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There's no way the game should be this close. The Florida International University Golden Panthers men's basketball team is head and shoulders above the visiting Broncs of the University of Texas-Pan American -- literally. The Panthers' frontline consists of forwards Sylbrin Robinson (six feet eight) and Jabahri Brown (six feet ten), and center Darius Cook (six feet eight). No UTPA starter stands taller than six feet five.
It's also clear UTPA is at a disadvantage in skill as well as size. Brown and Robinson are both slender, athletic players with quick feet and tremendous leaping ability. Cook is a burly tank of a pivot man with some sweet back-to-the-basket moves. And yet, as point guard Carlos Arroyo sinks a half-court heave of a three-pointer at the buzzer, FIU is only up by ten points. The team's performance has been listless, unfocused.
Coach Marcos "Shakey" Rodriguez, a compact 47-year-old in a black button-down shirt, brightly patterned tie, and khaki slacks, has shown his frustration, earning himself a technical foul while arguing with referees. Coaches don't automatically get T'd up for arguing, but Rodriguez cut loose with one too many "fuck yous" for the zebra's liking. But even that outburst has yet to inject any fire into his uninspired team, or the sparse crowd of 800 or so, which includes university president Modesto "Mitch" Maidique, acting athletic director Jose Sotolongo, and university vice president Paul Gallagher, the administrator who's been running the athletics department since the last real athletic director left more than a year ago.
They're all probably wondering the same thing: Why is such a talented team floundering? The obvious answer is bad judgment and bad luck. Between suspensions, academic shortcomings, injuries, and players leaving the team outright, Rodriguez has not once had a full twelve-man roster. Arroyo missed eight games, suspended after punching a team manager at a tournament in Hawaii. Cook missed five games, suspended for allegedly stealing another student's hubcaps, then cursing out campus police. Small forward Lucas Barnes was suspended for five games, not because of charges he punched and choked two ex-girlfriends, but for improperly using a friend's meal card.
"Obviously you wish these things hadn't happened," Rodriguez says of his team's travails. "To some degree these things are a little bit of a reflection of society. Someone makes a mistake, and it proves very costly. But I don't think it's reflective of them being bad guys. As a university we've taken strong sanctions so that they learn their lesson."
But many people associated with FIU basketball -- including current and former athletic department employees, players' parents, even the players themselves -- have begun seriously questioning whether Rodriguez and his coaching staff are in a position to teach their players anything about ethical behavior and integrity. According to one FIU athletics administrator, three men's basketball players have received questionable grade changes within the past three years.
Accusations of misconduct are nothing new to Shakey Rodriguez or his coaching staff. Rodriguez's five state championships in thirteen years as the head coach of the Miami Senior High School Stingarees boy's basketball team earned him a shot at running a Division I hoops squad, a rare opportunity for a coach with no college coaching experience. The FIU job, which he accepted in 1995, also offered him a chance to distance himself from the less-than-savory aspects of the Miami High program. Even though Rodriguez never got caught breaking the rules, accusations of improper recruiting dogged him throughout his career. Then in 1998 his hand-picked successor got busted for allowing the kind of recruiting violations many in Miami-Dade County athletics had long suspected Rodriguez of as well. The school was stripped of its 1998 basketball state championship after state investigators found that Miami High had broken the rules against recruiting players from other high schools. The basketball team's violations were first revealed by New Times ("Dream Team," March 5, 1998).
These factors make it doubly amazing that Rodriguez has chosen to re-create the Miami High program, warts and all, on the big-time college level. Among the fans spotted at FIU men's basketball games this year have been Big Ed Peguero, a blunt pyramid of a man who served as equipment manager for the tainted 1998 Stingaree squad, and Rosie Faz, a Miami High employee whose improper housing of an MHS player was one of the factors that helped strip the team of its championship.
Maybe these two were there to root for the numerous ex-Stings populating the FIU bench. Fifth-year senior shooting guard Marshod Fairweather has played for Shakey Rodriguez his entire scholastic career -- four years at Miami High, and now five at FIU. Freshman forward Sylbrin Robinson was a member of the ill-fated 1998 MHS team.
Two of Rodriguez's three assistant coaches also come from Miami High; both have checkered pasts, and neither has any previous college coaching experience. Jose Ramos, whom Rodriguez hired in 1996, played for Rodriguez at Miami High in the late Eighties before embarking on a fitful college career. Ramos was kicked out of two Division I basketball programs as a player. In both instances he not only had a personality conflict with his head coach, but was found to have violated NCAA rules: first for having an invalid SAT score, second for having accepted an improper car loan from a university booster.