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About 250 freshmen fidget and murmur in the cavernous ballroom at Florida International University. The newcomers wait for the next segment of an orientation session FIU requires all incoming students to attend. Hanging on a wall above the stage is the university's mascot, a large panther baring its fangs, slashing with a mighty paw, and trailing a lightning-bolt tail. The ferocious feline is painted gold, blue, and red in a glittery finish. It appears ready to pounce.
Sergio Tigeria, a student wearing an FIU basketball jersey, joins the sparkling mascot onstage. He is one of several peer advisors who direct FIU's orientations. The two-day sessions include boring formalities such as placement exams, but FIU also treats its freshmen to funny skits, social mixers, and, as they're about to find out, pep rallies. Tigeria runs Panther Rage, FIU's student booster club, and as an FIU athletic booster these days, the 21-year-old senior is also one link in a vast chain of students, alumni, and administrators working overtime to make the school's latest dream a reality.
Taking a microphone, pacing back and forth on the stage, Tigeria explains that Panther Rage's mission is to win over fans for the athletic program and, more important, to build a tradition. He describes those die-hard FIU boosters who paint their faces, decorate their cars with banners, and drive to Coral Gables in a caravan for the annual baseball game against the University of Miami. Then he plays a highlight reel of the increasingly competitive FIU men's basketball team. When the video stops, the murmuring begins again. Tigeria calls for silence.
"Hold on," he says. "I'm not done yet. I've been saving the best for last."
He pauses, surveying his audience.
"How many of you like ... football?"
Other peer advisors deployed around the room, all wearing gold soccer-style jerseys displaying the Golden Panther logo, clap and holler with all their might. Many of the freshmen join the racket as Tigeria triumphantly lifts a navy-blue football helmet emblazoned with the school's initials. When he unfolds a matching white jersey and drapes it across his chest, the cheering grows to a roar.
"September 8, 2001," Tigeria announces. "Remember that day. You're very lucky to be freshmen today because that's when you'll witness FIU's first football game."
The pep rally is yet another offensive in FIU's campaign to bust the University of Miami's 73-year monopoly on college football in South Florida. Administrators believe that by bringing football to their campus, they can bolster FIU's school spirit, rally alumni support, and eliminate the university's stepsister profile. Candidates applying to be FIU's new athletic director have been told that football is the top priority. A stadium upgrade is in the works. The men's tennis and golf teams have been eliminated, creating space on campus for quarterbacks and wide receivers, though administrators deny any connection. Approval by the state Board of Regents, the agency that oversees Florida's public universities, is expected to be a mere formality.
So strong is football's forward momentum that there is little tolerance on campus for consideration of the risks involved in launching such a program. Faculty members complain that they weren't even consulted. At least three administrators have parted ways with the university over the football question. Two of them have filed a federal lawsuit claiming that after they publicly criticized the football game plan, they were fired.
The administration may not like to hear it, but the criticism is warranted. Golden Panther football will be a tough draw in a market already saturated with sports teams, especially at a commuter school attended by older students who traditionally have not supported on-campus activities. The Miami Hurricanes, an established power perennially in contention for the national championship, punt, pass, and kick just down the road at the Orange Bowl. And across the nation college football programs are struggling through financial hardships season after season.
None of which is mentioned at the pep rally. Whenever Tigeria raises his shiny blue helmet, the freshmen cheer. "A lot of students look for colleges with the attitude that if there's no football, it's not a real university," he says afterward. "That's why we're doing this. And once they see the helmet, you can see it in their eyes. Football is real to them. You can see the spirit and passion."
Drivers passing through one of the main gates to FIU's University Park Campus in west Miami-Dade enter what is essentially one huge construction site. Workers pitch squares of sod around the gate's Roman arches. A large white sign along the outer road heralds the future home of the graduate school of architecture. A second sign announces plans for the development of a new life-sciences building. At noon on a summer Tuesday the commuter-student lots are gridlocked. Beyond the acres of parked cars, smoke-belching tractors scrape away at even more land for even more parking lots.
Just 27 years ago FIU was an abandoned airport sitting on the edge of the Everglades. Since then it has mushroomed into two campuses sprawling across a combined total of 600 acres. The school boasts 30,000 students and 80,000 alumni. Expansion is a way of life at FIU, long thought to be one of the fastest-growing universities in the southeast United States.