By Michael E. Miller
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By David Villano
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But something is conspicuously missing. FIU holds the distinction of being the largest university in the nation competing in Division I athletics without a football program. That sport is considered by the administration to be an essential ingredient in the hard-to-define composite that is institutional maturity. The studies FIU has been conducting to determine football's impact and viability all suggest that, somehow, chin straps and shoulder pads will help foster greatness. One study by the school's Football Feasibility Committee claims that the sport will advance FIU's goal of emerging from the University of Miami's shadow to become "the principal educational, intellectual, and cultural institution in southeast Florida."
Administrators hope football will carry the FIU name far and wide. "When I say UM, what do you think of first? Usually football," says Paul Gallagher, FIU's vice president for business and finance and the football movement's spearhead. "If it's a professional person, they might say medicine or the law school. But football is always two or three. You say Penn State, people say football. Florida State? Football."
The magic of football even shines through the stuffy language used in the primary study FIU commissioned to gauge the program's chances. The report by the consulting firm of Carr & Associates raves that football can "actually change the way people live in the fall," then elaborates: "Social and business calendars are based on home and away games because the football games are much more than athletic contests, they are an event in their own right ..., the place to see and be seen, the place to make personal, political, and business contacts in a casual yet emotionally charged atmosphere."
Eduardo "Eddie" Hondal, one of FIU's directors of football development, has been waiting for that kind of school spirit since his days as a student at the university. "In the mid-Eighties, FIU football was an April Fool's joke," recalls Hondal, who graduated in 1988. "It was like, get real. Now we're on the threshold of a fielding a team. As a football fan I find that amazing, and it's amazing how much people ask about it. It's the number-one question that gets asked, more than [about] the law school, the medical school, merchandising, everything."
Football officially stopped being a joke in 1993, when FIU conducted its first study to determine whether a program might be possible. Talk of football began to spread, and in 1995, at Parrot Jungle of all places, Hondal says he and Gallagher realized it was capturing the imagination of the FIU community. Parrot Jungle was the scene of an alumni gathering called "FIU Day." Administrators who attended these shindigs were in the habit of telling their audiences about FIU's future. "We talked about research and things like that, and people smiled," Hondal recounts. "We mentioned the law school and, yes, people were interested. But then Paul Gallagher said the magic word: football. It had been all quiet, but then a roar went up. We were like, my God! That's when we started realizing how much people wanted it."
By 1996 many students were hopping on the bandwagon. They held pep rallies, donned T-shirts that proclaimed "FIU Football: Still Undefeated," and after some haggling agreed to pay a higher athletic fee to finance a program that was still at least five years away from being realized. Today a full-time student pays about $100 in athletic fees every semester, $15 of which goes to football. "In my opinion the turning point came when students agreed to pay the fee," Hondal says. "I always knew alumni wanted it, but my biggest concern was that students wouldn't pay for it."
The following year FIU officially declared its intention to establish a football program by 2001. Then came more paperwork. The state Board of Regents requires that universities seeking football programs commission an independent study in addition to any they may conduct on their own. The Carr report that FIU ordered is a bureaucratic tome filled with thick prose, a slew of charts and tables, and some heavyweight numbers-crunching. And, in the end, it's wishy-washy. The consultants concluded that football could work at FIU if there were "sufficient support," meaning money, and if a host of other questions concerning funding, support, and the competitive Miami sports market were answered. More studies were suggested. FIU will soon send the Carr report to the regents, a group historically bullish on football. Despite the lingering obstacles detailed in the report, FIU expects regent approval in November.
David Lee has read the Carr report. The tenured biology professor noted its call for a thorough examination of the local sports market, of potential support from students and alumni, and of football's fit within FIU's mission. "In my opinion," Lee wrote in an eight-page single-spaced essay sent by e-mail to every professor and administrator at the school, "we have never moved toward such an expensive program with such a low probability of success in our brief history. We will ... impair the improvement of existing sports, and few will attend the games. Football will have little effect on school spirit and campus life, and it has nothing to do with the major aims of the university."