Commentary

So just how strange is Isiah-to-FIU?

Zeke's arrival in the Sun Belt isn't the only odd fit in recent college hoops history

Updated: April 16, 2009, 9:58 AM ET
By Pat Forde | ESPN.com

"Well, how did I get here?"
-- David Byrne, Talking Heads

You may ask yourself that question today, Isiah Thomas.

You may ask yourself, "How did I go from the college basketball national championship to the NBA world championship to the Hall of Fame to coaching two NBA franchises to" -- swallowing of immense pride here -- "leading the Florida International Golden Panthers?"

[+] EnlargeIsiah Thomas
Joel Auerbach/US PresswireAs a player, Isiah Thomas won an NCAA title and multiple NBA titles. He'll now try his hand as a college coach at Florida International.

You may ask yourself how a man associated with so much basketball glory could plummet to the point that he would take a coaching job at a school with one NCAA tournament appearance in its history, zero NCAA tournament victories and a No. 217 RPI in 2009.

And you may tell yourself, "My God, what have I done?"

From the Bad Boys to a bad job, it's been a precipitous fall. So precipitous that it was FIU athletic director Pete Garcia, not Isiah, who wound up having to do most of the justifying in this mutually desperate marriage.

It was Garcia who had to defend hiring a collegiate coaching rookie who, along with Knicks ownership, was found liable of sexual harassment in 2007 in a case that ended up costing Madison Square Garden and owner James Dolan millions of dollars. It was Garcia who had to defend hiring a guy who has torched everything he's touched in recent years (the Continental Basketball Association and the New York Knicks, most prominently).

But you know what? If you have to make a comeback, might as well come all the way back. From the bottom. Might as well make a Frank Reich versus the Houston Oilers comeback. Might as well make it an epic one.

And the fact is, Isiah Thomas is not the only coach wondering how he got where he is. He merely tops the list of the weirdest rebound jobs in college basketball:

No. 14: Rick Majerus to Saint Louis, 2007

Glory Days: Led Utah to the 1998 national title game.

Why It Ended: A man can live in the Salt Lake City Marriott for only so long.

These Days: Defining average at a midpack program in the Atlantic 10.

Weirdness Factor: Other than the four years away from coaching, Majerus' re-entry at SLU isn't overly odd. He has coached at a Midwestern Catholic school in a big city before (Marquette) and done well.

How It's Worked Out: The Billikens are five games above .500 overall and two games below .500 in conference play under Majerus. Year 3 will be interesting without two mainstay seniors, but Majerus did have a productive freshman class in '08-09.

No. 13: Mike Davis to UAB, 2006

Glory Days: Led Indiana to the 2002 national title game.

Why It Ended: As the man who followed The Man, there were not enough victories, not enough in-state recruits and not enough presence to satisfy The General's people.

These Days: Has spent three seasons looking up at Memphis in C-USA.

Weirdness Factor: Good geographic fit for an Alabama native, but it's a long way from the Big Ten and coaching in a gym with five championship banners swaying at one end.

How It's Worked Out: Davis has won 60 games in three seasons at UAB. But he hasn't made an NCAA tourney and was trying to get other jobs after this season. There are some at UAB who wish he would've gotten one.

John Brady
AP Photo/Tim MuellerJohn Brady led LSU to a Final Four in 2006. He and Mike Jarvis are two of the coaches Isiah Thomas will now face on a regular basis.

No. 12: John Brady to Arkansas State, 2008

Glory Days: Took LSU to the 2006 Final Four.

Why It Ended: Wore out welcome in world-record time, getting trapdoored during the '08 season. Flirtations with other schools in '06 were a naked attempt to get a better deal at LSU and were not well received.

These Days: In his first season, Brady took Arkansas State to a last-place finish in the Sun Belt Conference West Division.

Weirdness Factor: Precipitous drop in profile, but at least Jonesboro is in the geographic neighborhood.

How It's Worked Out: Presided over a 10-game losing streak to end the season.

No. 11: Larry Eustachy to Southern Mississippi, 2004

Glory Days: Took Iowa State to the 2000 Midwest Regional final, where it lost a ferocious game to Michigan State in what was the de facto national title game that season.

Why It Ended: Partying with coeds at a rival Big 12 school is not good for job security.

These Days: Coaches one of the worst teams in lightweight Conference USA.

Weirdness Factor: Had no history in the area. But, hey, he needed a job.

How It's Worked Out: Eustachy has a losing record through five seasons at Southern Miss. He returned a $25,000 attendance bonus to the school after this season because he didn't think he'd earned it. If next year isn't any better, the school could be cutting him a severance check.

No. 10: Matt Doherty to SMU, 2006

Glory Days: Was the head coach at his alma mater, North Carolina, from 2000 to 2003 -- receiving AP national coach of the year honors in his first season.

Why It Ended: Bad record, bad temper, bad relationships.

These Days: First rebound job after North Carolina was at Florida Atlantic, which he jilted after one season. This year he coached the only team in C-USA that finished worse than Eustachy's. The Mustangs were last in the league.

Weirdness Factor: Strange under any circumstances to see a guy who won 26 games one season at Carolina coaching at a place that hasn't won an NCAA tourney game since the 1980s.

How It's Worked Out: SMU has gone from 17 losses to 20 to 21 in Doherty's three seasons in Dallas. Not ideal.

No. 9: Mike Montgomery to California, 2008

Glory Days: Took Stanford to the 1998 Final Four.

Why It Ended: Spectacularly bad decision to try his hand in the NBA with the Golden State Warriors.

These Days: Coaches Stanford's biggest rival.

Weirdness Factor: Plenty weird to Cardinal fans, but otherwise it makes sense. Monty stays in the Bay Area and returns to the Pacific-10, where the only uncomfortable moments are when he's coaching against his old school.

How It's Worked Out: Took the Bears to the NCAA tournament for the first time in three years.

No. 8: Rick Pitino to Louisville, 2001

Glory Days: Won the 1996 national title at Kentucky and nearly repeated in '97.

Why It Ended: Return engagement with the pros, which ended in disaster at Boston.

These Days: Coaches Kentucky's biggest rival.

Weirdness Factor: Off the charts, to use a Pitino-ism, in the early days. But it was the best job available to Pitino after resigning in Boston, and Big Blue bitterness has subsided somewhat in recent years.

[+] EnlargeRick Pitino and Tubby Smith
AP Photo/Ed ReinkeWhen Rick Pitino returned to Rupp for the first time with archrival Louisville, he faced off with Tubby Smith … who later left Bluegrass country for the Twin Cities.

How It's Worked Out: Took the Cardinals to the 2005 Final Four, their first since 1986. This year's team won the Big East title, earned the school's first No. 1 NCAA seed since 1983 and its first AP No. 1 ranking ever. But a bad loss to Michigan State in the regional final left a sour aftertaste.

No. 7: Tubby Smith to Minnesota, 2007

Glory Days: Won the 1998 national title at Kentucky.

Why It Ended: Mutual burnout between coach and fans.

These Days: Wearing snow boots in Minneapolis.

Weirdness Factor: Nobody ever would have thought of leaving Kentucky for Minnesota -- until Smith did it. Big step down in program profile, but a big step up in terms of coaching comfort.

How It's Worked Out: Smith took his first Gophers team to the NIT and his second to the NCAAs -- its first trip to the Big Dance since 2005 and just its second of the decade. Minnesota is thrilled to have him, but Tubby's name popped up often enough in the coaching rumor mill this spring that you wonder whether the thrill is mutual.

No. 6: Tommy Amaker to Harvard, 2007

Glory Days: Took Seton Hall to the 2000 Sweet 16, then relocated to Michigan.

Why It Ended: In six seasons, he never rebuilt the Wolverines into anything better than an NIT team.

These Days: Took his turtlenecks to college basketball's academic neighborhood.

Weirdness Factor: Big East to Big Ten to Ivy League? Pretty weird.

How It's Worked Out: There was controversy last year about Amaker allegedly recruiting outside Harvard's traditional academic strictures, and the fallout sent star recruit Frank Ben-Eze to Davidson instead. On the court, the Crimson have gone from 8-22 his first season to 14-14 in his second, with upset victories over Michigan and Boston College along the way.

No. 5: Mike Jarvis to Florida Atlantic, 2008

Glory Days: Led St. John's to the 1999 Elite Eight.

Why It Ended: Scandal that led the Johnnies to ban themselves from the 2004 NCAA tournament. Jarvis resigned six games into that season, but was personally cleared of wrongdoing.

These Days: After five years on the sidelines the native Northeasterner is back at a Sun Belt bottom-feeder, just up the road from Isiah.

Weirdness Factor: It's a long way from home games in Madison Square Garden to home games in "The Burrow," the Owls' 5,000-seat gym.

How It's Worked Out: Jarvis went 6-26 in his first season. The only time anyone noticed him was when he was ejected from a January game against Louisiana-Monroe for three technical fouls and had to be escorted off the floor by campus cops. That also earned him a one-game suspension.

[+] EnlargeSteve Fisher
AP Photo/Frank Franklin IISteve Fisher coached in three NCAA Final Fours while at Michigan. He found himself in the NIT Final Four at San Diego State this season.

No. 4: Steve Fisher to San Diego State, 1999

Glory Days: Fell into the 1989 national title as interim coach at Michigan, and took two subsequent Wolverines teams to the Final Four.

Why It Ended: Scandal. When Ed Martin's payola to Michigan players went public, Fisher was fired.

These Days: Fisher has established himself at a school that doesn't much care about college basketball.

Weirdness Factor: Seemed very strange at the time, but Fisher was still a bit radioactive from the Michigan mess and the Aztecs were seeking their first-ever "name" coach.

How It's Worked Out: Pretty well for all involved. San Diego State had been to three NCAA tournaments in its history before Fisher and now has been to two more. (Though it still is seeking its first-ever NCAA victory.) The Aztecs have had four straight 20-win seasons and played in either the NCAAs or NIT in each of those seasons.

No. 3: Bobby Cremins to College of Charleston, 2006

Glory Days: Took Georgia Tech's "Lethal Weapon 3" team to the 1990 Final Four, part of a nine-year run of NCAA tournament appearances.

Why It Ended: Four straight losing records in Atlantic Coast Conference play.

These Days: Living the good (albeit obscure) life on the Carolina coast.

Weirdness Factor: Cremins was out of coaching for seven years, which has to be nearing a record of some sort. Not sure which was stranger: his desire to get back in, or Charleston's desire to hire him.

How It's Worked Out: Pretty well, actually. Charleston has won 65 games in three years under Cremins, including 27 this past season. But after beating Southern Conference kingpin Davidson, the Cougars blew a golden opportunity for their first NCAA bid in 10 years by losing the SoCon final to Chattanooga.

No. 2: Rollie Massimino to Northwood University, 2006

Glory Days: Took Villanova to the 1985 national title.

Why It Ended: Worn-out welcome.

These Days: Coaching NAIA school.

Weirdness Factor: A man who beat John Thompson and presided over the perfect game, then succeeded Jerry Tarkanian in Las Vegas, is now scraping around in the Sun Conference. Enough said.

How It's Worked Out: Marriage of bizarre convenience. Septuagenarian Rollie is still earning a check and Northwood occasionally gets mentioned in basketball circles.

No. 1: Isiah Thomas to FIU, 2009

The new gold standard for weird. Don't be surprised if Zeke walks out for his first game in November with David Byrne's lyrics rattling through his head.

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

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