Gridiron Fever

FIU administrators think spending millions on a football program will do wonders for their school, and they'll sideline anyone who disagrees

The University of Central Florida (UCF) in Orlando provides the Golden Panthers with an even more sobering reality check. As detailed in the Carr report, the UCF Knights began playing at the rock-bottom Division III level in 1979 and climbed to Division II in 1981. Two years later they moved to Division I-AA, which is when the trouble began.

Growing too much too soon, UCF overspent its football budget for several seasons, forcing athletic administrators to borrow $1.2 million from funds reserved for research, campus health services, student activities, and the school's bookstore. They also dipped into the fund that holds tuition fees, in violation of state law. In 1985 the Board of Regents told UCF to shape up or drop football.

That's when Gene McDowell, an assistant coach at Florida State, came to the rescue. After being hired by UCF as athletic director and head football coach, he engineered four years of quarter-million-dollar surpluses through a hike in student fees and a fundraising frenzy. "We had to beat the bush," recalls McDowell, who has since left the university. "We begged. We went out and tried to talk people into giving to the football program."

Sergio Tigeria asks incoming freshmen to say it with him: Football is number one!
Sergio Tigeria asks incoming freshmen to say it with him: Football is number one!

McDowell, who calls the early Eighties "the survival period," says Central Florida nearly doomed itself by overestimating revenues. It gambled on raising millions of dollars from donations and ticket sales, and lost. "It was bad planning," he says today. "They misjudged their income sources. They showed poor judgment in spending money that never materialized. It was a big mistake." UCF, which rose to Division I in 1990, hasn't suffered another crisis since. Last season it averaged more than 27,000 fans and reached a milestone in its twenty-year history: It finally broke even for the first time.

If Central Florida's travails could give FIU the creeps, the University of South Florida's success story might offer hope. Tampa's state university, the third school mentioned in the Carr report, caused jaws to drop all over the nation almost immediately after launching its program in 1997. "You have to take them out of the mix," says Alabama-Birmingham's Staub. "They captured magic in a bottle."

In their inaugural game, they routed Kentucky Wesleyan College 80-3 in front of 49,000, then went on to win four more games. For the season the team averaged a whopping 33,000 fans, the second-best I-AA count in the nation, and paid for itself without using student fees, according to school administrators. Last season it paid for itself again and drew an average crowd of 27,000, tops in Division I-AA. And oh yeah, the USF Bulls went 9-2 and finished among the top twenty teams in the nation.

Paul Griffen, University of South Florida's athletic director, credits Tampa's passionate sports fans for his phenomenon by the bay. "What set us apart from any other program is the overwhelming response from the community," he says. "I'm talking about attendance, the purchasing of tickets, donations. The Tampa Bay community has embraced our program like no other has."

Tampa's adoption of the Bulls might bode well for FIU, also in a large metropolitan market with a plethora of options for the sports fan, except that in Tampa, USF is the only college-football show in town, while FIU will be contending with both UM and another upstart program at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton. Another difference is that bay-dwellers were already craving college football when the Bulls arrived. USF's crosstown rival, the University of Tampa, had killed its program years earlier.

The market may have been just right for USF, but ultimately most observers agree that the program's success is the result of years of careful planning. Griffen's advice to FIU: "Move slower than everybody is telling you to. Show patience and caution. Make sure you're ready before you start."

"We're a university that [has] done everything fast," FIU vice president Paul Gallagher once told the Miami Herald. "We have a president who wants everything done yesterday, and we've been successful doing it." This need for speed manifests itself in an athletic department with a rapid rate of staff turnover. The university is currently trying to hire its third athletic director (AD) in six years and its tenth since opening its doors in 1972.

In February 1997 Ted Aceto, who had been AD for four years, resigned because he believed the administration was rushing to establish a football program, to the detriment of the entire athletic department. (Aceto declined to discuss his resignation.) A year earlier FIU had investigated allegations he misused car allowances, improperly accepted gifts, engaged in nepotism, and ignored betting pools in the athletic-department offices. Alfredo Acin, FIU's inspector general, cleared Aceto of the charges but determined that he had exhibited "a pattern of conduct unbecoming an FIU official."

Later in 1997 FIU hired Orville "Butch" Henry as an antidote to Aceto, and as someone who would give the football movement a boost. "At the time I was hired, it plainly stated in the job description that football was a consideration," says Henry, who had been an associate athletic director at the University of Arizona. "But I had two plans: to continue developing the athletic program the way it was, and a vision of football.... I came with an open mind. If football was not feasible, I wouldn't do it." Henry resigned after a year and a half on the job, accepting a general manager position at Crimson Tide Sports Marketing in Tuscaloosa, an affiliate of the University of Alabama.

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