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After a recent practice in the gym, Watson and Gary hang out near the entrance to the men's restroom at FIU arena. The juniors say Thomas was the sole reason they came to FIU. His blue practice jersey soaked in sweat, Gary talks about the day his idol came looking for him. "It was the week after my birthday," he says. "Coach Thomas called me and asked if I wanted to play for him. It was the easiest decision I ever made."
Watson, a jovial Raleigh, North Carolina native who weighs 200 pounds, says he passed up the University of Memphis to come to Miami. "I couldn't play for a better coach," Watson asserts. "He convinced me to come to FIU by being real with me. He didn't promise me anything except that he's going to push me hard to get me to the next level."
Miro drives aggressively to the basket with 5:07 left in the first period of FIU's January 21 match against Arkansas State University, the top-seeded team in the Sun Belt's West Division. The Red Wolves boast a 6-2 conference record (11-8 overall). The hazel-eyed Boricua baller is fouled hard as his layup drops through the net. He calmly sinks the free throw to extend the Golden Panthers' lead to 25-20. A jumper by senior forward Marlon Bright, a Martin, Tennessee native, puts FIU up by seven.
Then the game begins to unravel. The Red Wolves pull off a 13-4 run that gives Arkansas State the lead. A frustrated Thomas storms over to the FIU bench and slams the heel of his shoe on a chair. He appears angry with 6-foot-1 guard Tremayne Russell, a Savannah native, who attempted a no-look pass that the Red Wolves stole and converted into points. "That shit doesn't work," Thomas hisses. "Damn it!"
The first half ends with Arkansas State up by two points. Things only get worse. FIU ends up losing by 15. And less than 100 people attended the game. In fact, FIU's home attendance is definitely not a good recruiting tool. According to information the school provided, the Golden Panthers have sold a total of 1,075 individual tickets for nine home games played between this past November 17 and January 23. But the school has seen a boost in season ticket sales from last year's 207 to this year's 507.
That is nevertheless an abysmal turnout for a university that spent $5 million to renovate the 23-year-old on-campus arena, installing a state-of-the-art public address system and courtside seats. The hiring of Thomas was supposed to give the school a boost in attendance, but it hasn't turned out that way. In fact, bringing in the disgraced ex-Knicks boss is beginning to look like a sign of desperation from a university that has struggled to validate its investment in competing in big-time college athletics.
In 2008, FIU opened its new on-site football stadium, with $50 million ($35 million in public money) spent on upgrades including 20,000 seats, 1,400 club seats, and 50 club suites and a clubhouse for big-money season ticketholders. Shortly before the beginning of the 2008 football season, athletic director Pete Garcia boasted the stadium would be "the crown jewel for the entire FIU community."
Then-President Modesto Maidique championed it as a way for FIU to make its mark on collegiate athletics. The same year the stadium opened, the school faced a $32 million budget shortfall, laid off about 200 employees, shut down several academic centers, eliminated 23 degree programs, and raised tuition by 6 percent.
What's more, the football team finished 5-7 in 2008 and went 3-9 last year. For the stadium's inaugural season, FIU sold 6,651 season tickets. Last year, that number dropped to 2,435.
Floundering finances and a moribund athletic program might have factored into the university's decision to take a chance on Thomas. But it is pretty clear from the basketball team's record that he has not yet galvanized the Golden Panther nation.
FIU finance professor John Zdanowicz says investing in athletics would make sense if university sports teams were competitive. "If our athletic program were as lucrative as the University of Florida's, then it would be a good investment," he says. "[UF] makes a big rate of return from football and men's basketball."
Of course, FIU athletic boosters say it will take more than one year of Isiah Thomas at the helm to build a winning program and thriving fan base. Alberto Padron, director of integrated marketing for Miami-based ad firm Zubi Advertising, graduated with a bachelor's degree in public administration from FIU in 1998. Last year, he earned a master's in business administration. "We are just beginning to lay down the foundation," he says.
Padron is exactly the type of booster FIU needs on the front lines. He is enthusiastic but also admits the athletic program still has not attracted the type of support it needs. "When you are further removed from FIU, it is easy to draw that conclusion," Padron says. "But we all knew that this was a transition year for men's basketball. Let's wait and see what Isiah does next year."
Padron's pal Julian Kasdin, a 24-year-old who graduated with a history degree in 2007, has more tempered expectations. "One of the problems with being a commuter school is that you don't have that sense of community you find at more traditional universities like Florida State and the University of Florida," he says. "A lot of alums don't understand that to be competitive in sports, you have to show up for games and you have to raise money."