Mike Woodson’s first acts of leading the Indiana program came long before he formally took over as head coach last March.
Former IU head coach Bob Knight was a stickler for senior leadership, and when it came to making a strong impression on a young Isiah Lord Thomas III, Woodson was up to the task.
One of the most coveted recruits in the country, Thomas arrived at IU as a true freshman in 1979. Indiana was coming off a 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 households, and like Woodson, Thomas was the rare player under Knight from whom much would be asked as a freshman. If Indiana was going to live up to its lofty preseason expectations, Thomas would have to deliver.
The young Chicago product followed Woodson’s every move.
“Woodson for all of us, he was the person that recruited me. He was the person that I looked up to. I wanted to dress like Woody, wanted to talk like Woody, wanted to be everything that Mike Woodson was,” Thomas said on the Run it Back podcast.
Woodson arrived at IU in 1976 much like Thomas, a young man of few words trying to adapt to Knight, big time college basketball, and the culture 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.
By the time he was a senior, Woodson was a grown 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 the example Woodson set.
“As a freshman, to have a senior like that talk about leadership, responsibility, discipline, going to class, your personhood, to have that reinforced by your captains on your team was huge for me as a freshman,” Thomas said.
The bond between Thomas and Woodson carries on 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 closest friends, mentors, I look up to him,” Thomas said. “We’re so proud that he’s back, and you can see what he did with his first year (as head coach) at Indiana, just bringing all of us back, and reestablishing Indiana as one of the pinnacles and places where basketball history is told and talked about.”
The IU head coach called on Thomas to be the guest-of-honor at the program’s first Hoosier Hysteria under Woodson’s tenure. A snippet from Thomas’ address to the crowd from that night was played just before the tip-off of every home during the 2021-22 season to hype up the fans.
This time it was Thomas taking the lead, informing the crowd of their obligations to the program.
“There is no fan base in the history of college basketball better than Hoosier Nation, so you have a responsibility to stand up, show up, show out, be here every single day. Let it be known Hoosier Nation is in the house,” Thomas proclaimed at Hoosier Hysteria.
But it was Woodson teaching Thomas about his responsibilities in 1979, and like Woodson, Thomas was ready for primetime in year one. He averaged 14.6 points and 5.5 assists, doing his part to keep IU in the national conversation.
But as it turned out, it was the always reliable Woodson who, through no fault of his own, couldn’t be counted on during much of his senior season.
A back injury led to mid-season back surgery for Woodson, and by February the Hoosiers had fallen completely out of the top-25.
Woodson came back with just six games remaining in the regular season, and like a made-for-Hollywood story, he led IU on a six-game winning streak that resulted in the Big Ten title. But Indiana lost in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, however, and Woodson would later say that he was physically and mentally exhausted from the effort it took to get back on the court ahead of schedule following the surgery.
“Our ’80 team was significantly better than our ’81 team that won it,” Thomas said, sharing a sentiment held by most, if not all of the players who were on both squads.
For as much as Woodson provided a positive influence on the young, impressionable Thomas during the 1979-80 season, it was one of Woodson’s lowest moments that left perhaps the greatest impression.
“I’ll never forget the memory of Mike Woodson and Butch Carter pulling off their jerseys (after the 1980 NCAA loss), and it hit me in that locker room that I’m never going to play with them again, and the dream of winning the national championship with them was gone,” Thomas said.
“Coming into my sophomore year, I vowed that I never wanted to have that feeling again for any of my teammates or seniors,” Thomas said.
The 1980-81 season followed its own turbulent path as Indiana adjusted to the loss of Woodson and Carter and started the season just 16-9.
But in the end, Thomas and his teammates only felt joy in the locker room after their final game in 1981.
Credit Woodson for his final college assist.
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