The dominant shadow previously cast by University of Miami football over the city is receding a bit. Amid the darkness, Florida International University sprouted and is trying to grab some of the Miami sunlight. In its biggest growth spurt yet, FIU defeated Arkansas State saturday afternoon 31-24 in front of an enthusiastic crowd at FIU Stadium to clinch the Sun-Belt Conference championship and a bowl game…both firsts for the school. Meanwhile, about nine miles away, UM was staying in the headlines with a deflating loss to USF which led to coach Randy Shannon being fired.
The dramatic come-from-behind victory for the Golden Panthers of FIU was storybook in every sense of the word. Beautiful day outside. Buzzing atmosphere. Fired-up coach. A bit of luck. And of course the game-winning, tackle-breaking 42-yard touchdown reception from star player, T.Y. Hilton, who ran through four opponents on his end zone sprint to help FIU football become something it had never been since its inception in 2002: Relevant.
Coach Mario Cristobal has engineered a better turnaround than MJ’s in his prime. This is the best turnaround since the very first time you tapped someone on the opposite shoulder and genuinely got them to turn the wrong way to look for you. Just four short years ago, Cristobal inherited a stripped-down, bare-cupboard program that went winless in 2006. Since moving up to Division 1-A from 1-AA after its 3rd season, FIU has endured an infamous 23-game losing streak, and had been stripped of numerous scholarships and victories by the NCAA for violations. He pretty much had to start from scratch, inheriting former coach Don Strock’s mess.
For a team that had previously only made news for having a huge Braveheart-style brawl against the Hurricanes, and for the death of popular and productive RB Kendall Berry who was stabbed on campus last March, this is much needed positive publicity. Although FIU lost its non-conference games, they were competing in and even had the lead in the second half of some. Hopefully FIU can succeed where FAU and Troy (Past Sun-Belt champions) have failed as far as being consistent outside of the conference.
In four years at FIU, Mario Cristobal built a bowl team out of a previous mess. In four years at UM, Randy Shannon is being fired after the team is essentially where it was when he inherited it. Granted, the athletes have vastly improved on the academic front and their graduation rate is respectably high, but fans of “The U” would rather see their players get a “W” than an “A” right now.
I grew up as a Canes fan, but when I began college at FIU in 2002, I started following the Golden Panthers a bit, too. I was at their first game ever, with Dan Marino, FIU-grad Mike Lowell and then-Governor Jeb Bush doing the opening ceremonies. I was at last saturday’s game too, unfortunately for me still as a student. The excitement and optimism that I felt at these two games were different energies from each other. In 2002, it was a, “What’s going to happen next?” excitement you’d expect from a new program that had just won its first game ever. By 2010, the team had gone through ups and downs already so the celebration of overcoming adversity and growing to become a conference champion felt more validated. FIU plays in a stadium nicknamed “The Cage” so of course their rally cry is to “Rattle the Cage!” It was nice to actually feel the stadium rattling from screaming and banging during opponents possessions.
The UM coaching exodus (Offensive Coordinator Mark Whipple was also fired.), the ugly losses at home, national scrutiny and an already apathetic fanbase, coupled with FIU’s emergence should mean a tiny momentum swing in South Florida football. You may not notice it right away, but slowly and even some of this years’ UM recruiting class that had previously committed to Shannon will start to consider FIU instead. Pretty soon the Miami fanbase, including myself, will also be making the decision between Miami and Florida International Universities.