Mike Woodson’s first duties leading the Indiana program came long before he officially took over the head coaching job last March.
Former IU head coach Bob Knight was a stickler for senior leadership, and when it came to making a strong impression on young Isiah Lord Thomas III, Woodson did just that.
One of the most coveted recruits in the country, Thomas arrived at IU in 1979 as a true freshman. Indiana was coming off an NIT championship, and with a stacked roster, the Hoosiers opened the 1979-80 season ranked No. 1.
Woodson was a natural role model for Thomas. Both came from humble inner-city families, and like Woodson, Thomas was a rare player under Knight who was in high demand as a freshman. If Indiana is going to live up to high preseason expectations, Thomas will have to deliver.
The young Chicago product followed Woodson’s every move.
“For all of us, Woodson is the person who recruited me. He was the one I saw. I wanted to dress like Woody, I wanted to talk like Woody, I wanted to be everything Mike Woodson was,” Thomas said on the Run it Back podcast.
Woodson arrived at IU in 1976, just like Thomas, a wordless youth trying to adjust to Knight, big-time college basketball, and the shock of college life in Bloomington.
But Woodson settled in quickly and averaged 18.5 points and 6.7 rebounds per game in his first season with the Hoosiers.
In his senior year, Woodson was a big man on a mission — to make sure he didn’t leave IU without a Big Ten title. To get there, Woodson knew he had to make sure Thomas was ready to deliver as a freshman.
Thomas still remembers Woodson’s example.
“As a freshman, it was huge for me to have that kind of senior leadership about leadership, responsibility, discipline, going to class, who you are, being reinforced by your captains on your team,” Thomas said.
The bond between Thomas and Woodson continues to this day, and the NBA Hall-of-Famer couldn’t be happier that Woodson was chosen to take over the Indiana program last year.
“Mike Woodson is still one of my best friends, mentors, I look up to him,” Thomas said. “We’re very proud to have him back, and you can see what he’s done for Indiana in his first year (as head coach), bringing us all back together and establishing Indiana as one of the elites and places in basketball history. Talk and talk.”
IU’s head coach asked Thomas to be the guest of honor at the program’s first Hoosier Hysteria during Woodson’s tenure. An excerpt from Thomas’ speech was played to the crowd to encourage fans for the 2021-22 season.
At this time, Thomas took the lead in explaining the program’s mission to the public.
“There is no better fan base in the history of college basketball than Hoosier Nation, so you have a responsibility to stand up, show up, show up, show up every day. Let Hoosier Nation be in the house,” Thomas said on Hoosier Hysteria.
But Woodson was teaching Thomas about his responsibilities in 1979, and like Woodson, Thomas was ready for prime time that first year. With an average of 14.6 points and 5.5 assists, IU has done its part to stay in the national conversation.
But as it turns out, through no fault of his own, it was the ever-reliable Woodson who couldn’t be counted on in his senior season.
A back injury forced Woodson to undergo back surgery in midseason, and in February, the Hoosiers fell out of the top-25 entirely.
Woodson came back with just six games left in the regular season, and like Hollywood history, led IU on a six-game winning streak to the Big Ten title. But Indiana lost in the second round of the NCAA tournament, and Woodson later said he was physically and mentally exhausted as he tried to return to the court after the surgery.
“Our ’80 team was a lot better than our winning ’81 team,” said Thomas, a sentiment shared by many, if not all, of the players on both teams.
As much of a positive influence as Woodson had on the young and impressionable Thomas during the 1979-80 season, it was perhaps one of Woodson’s low moments that left the biggest impression.
“I’ll never forget the memory of Mike Woodson and Butch Carter taking their jerseys off (after the 1980 NCAA loss) and then it hit me in that locker room that I’d never play with them again, and the dream of winning a national championship with them was gone,” Thomas said.
“Going into my sophomore year, I made a promise to any of my teammates or seniors that I didn’t want to feel that way,” Thomas said.
The 1980-81 season followed its own turbulent path as Indiana adjusted to the loss of Woodson and Carter, starting just 16-9.
But finally, Thomas and his teammates felt joy in the locker room after their last game in 1981.
Credit Woodson for the ultimate college help.
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