Thomas to work for free in 2009-10

MIAMI -- Here's a sign of how badly Isiah Thomas wanted to return to coaching: He's working for free at Florida International.

At his introductory news conference at FIU on Wednesday, Thomas said his salary the first year from the Golden Panthers will be donated back to the school's athletic department.

Thomas was fired by the New York Knicks last year. The team still owes him around $12 million for the final two years of his deal there.

FIU athletic director Pete Garcia said that when Thomas learned about layoffs and budget cuts, he told the university president that the school should keep his salary.

Thomas arrived outside FIU's basketball arena at 10:25 a.m. Wednesday, riding passenger in a sleek black Mercedes. Even before he could get out of the car, three well-wishers couldn't wait to greet him.

"Hey! There he is!" shouted one of the men, all of whom got handshakes from Thomas before the car pulled into a parking space.

Thomas said he took the FIU job because he enjoys challenges. He said he talked to Bob Knight, his former coach at Indiana, and Duke's Mike Krzyzewski, about what it took to build college programs.

"I like rolling up my sleeves. I like taking some from the bottom and building it to the top. There's a lot of risk in that and there is also a lot of reward in that. But that's how I grew up. I want to take FIU to the next level and I know it's going to take a lot of hard work, but I'm willing to pay the price to do that."

His arrival was celebrated in Miami, much in the way his departure was in New York.

During his time with the Knicks, Thomas endured legal and personal troubles off the court, and more losses than wins on it. His Knicks were 23-59 a season ago, prompting a firing many fans had long awaited. The Knicks never won a playoff game in his tenure as president or coach, and many of his moves -- like acquiring Stephon Marbury -- didn't work out as planned.

In 2007, a jury ordered Knicks owner Madison Square Garden to pay $11.6 million to a former team executive who alleged she was sexually harassed by Thomas, who continually maintained his innocence and was never found personally liable.

This past October, there was more drama.

Officers responded to Thomas' New York-area home after a 911 call reported someone had overdosed on sleeping pills. According to police reports, officers found a man passed out and gave him oxygen until an ambulance arrived.

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

Garcia said FIU investigated Thomas and was aware of his history. But he said he had an advantage -- he knew Thomas personally.

"We have mutual friends, we've had them for a long time," Garcia said. "I've known Mr. Thomas for a while. I know Isiah Thomas. And I guarantee oen thing, we are getting a great human being....I'll let him talk about basketball. That's his passion.

"We're very fortunate to have him."

Thomas will face some immediate challenges: FIU went 13-20 this past season, its third 20-loss campaign in four years, and has not posted a winning record since 1999-2000.

He started moving quickly to fill his roster: Thomas started recruiting Tuesday night, only a few hours after arriving in South Florida.