment lawsuit and almost never-ending chants from fans who wanted him gone. He remains under contract with the Knicks, but has permission to seek work elsewhere.

Knicks president Donnie Walsh was aware Monday night of FIU’s interest in hiring Thomas, but the team couldn’t specifically say what the status of the contract talks were.

Among the other candidates on FIU’s list: Former Miami Heat players Ed Pinckney and Tim Hardaway, both of whom continue to have strong ties to South Florida. Pinckney is an assistant coach with the Minnesota Timberwolves but still maintains a residence in the Miami area; Hardaway briefly coached the now-defunct Florida Pit Bulls of the American Basketball Association.

“I want to put my name in the hat, but I think Isiah Thomas is getting it,” Hardaway told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. “I know I can bring some good prospects in. I have a good eye for good talent, so I’m putting my name in to try.”

One of those prospects Hardaway could have possibly brought in: His son, Tim Hardaway Jr., who is already a highly sought-after recruit by many Division I programs.

But almost as soon as Rouco’s firing _ a “reassignment,” the school called it, since he remains under contract _ the buzz centered around Thomas.

In recent years, the Golden Panthers and athletic director Pete Garcia lured Mario Cristobal away from Miami to take over their football program, landed noted college baseball recruiter Turtle Thomas as that program’s coach, plus opened an on-campus football stadium and even has made inroads on hosting professional and international soccer matches.

And now, this could be the biggest get yet for FIU: Thomas, who helped the Detroit Pistons win a pair of NBA championships as a point guard, then had success as coach of the Indiana Pacers before things unraveled for him with the Knicks.

A year ago, the Knicks finished 23-59, prompting Thomas’ firing. They never won a playoff game in his tenure as president or coach.

Thomas went 56-108 in New York and is 187-223 as an NBA coach, leading the Indiana Pacers to the playoffs in three straight years from 2000-03. Once he was hired to run the Knicks, he acquired Stephon Marbury from Phoenix, a move _ much like the one where he gave center Jerome James a $30 million contract _ that never panned out.

And there were off-the-court issues, too.

A jury found that Thomas and Madison Square Garden sexually harassed former team executive Anucha Browne Sanders and ordered the company to pay $11.6 million in damages. That, along with the losing, brought on a wave of “Fire Isiah!” chants that would typically start soon after tip-off at MSG.

Then this past October, Thomas found himself dealing with more drama. Officers responded to his New York-area home after a 911 call reporting an overdose on sleeping pills. According to police reports, those officers found a man passed out on the floor and gave him oxygen until an ambulance arrived.

Authorities never publicly identified Thomas as the victim, but a person familiar with the case later confirmed to the AP that it was the former NBA star.

A new beginning potentially awaits at FIU, which could clearly use a spark. The Golden Panthers have lost 20 games in three of the last four years, and haven’t had a winning record since going 16-14 in the 1999-2000 season.

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