Gridiron Fever

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.

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."

Lee sent the e-mail from the computer he uses in his cubicle-size office on the University Park Campus. A satellite photo of the state of Florida hangs on his wall, and a Dilbert cartoon is pinned to his bulletin board. He sports a thick yellow beard and bushy eyebrows. Academic walks through Fairchild Tropical Garden have tinted his skin to match the pink seersucker shirt he wears with khaki pants and sneakers. He has taught at FIU for nineteen years. And he loves sports.

"I sat on the athletic council," Lee explains. "I chaired the committee that hired Shakey [Rodriguez] to be our men's basketball coach. I attend softball games and baseball games, and I often ask my students why they don't attend more games themselves."

Lee believes that spending millions of dollars on football will deprive other sports teams and academic programs of their share of limited resources. Football also places an unfair burden on students, who shell out almost a million dollars every year to pay for it, especially at a public university where many must save their pennies to make ends meet. "I know how students can struggle," Lee says. "I know the students who say, 'This textbook is too expensive so I'm just going to do without it this semester.'"

Lee argues that football can't thrive at FIU for one simple reason: Nobody will want to watch it, at least not when the Dolphins, Canes, and possibly even the Arena-league Florida Bobcats are playing a better-quality game. Not with competition for the recreational dollar coming from the Panthers, Heat, Marlins, Fusion, and a new WNBA team, not to mention the beach, malls, nightclubs, and the rest of South Florida's many attractions. "We don't have the kind of market you need for a team," Lee contends. "Fans are not going to be breaking down the doors to get in. We have to find these people somewhere."

Just consider the direct competition. The University of Miami is an enduring power, the winner of three national championships in the past fifteen years. Last season was the Hurricanes' best yet under coach Butch Davis, a team that featured Edgerrin James, the first running back selected in the National Football League draft. The last game of the season the Hurricanes played UCLA, the number-one team in the nation. But the Orange Bowl didn't come close to selling out.

As evidence there's room for more football in South Florida, FIU rounded up more consultants and asked them to conduct a phone survey of 300 alums and 200 students. The survey by Schroth & Associates found that 34 percent of alumni and students would "definitely" attend at least one game, and that 64 percent "probably" would. One-third of the respondents said they would either definitely or probably purchase $125 season tickets, though only six percent, a mere eighteen respondents, indicated they would "definitely" purchase season seats.

Based largely on those numbers, FIU is projecting an average home attendance of between 10,000 and 12,500. With 30,000 students and some 60,000 alumni running around South Florida, attracting 10,000 to a showdown with Bethune-Cookman College should be a cinch, right?

Wrong, says Lee, who dismisses the Schroth survey as inconclusive. Forty percent of the students polled weren't even aware football was being planned, he notes, "indicating how disengaged from campus life the typical student is." He highlights several factors he believes will translate to a barren FIU stadium on Saturday afternoons: declining attendance at high school games, thin crowds at professional sports events and at the Orange Bowl, and the South Floridian's reputation for being a fickle fan.

He also suggests that because FIU's students are "nontraditional," they won't show much interest in football. The school's student body is predominantly Hispanic and not so attuned to the mystique surrounding college football, Lee points out. "College is not a leisurely process of self-discovery for many FIU students," he says. His e-mail critique amplifies this observation:

"The typical student at FIU is around 27 years of age, takes eight course credits, lives off-campus (often with family), works part- or full-time, and is of a cultural/racial background different from most students at other state institutions. Twenty percent of these students are not seeking degrees, and a third take courses at other campuses. They also come from the urban region with the weakest per-capita income in the state."

FIU's students are too busy to attend games, he asserts. In addition to their school assignments, some work at two jobs. During the 1997-98 school year, for example, the university's biggest sports draw, men's basketball, averaged just 805 fans. Men's soccer registered the second-highest average at 610. "There's supposed to be something special about football," Lee says, "something that will make them jump out to support it. I doubt it."

Top administrators are well aware of Lee and his widely circulated critique, and concede that he makes some strong arguments. But they vehemently disagree with his conclusion. "David Lee makes some very valid points and we respect him a lot," says Paul Gallagher, the vice president for business and finance. "I don't think I could write a biology paper as well as him. But I think I know the numbers on this a little better."

Lee says he knows plenty of faculty members who share his doubts about football. Most won't talk, though, for fear they'll suffer the same fate as Nate Bliss and Gerald Parks, two former campus recreation administrators. Last year Bliss and Parks jointly filed a federal lawsuit alleging that former athletic director Orville "Butch" Henry fired them for criticizing football. (Henry, FIU, Bliss, and Parks all declined to comment on the lawsuit. A trial date has been set for October 25.)

Lee says administrators work in a culture of silence. Resisting the brass's wishes can bring terrible consequences. "People's reaction to [the firings] was, 'Oooh, I'd better keep my mouth shut,'" Lee says. "But this is a university, where you want disagreement. It bothers me that this is happening."

The lawsuit alleges that Bliss and Parks attended one of several "FIU Football Forums" the university held during the early stages of the movement. At the often sparsely attended forums, administrators fielded questions from faculty and students about the cost of such a football program. Bliss and Parks spoke at a June 4, 1998, forum at the Wertheim Conservatory on the University Park Campus. Both men suggested that football shouldn't be the administration's highest priority. They argued that the soccer stadium needed renovation, that the tennis center's lights needed repair, and that the athletic department needed more softball fields.

Four days later Bliss and Parks were fired. "Henry stated that he was very upset and embarrassed about the comments that Mr. Bliss made at the public forum," the lawsuit alleges. "Mr. Henry claimed to have received calls from two vice presidents and two assistant vice presidents who were very upset about Mr. Bliss's comments."

Parks registered a similar response. "Henry stated that Mr. Parks's comments at the public forum were the reason for his termination," according to the lawsuit. "Henry stated that he had received several calls from unnamed persons claiming Mr. Parks was not a 'team player.'"

Bliss and Parks appealed their terminations, unsuccessfully. On October 25, 1998, they filed their lawsuit in U.S. District Court alleging, among other things, that the firings violated their First Amendment right to free speech.

Being a team player doesn't concern Lee. He says some professors aren't afraid to blow the whistle because they have something administrators don't: tenure. Yet few have publicly voiced concerns about football. Lee estimates that 85 percent of his colleagues oppose it, but believes most choose not to take a stand because they're either too busy or resigned to football being a foregone conclusion. Aswilda Haskins, president of FIU's faculty senate, says the group hasn't taken an official position on football, but believes that about half its members are against it.

Lee says the administration realizes there's discontent in the faculty ranks but hasn't yet tried to open a dialogue, and he faults administrators for failing to survey professors. "The strategy to establish football is not to involve the faculty," he claims. "It's not like they're doing football as a top-secret thing, but they're not seeking us out either."

Paul Gallagher admits that communication hasn't been as open as it might be. "There hasn't been as much involvement with the staff and faculty as maybe there should have been," he concedes. "We can't do anything about what's already done, only about what we're going to do. And I can assure you that we will be working more closely with them."

The televised Saturday-afternoon contests among the Bruins and Buckeyes and the Fighting Irish are Division I football, the highest level of college sports, played by the largest schools with the richest athletic departments. University of Miami plays at that level, as do Florida State and the University of Florida. The FIU Golden Panthers are slated to compete at the second tier of collegiate athletics, Division I-AA.

In a recent report, the National Collegiate Athletic Association found that 81 percent of all Division I-AA football programs operated at a deficit in 1997. About half of those lost more than $600,000. Last year the average attendance at a I-AA football game was a modest 8805 -- some 1200 fans fewer than FIU's most conservative projection for its inaugural season.

Several athletic directors say disappointing numbers and financial woes are a fact of life in the world of double-A football. Because the schools play at a lower level and have little name recognition, athletic departments lose out on gate and television revenues. In its first few years, for example, FIU could expect to tangle with regional I-AA cupcakes such as Appalachian State, Austin Peay State, the Virginia Military Institute, and Wofford College. None of these games will appear on national television. Ever.

"The early years were tough," relates Bobby Staub, associate athletic director at the University of Alabama-Birmingham (UAB). "There you are in an empty stadium playing somebody nobody ever heard of, and you're asking, 'How did you get yourself into this? Is there any interest at all for this program? Good gracious, what are we doing?'"

The Carr report lists UAB, which played in I-AA until 1996, as operating a program that FIU's may eventually resemble. Despite averaging seven victories and almost 13,000 fans during its three years at that level, UAB ran annual debts "that were easily in six figures," Staub says. Last year the UAB athletic department, which has been incurring steeper expenses since upgrading to Division I, was a cool million in the red.

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."

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.

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.

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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