Gridiron Fever

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

He says he left FIU for a bigger paycheck and that he never tussled with the administration over football, but he does admit that his hasty departure stung both the athletic department and the football movement. "I guess you can blame me for part of that," he says. "If you're going to be successful, you really need an athletic director to make a commitment and stay a long time."

Whoever takes over will have his work cut out for him. In the next few years, FIU must raise more than ten million dollars, sell season tickets, renovate a stadium, hire a coaching staff, and sign at least 60 players, all of whom are expected to receive scholarships.

So far FIU has raised two million dollars from donations, according to Paul Gallagher, and about four million dollars from student fees. He says that's enough to start the program. After that FIU will need about two million per year to operate it. Half of the budget will come from student fees; FIU needs to raise the rest on its own.

Parking, not pigskin, is FIU's true top priority
Parking, not pigskin, is FIU's true top priority

Of course the Panthers will need a place to play. FIU plans on expanding its on-campus stadium from 7000 seats to about 23,000, a project that Gallagher estimates will cost $4.5 million. FIU expects to defray some of that cost by selling naming rights to the stadium. Another source of revenue will be ticket sales. FIU is beginning a campaign to sell season tickets at $125 each, which if the rosy attendance projections hold, would raise about one million dollars over six home games.

There are no plans for failure. "It's difficult for me to even think about that," says Gallagher. "I'm so sure the finances are there that it's hard for me to think about What if this or What if that. We've done a lot of analysis. We've given this a lot of thought. I can tell you that based on 30 years of experience on budgets, the numbers for this are basically there."

Before another orientation crowd in the ballroom, Patricia Telles-Irvin, FIU's vice president for student affairs, stands onstage with the panther mascot. The freshmen look drowsy. It's still early. Telles-Irvin is delivering the old welcome-to-FIU speech. "What does it mean to be an FIU student?" she intones. "This is an institution of learning, and we expect you to seek knowledge.... But also get involved. Care about this university and the rest of our community. Make a lot of friends, and have fun. That's very important." When she plugs football during the speech, only the cheeriest of the yellow-shirted peer advisors applaud and whoop.

Later in the day the freshmen leave the ballroom to attend breakout sessions on different topics. Many must walk past a booth near the student center where one of the campus clubs is blasting hip-hop music. Inside the center swirls a cacophonous rush of milling students. Several booths line the walls. Gel-haired, silver-chained fraternity brothers pull aside potential pledges. A woman in a traditional African dashiki peddles handmade jewelry. Across the way a small crowd has gathered to watch several couples from the Salsa King dance school put on an exhibition.

Valerie Barbera, who just graduated from Western High in Davie, is one of about 50 freshmen who file into an auditorium for a presentation on FIU athletics. She explains that she wants to learn more about football for her boyfriend, who would be interested in trying out for the team. "This university would be more regular with football," she says. Then she fades into thought, shrugs her shoulders, and sighs. "I don't know how to explain it. They showed us everything it has, but it's missing something. I think football is the missing piece. They have great academics, great athletics, but football's missing."

Barbera and about 300 other freshmen return to the ballroom, where they eat lunch and visit information tables set up by various campus organizations: student government, the Free Cuba Foundation, a karate club, the ubiquitous fraternities, and there by the entrance, Panther Rage. An occasional student stops, looks, and leaves. Behind the table a football jersey lies on a pedestal. A helmet rests on top, reflecting lights from above like little stars. Some flyers are laid out on the table, including one that's grainy and difficult to make out. It's a crude drawing of an overflowing football stadium labeled "FIU FIELD." A column of bold words runs down one side: "HOW BAD DO YOU WANT IT?"

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