Sunday, September 2, 2007

FIU Football Moving Too Fast For Its Own Good

Fireworks explode before FIU's first football game. New FIU head coach Mario Cristobal

The date was August 29, 2002. It was the day Florida International University unveiled its new football program. An overflow crowd of 17,000 fans along with local and state celebrities Dan Marino, Governor Jeb Bush and then Florida Marlin and FIU alum Mike Lowell paricipated in the opening ceremonies. FIU went on to defeat St. Peters College (NJ) in its inaugural game.

As a 1994 graduate of FIU, this is something I had always dreamed of being a part of. You see, there was no football team when I was a student. FIU was and still is a commuter school. There was no real school spirit or pride in the athletic program. But on that August evening, I finally saw that potential come to fruition.

But since that night, it hasn't been quite the same. Quite frankly the problem lies with the university's goal to make the FIU football program big time. There's nothing wrong with shooting for the stars. But the way FIU is going about it, there's going to be a fiery crash to earth. Because since that magical evening August 2002, FIU has yet to sell out a football game in its tiny stadium. The program has been mired in losing. Last year the Golden Panthers finished with a perfect record. They were 0-12. It wasn't the type of record that will inspire students and alumni to support a program that wants to compete with the likes of UM, UF and FSU.

I would have preferred to see FIU football make its niche at the small-college level--preferably Division IAA. There's nothing wrong with competing with the likes of Georgia Southern and Appalachian State. Division IAA football is a good brand of football. Just ask University of Michigan fans. They saw their team lose to the 2-time defending Divison IAA national champions on their home field in front of 100,000 stunned observers.

South Florida is not a market where 2 big-time college football programs can make money. The University of Miami has a tough enough time selling out the Orange Bowl. Only about 39,000 fans saw the Canes beat Marshall in their home opener. Miami football fans will only come out if the Canes are playing a big-named opponent. If a successful program like UM has trouble attracting fans, forget about FIU ever succeeding in big-time football.

This is a disaster waiting to happen. New FIU head coach Mario Cristobal is trying to accomplish mission impossible. In just his first game, FIU was destroyed 59-0 by Penn State in front of its 100,000 plus fans. It's not going to get easier or better anytime soon. The only way FIU is going to be able to compete with the big boys is to recruit the best high school football talent in South Florida.

While there's plenty of talent in Florida, FIU has only been able to attract the leftovers who didn't get a scholarship from UM, FSU, UF and most other Division IA schools. While you may get a few diamonds in the rough, you'll never build a great program with leftovers. Cristobal, who was known as an excellent recruiter during his stint as an assistant at UM and Rutgers, is going to have to convince blue chip prospects to take a chance and build something special. It will take some courageous, ambitious and perhaps naive young men to build this dream. Can it happen? Maybe. But not likely.

But what FIU should have done was build a winning program at smaller levels. You have to know how to crawl before you can walk. FIU president Dr. Mitch Madique and the university administration are determined to run before they can crawl. This is not a good formula. The university is currently renovating its football stadium, while the Golden Panthers play their 2007 season in the Orange Bowl. The plan is to increase seating capacity to over 20,000 and then eventually to over 40,0000. But who's going to sit in those seats? They can't even get 10,000 to attend games. For now, FIU football's most memorable moment was its notorious bench clearing brawl against the Canes. It was a black eye for both programs.

But the biggest black eye could come when the university is no longer able to field a football team because nobody wants to support a losing product. At the rate this is going, it's more likely the program will crash and burn than shoot for the stars.

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