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Musings about basketball's house

FIU athletic director Pete Garcia fairly gushed over departing coach Richard Pitino Thursday.

“What he did with this basketball team and these players, I’ve never seen a job like that in
my 25 years,” Garcia said. “I rank him right up there as far as talented coaches, and I’ve been fortunate to be around some very good  ones, with (formerUniversity of Miami football) Coach (Butch) Davis, Greg Schiano, Rod Chudzinski, Leonard Hamilton, Chuck Pagano. He’s got it all.”

Names float around when it comes to this job. Every college assistant tired of being Spock or McCoy and want a shot at being Kirk (or, for those of you younger readers, tire of being told "Make it so" and want a chance to be Picard.) will send an application. Some veteran college coaches need to cleanse their name with a few years of peaceful penance in steerage class of D-1 hoops. And some who've been to the truly big time don't mind some lower rung time. It makes them feel like they're back to their roots. More coaching and bonding with kids who share the desperate love of a game and less handshake-and-grin with adults with whom they have only vitamins and Viagra in common.

FIU's pay, $250,000 per year for each of the last two coaches, isn't high end for the job, but allows a single coach to live comfortably in South Florida. And there's all the other issues that come with being a hoops coach at FIU. Potential coaches know at least the broad strokes of all that. Nobody confuses Camp Mitch with Kentucky or Stanford, although Stanford assistant and former FIU assistant and player Charles Payne might be interested.

The Academic Progress Rate issue could be a one-year problem or, depending on how many players transfer after this coaching change, get extended by a year or two. If FIU gets another semi-miraculous season and looks like it could qualify for postseason play, the school could petition the NCAA for relief as a program showing APR improvement in 2012-13.

A member of the Isiah Thomas administration gave me a call Thursday afternoon to say that while the APR numbers for 2010-11 being reported were accurate, the why isn't as simple as kids not going to class under Thomas, but rather two kids not going to class under Thomas.

(The low APR under Thomas surprised me. Though Thomas left Indiana University for the NBA after his sophomore season, he came back each summer until he finished his bachelor's degree in 1987. I spent that summer in Bloomington and saw him passionately speak to incoming minority freshmen on not blowing this great chance they had. He was taking University of California graduate classes while coaching at FIU. So why would a Hall of Fame player who values his own education and played his college ball under a coach who benched or booted key players just for missing a few classes be lax about his own players going to class? That made about as much sense as the Chewbacca Defense.)

Anyway, this former staffer said Eric Frederick, FIU's second leading scorer at the time and a junior college transfer, got jettisoned by Thomas for refusing to be a student in 2010-11. Frederick transferred to Texas Wesleyan. Antoine Watson crashed academically in 2009-10, but had remained in school. Thomas gave him a year to get his grades together. When Watson failed to do so and was gone by the holidays, the staffer said, that and Frederick kneecapped the APR for 2010-11. 

FIU knew that would happen, he claimed, just as they've known the 2011-12 APR would stink after a number of players transferred following the Thomas firing. Nobody at FIU can dispute that Pitino knew the likelihood of a 2014 postseason ban when he got hired. As the new triage officer of the program, however, that got low worry priority behind just finding players to put on the floor for 2012-13. (Then, the obvious question: how much did Pitino tell the players he was bringing in who would have only one or two years at FIU?)

Word around FIU doesn't argue the 2011-12 APR, once official, will be low less because of absenteeism because of players transferring after one or two years. But the talk in certain halls is Thomas encouraged players to transfer after his firing, so it's still his doing. A couple of players definitely kamikaze'd themselves academically over the last month last spring, but not at Thomas' urging.

Scholarship athletes transferring or getting booted after one or two years slashes at your APR. It's part of Ron Turner's dilemna over at football. Turner's too old for headaches, but can't just wish the leftover headache players into the cornfield without crippling the APR. Football doesn't have much wiggle room with its APR this year after an 897 2010-11 and one of the worst fall semesters in years in 2012.

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