November 27, 2014

Losing, But Not That Much

The national media push to shed light on the sad situation at Alabama-Birmingham, where UAB football supporters maneuver to keep the University of Alabama Board of Trustees from killing off the UAB football program it's abusively starved, led to this story by CBSSports.com's Jon Solomon.

Readers fall victim to a bad headline -- "UAB football isn't alone in losing money for athletic departments" -- and quick judgement. Because of the headline and the accompanying chart, some interpret the story as saying FIU football is losing the athletic department $19.9 million per year.

If that were happening, everybody from athletic director Pete Garcia to the equipment managers wouldn't be looking for a new job. They'd be looking for a lawyer, a plea bargain and the prison with the guys who con you out of $100,000 instead of the hard ankle guys knock you in the head for $10.

FIU football doesn't spend $19.9 million per year. It spends around a third of that. It's operating budget going into 2013-14 was $6,604,000. Now, I'm not saying the football team doesn't lose money. Most do. Many more used to before television came along to play sugar daddy to the less powerful in the Power Five and the entire Group of Five.

What Solomon's story points out is how many athletic departments lose money before student fee income and state subsidies get added. FIU's still getting 77.4 percent of its athletic budget from student fees. That's under 80 percent. It's still far too high. For a school with so much enrollment and local alumni, it speaks of a disconnect with giving time or money to the athletic department.

 

 

November 26, 2014

Conklin Nominated for Broyles Award

FIU's defense led the nation in turnovers forced (33) and fumbles recovered (19). They scored six defensive touchdowns. As often written, the Panthers didn't win a game without a cornucopia of turnovers and turning one into a defensive touchdown.

Despite erratic help from the offense as far as time of possession, the defense finished 40th in the nation, allowing 363.8 yards per game.

For these and many other improved defensive numbers, FIU defensive coordinator Josh Conklin has been nominated for the Broyles Award, given to the nation's top assistant coach.

The award is named after longtime Arkansas head coach Frank Broyles, under whom many future head coaches served as an assistant. Broyles became sort of a collegiate John Madden, as famous to one generation for being a college football color man on ABC's telecasts ("he's a fine ath-uh-lete") as he was to the previous generation as a tremendous coach.

November 25, 2014

Roster Changes

The last two quarterback recruits to enroll early at FIU, EJ Hilliard in 2012 and Alex McGough last January, wound up starting games the following fall.

Just throwing that out there after FIU announced Monday that Lakeland Christian's Christian Alexander would enroll early this January.

According to MaxPreps, Alexander's completed 163 of 265 passes (61.5 percent) for 2,613 yards and 34 touchdowns against only seven interceptions for Lakeland Christian. He's also run for 427 yards at 5.7 per carry. Lakeland Christian faces Jacksonville Trinity Christian with 2015 commit Deion Eakins at offensive guard in the next round of the Class 3A playoffs. Alexander's rated at three stars across the board and reportedly had offers from Central Florida and the University of Miami.

This was the Twitter welcome. Almost Tebowesque...

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As reported in a previous blog, Hilliard asked for his release Monday. After he missed a team meeting Friday morning, Hilliard tried to contact the coaching staff. He next heard from a coach when the coach was on the team charter to Dallas Friday afternoon for the North Texas season closer. Hilliard was left back in Miami. So was senior offensive lineman Yousif Khoury.

Feeling that crossed the fairness line for a player who hadn't been a problem and unhappy Hilliard hadn't been given more of a chance when the offense struggled under McGough this season, Hilliard's family went in Monday to ask for his release.

"He came in and asked for his release and we gave it to him," FIU coach Ron Turner said.

Hilliard leaves after playing in 22 games, starting eight, completing 175 of 274 (63.9 percent) for 1,756 yards, eight touchdowns and seven interceptions. 

Also not in the final game were redshirt junior wide receiver Dominique Rhymes and junior fullback Lamarq Caldwell. Caldwell didn't play in the final three games, Rhymes the final two. Turner wouldn't say each was suspended for violating team rules (Turner generally doesn't like to talk about team discipline), but did say the two didn't make the travel roster.

As for whether or not each will be back next year, Turner said, "They each have one more year of eligibility remaining. I'm going to meet with each player on the team next week to talk about what they need to do moving forward."

I'm betting against Rhymes being back next year. He'll end the FIU portion of his college career with 28 catches for 317 yards, no touchdowns.

Losses & Leavings

The men's basketball team suffered its first loss of the season, 78-72 to Georgia Southern Monday night. They'll continue their tour of the mid-major minor south at the Spartanburg Marriott Upstate Classic in South Carolina, where they'll play South Carolina-Upstate, Wright State and Cal State Fullerton on Thursday, Friday and Saturday.

Junior quarterback EJ Hilliard has asked for and received his scholarship release. That's the second consecutive year a quarterback has asked to transfer from the program after quarterback Jake Medlock last year.

November 24, 2014

Lighten Up

UPCOMING HOME GAMES/MATCHES

Women's basketball, FIU Thanksgiving Classic, vs. Arizona, Friday, 6 p.m.

Women's basketball, FIU Thanksgiving Classic, vs. Toledo or Virginia, Sunday, 2 p.m.

The power went out about a half hour before Sunday's FIU women's basketball game on Replacement Lime Court at Unsponsored FIU Arena. Not sure what happened. I'm pretty sure FIU has paid FPL. The lights came back on in time for Cleveland State to beat FIU 73-65.

Just in case, however, maybe you want to bring flashlights for Friday's opening of the FIU Thanksgiving Classic.

 

 

Leonard Makes Conference USA POW History, Gets CFPA Love, too.

Redshirt junior Richard Leonard's 74-yard punt return touchdown Saturday against North Texas got him this week's Conferece USA Special Teams Player of the Week Award. He also won that award the first week of the season. Leonard received C-USA's Defensive Player of the Week honors in consecutive weeks earlier this season.

That makes Leonard the first player in Conference USA history to win multiple player of the week awards at two different positions in the same season.

Leonard's also the College Football Performance Awards National Punt Returner of the Week.

 

A few (belated) thoughts on North Texas 17, FIU 14 and 4-8

UPCOMING HOME GAMES/MATCHES

Women's basketball, FIU Thanksgiving Classic, vs. Arizona, Friday, 6 p.m.

Women's basketball, FIU Thanksgiving Classic, vs. Toledo or Virginia, Sunday, 2 p.m.

The FIU football season ended Saturday with the defense allowing 17 points, a paucity by modern college-affiliated football standards; all the Panthers points coming on two return touchdowns; the offense shut out; and, finally, a loss to a team a step below at least two teams FIU beat.

That perfectly summarizes the second season of the FIU Football Family Affair Under Ron Turner.

Yes, 4-8 remains below .500, below the standard FIU fans set during the bowl seasons, below the record needed to generate the kind of charge about the program that electrifies recruiting or a fan base. It's also three wins better than 1-11, one to three wins better than any prognasticator predicted in August and two late game collapses from bowl eligibility.

And let's remember how The Firing and the Fallout did for FIU football's immediate program health what that little nuclear problem did for Chernobyl's community health. The Panthers began 2014 still being laughed at nationwide after being one of college football's favorite punch lines in 2013. Losing to FCS good Bethune-Cookman, getting the first win against FCS eventually good Wagner -- a little like losing your virginity to a street whore -- didn't change much.

To go from that to a couple of defensive stops/offensive first downs from bowl eligibility says Odysseus sits closer to home today than previously. So a bronze star sticker for the overall season.

Of course, better talent helps the situation. Most of the starts at each of eight different positions featured players not on the roster last year, ineligible last year or suspended for part of last year. All upgraded talent at their positions, some exponentially, i.e, freshman Jordan Wint and redshirt freshman Jordan Guest among the linebackers and junior transfer Anthon Samuel, freshmen Alex Gardner and Napoleon Maxwell at running back.

Sophomore tight end Jonnu Smith continued to evolve into one of the nation's best at his position. Defenses scheme to take him away from FIU and he still finds ways to produce. Barring injury, Smith's next two years will satisfy tight end snobs. And maybe even The Mackey Award folks.  

And, Richard Leonard had perhaps the greatest individual seasons FIU will see from a defensive back/kick returner. Saturday's 74-yard punt return touchdown put the dodging, flourishing signature on a season thick with impact plays. His four return touchdowns broke the school record held by TY Hilton. He broke Hilton's FIU record for punt return average in a season of 23.25 with a 23.77 average that would've led the nation had Leonard had enough returns to qualify (needed 15, had 13). His 1,184 total return yards in a season rank second in FIU history behind Lionell Singleton's 1,305 in 2007 (lot of points allowed that year, lot of kickoffs to return).

The spectacular returns, the anticipation whenever you saw a hole and hoped Leonard did, too because you knew if he hit it, later...forget those for a second. He made some plays in run defense, including a fourth down stop against Alabama-Birmingham, 5-9 cornerbacks usually decide to avoid. He led the team in fumble recoveries with four. He had one interception in the end zone against FAU and one against Marshall that killed a drive in the red zone, the latter on a night Marshall's Rakeem Cato almost refused to throw at him.

Which, in a roundabout way, brings up a question one former FIU football staffer posed to me: why wouldn't Leonard declare for the NFL draft now? While a redshirt senior year helps him grow in his craft, he won't grow in height or wingspan, Leonard's main physical shortcomings. Odds are against any defensive back repeating such a special season. He scares opposing kickers, punters and quarterbacks like he's wearing Jason's goalie mask while holding Leatherface's chainsaw with Freddy Kruger's gloves. They'll avoid him. The quarterbacks did over the last five games this season.

Also, Leonard turned 23 in September. If he waits another year, he'd be a rookie at age 25. Nothing wrong with that except it's one less year on a NFL or CFL career of indeterminate length. 

Leonard finished tied for third in touchdowns on the team this season, behind sophomore tight end Jonnu Smith's eight and Samuel's five. That speaks to much of what FIU most needs to repair this offseason.

The defense and special teams scored or set up 110 points or 39.8 percent of FIU's 276 points. The Panthers didn't win a game in which they didn't get a defensive touchdown. They still haven't won a game under Turner without piling up turnovers the way I used to pile up Peter Bondra's hockey cards: four in the lone 2013 win; six, six, four and five in the four wins this season. That's an ominous overreliance. The downside swallowed FIU against North Texas, Rice, even Texas-San Antonio. Sort of like the 1970s "energy crisis" taking an oil barrel upside the heads of American car companies continuing to crank out unapologetically huge, low gas mileage Monte Carlos and LTDs in the 1970s. Or rising gas prices taking an oil barrel upside the heads of American car companies banking heavily on SUVs in the early part of this century.

Point the finger at freshman quarterback Alex McGough because, well, he's the quarterback. But don't make it the index finger and don't make it the middle finger (that's just rude).

The coaches tend to like the way McGough runs the offense, how he handles the play options and that he usually knows when to throw the ball away. Or, at least, he does all those things, especially the third, better than junior EJ Hilliard. That's why once McGough got the job, you knew they'd ride or die with him this season. If the guy with more experience isn't the guy coaches believe is better from the neck up and he doesn't have a decisive physical advantage, he's the backup. It's why when fifth-year senior Wes Carroll held the ball too long and took a horrible sack late against Western Kentucky in 2011, starting the chain of events leading to FIU's 10-9 loss on a walk-off field goal, I wasn't surprised when redshirt freshman Jake Medlock was named the starter the next week.

McGough made some bad decisions. He made some bad throws. Freshmen do that. He also never got the best pass protection -- ehhh o-line and freshman running backs often screw up pass protection help -- and his wide receiving corps redefines "frustrating." For fifth-year senior wideout Glenn Coleman and his sometimes superhero abilities, with great talent comes great inconsistency. The rest seem to have all the physical tools to be good college mid-major receivers. But just having the tools doesn't mean you can build the house.

I'm not counting freshmen wide receivers, Dennis Turner and Thomas Owens, in that mix. They didn't contribute the way Gardner and Samuel did at running back, but it's unfair to judge them by that standard. Apples and mangoes. Turner, especially, you'd like to see grow into a viable big play option that'll keep defenses from packing the box tighter than the rows on the last FIU football charter. 

In recruiting, FIU's got two Alexanders, Lakeland Christian's 6-3, 205-pound Christian and Booker T. Washington's 5-10 170-pound Maurice, verbally committed. From what I've heard, read and seen, Christian Alexander's more Ron Turner's style of quarterback while Maurice Alexander's the kind of dual-threat quarterback proliferating throughout football. Not that Christian can't run and Maurice can't throw the ball well from the pocket. If FIU comes out of Signing Day with both, camp will be enlivened by the All-Alexander Shootout between McGough and the two freshmen for the starting job.

As far as game-breaking wide receiver commits, Central's Anthony Jones is listed as a wideout, although that might be where he played while Central had Joe Yearby and Dalvin Cook. Jones is tearing it up at running back this year. Jones ran for 156 yards and three touchdowns on 13 carries and took a post-safety free kick back for a touchdown as the Rockets scored the last 28 points in a 35-19 playoff win at previously undefeated Hallandale High.

FIU's got three running backs who've shown they can wiggle or break a tackle and go 60 on you. The Panthers need wide receivers that make opposing coaches stomachs do a flippy flop. They don't have to shop locally but it seems everybody else comes down to the 305 Player Mall for their explosives. FIU should be able to do the same. They are doing a better job of developing relationships down here.

I like the defense, back to front. This season, the defense possessed the kind of dynamic play you expect from a school based in Florida, especially South Florida. It's set up to continue in that manner. Young, fast hitters, the kind that apply hits that make Big Mama in the stands worry about her baby, among the linebackers. Speed on the corners with Leonard (if he comes back), junior Jeremiah McKinnon (very happy to see his Pick Six Saturday), sophomore Wilkenson Myrtil and freshman Shemarke Spence. Hitting and ball-hawking at safety with redshirt sophomore Jordan Davis. Watch FIU's coverage units and you can see the speed and excellent tackling abilities sophomore Deonte Wilson and redshirt freshman Vontarius can bring to the defense next year.

They've got commits from Central's Olin Cushion and Booker T.'s Ocie Rose. I haven't seen much of Rose. What I've seen of Cushion made me say, "They got a commit from him? Good deal." 

Up front, there's another year of defensive ends Michael Wakefield and Denzell Perine chasing quarterbacks (read that sentence out loud in Birmingham and watch UAB's Cody Clements flinch). All the defensive tackles return for at least one more season. Hopefully, they'll be more stout against the big Peterbilt running backs, their one consistent vulnerability. Overall, FIU needs another few defensive linemen to really set themselves up for 2016 and beyond.

FIU punting brings out the Tums. You want to know that when you need a bomb, you won't get a dud. FIU doesn't know that now. Sophomore kicker Austin Taylor's 15 of 21 season on field goal attempts counts as adequate. Kickers and punters are fungible anyway. FIU should always be able to find returners on its roster.

Next year will tell us if which direction the FIU football program is headed in a definitive manner. This year did what it needed to do -- got the program out of the homeless shelter and into a low cost apartment. Now, it's time to build the house.

November 23, 2014

Mizzou Invite, Day 3

UPCOMING HOME MATCHES/GAMES

Sunday, women's basketball, vs. Cleveland State, 2 p.m.

Friday, women's basketball, FIU Thanksgiving Classic vs. Arizona 6 p.m.

When you're a mid-major program who gets a transfer from an SEC school who was a national junior champion in the 200 butterfly, how long would you guess before your 200 fly school record falls like Marvis Frazier?

Anybody guessing "the first major meet," give yourself a Pop Tart. Junior Valerie Inghels, a transfer from Auburn, took FIU's 200 butterfly record from Marina Ribi on the last day of the Mizzou Invite while senior Johanna Gustafsdottir added to her collection of school records in the 200 breaststroke.

Inghels. from France, cranked a 1:59.44 in the Saturday morning prelims, the first sub-2:00.00 200 fly in FIU history, then came back with 1:59.37 in the final. That brought her in 1.01 seconds behind the host school's Sharli Brady. FIU also got a second out of freshman Silvia Scalia, who finished second in the 100 backstroke for the meet and in FIU history in 1:55.55. Junior Karin Tomeckova came in fourth, clocking 1:57.73.

The 200 back record holder at 1:54.40 and, before Scalia's leadoff 400 medley leg Thursday, the 100 back record holder snagged the 200 breast record Saturday. Gustafsdottir's 2:14.20 lowered her previous best by six seconds for the day, got her sixth place in the event and toppled the oldest timed event record at FIU, Sara Giovannoni's 2:14.38 from the 2007 NCAA meet. 

FIU's A team -- Gustafsdottir, sophomore Jenny Deist, Paulina Zelazna and Tomeckova -- got fourth place points in the 400 free relay in 3:23.64, the only event time that's behind the best of what FIU posted last year at the Mizzou Invite. Then again, last year's 400 relay had Gustafsdottir and Sonia Perez, probably the two best swimmers in the program's young lifetime, Jenny Alfani and school record speedster Klara Anderssson.

On the platform, freshman Rebecca Quensel and sophomore Lily Kaufmann finished second and fourth, respectively.

To recap the three days: it's clear FIU's going to be much tougher at the Conference USA meet, where they finished second to Rice last year, because they've got the kind of depth that eventually triumphs at big meets. Scalia and Inghels give FIU two more consistent point scorers as well as swimmers for the relays. If FIU gets similar points from diving, the conference meet could come down to the relays.

 

November 22, 2014

Gameday XII: Last Call in Texas

FIU's headed for Denton, Texas, suburban Dallas (the most redundant phrase to appear on this blog), for today's game with North Texas on Swift Air. This continues the travel comedy of FIU football.

A plane's paint job shouldn't matter. It eases the mind, however, if it has a paint job and doesn't have that look of carrying skydivers or factory widgets to Omsk. Of course, if skydivers were the payload, players could sit without their knees tickling their noses. Check out these two pictures.

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The folks pictured come in regular size. Imagine being, say, 6-4, 324-pound Jordan Budwig. When you hear "chartered flight" you envision being pampered by flight attendants floating down the aisles with fruit and beef not imitating Yogi Coudoux squeezing himself into a box on "That's Incredible."

 

When the Panthers uncoil themselves at DFW or Love Field, they'll find a North Texas team on its third or fourth quarterback. Easier to count touchdowns they've scored against FBS competition than signal callers.

FIU's defense just needs to not try too hard to get the turnovers so necessary to the Panthers wins this season. North Texas defense looked stout before...aw, heck, that was months ago. The pterodactyls of UAB put up 56 on them. Rice put up 41. UTEP trampled them last week in a not-even-close-to-being-that-close 35-17 win. The Miners had 195 yards rushing before the game was 16 minutes old and were up 28-0 21:10 into the game.

(If Bill Clark's not C-USA Coach of the Year for what he's done with the stegasauruses at UAB, it's Sean Kugler at UTEP. The preseason coaches poll put UTEP as the only team worse than FIU in Conference USA. They're bowl eligible).

The Panthers have the better punt and kickoff returner. So, we'll hang our hat on special teams. Besides, it's late and I'm getting sleepy.

FIU 27, North Texas 16.

But, that's just one black man's opinion. I could be wrong. 

Judgement Night

UPCOMING HOME GAMES/MATCHES

Sunday, Women's Basketball, vs. Cleveland State at 2 p.m.

How do you judge whether or not you win?

It seems simple in sports. That's part of the appeal to the masses. Life's complex. When you crush your spouse in a debate over where to spend Thanksgiving, are either of you better for it? Is your relationship? Could you wind up down by coming out on top? Push your child, don't push, gently steer? Who's right in the Middle East and why?

Sports provides the simplicity, right? You score more points than your opponent, you win. You don't, you lose. You get to the finish line ahead of your competition, you win. You don't, you lose. And winners can claim rightness rides with them. That's why championship coaches functionally separated from their wives and estranged from their bailed-out kids get to sell books telling you how to win at life. They won. They must know what they're doing.

Friday night, FIU did nothing to special to promote the home men's basketball game against Florida Memorial. For last Friday's season opening duel gender doubleheader, the athletic department all but drove students to the game, carried them to their seats and burped them after halftime. This week, nothing. Plus, rain. Plus again, traffic in the Doral-Sweetwater-Kendall area snarled in such knots, some of the game staff worried they wouldn't make tipoff. So did the writer coming from The Miami Herald building in Doral. (Seriously, the clogging made apparent that anybody thinking an MLS team should play anywhere west of the Palmetto Expressway with the already inadequate roads and lack of good public transportation isn't just wrong, they've slotted thsmelves solidly between "idiot" and "moron.")

So, what happened? A packed student section, well-filled in grown folks side, even two of the cabanas in use. Great crowd even sans grading on the curve of the given conditions. Did FIU win by having a full house for the seating provided? Or did they lose in comparison to what they could've gotten if they'd tried to pump a little rah-ran into this game, could they have gotten even more?

On the court, the score said the men's basketball team clobbered Florida Memorial 74-48 to go to 3-0. Winning, right? Not to FIU coach Anthony Evans, who displayed his deadpan wit after the game when I asked him if there was anything he thought his team did well tonight.

“I’ll have to watch the film," he replied after holding silence for a second. I laughed. Understand that Evans usually reels off fairly detailed, analytical answers in postgame media sessions. He's not filled with one-liners, but he's the coach for hoop junkies. Have to watch the film? Clearly, on this night, he didn't want to be unkind to his team.

"I just think as a team, we have to take advantage of every opportunity when we step on the floor to get better," he said. "I didn’t think we got much better tonight. I thought we reverted back to some old habits. And those are things we have to break.”

So did they win by going to 3-0 or did they lose by not rising above the basketball slop more of the night?

"I think it's important for us (starting 3-0) because we haven't had a lot of time together on the court because of injuries," Evans said. "Getting off to a 3-0 start gives us confidence. It shows us some of the things we can do as a basketball team when we're playing together. When we do that, we're solid. When we don't do that, you can see some of the defienceies we have. As long as, when we step on the floor, whether it's practice, shootaround or a game, looking to get better every day...that's the most important part for us."

That's the almost the whole deal in swimming. Get better compared to you. To compare to others can get be soul-crushingly overwhelming. One of my best friends, husband of a swim coach and father of three daughters who swam until they left for college (then one walked on for four years at a Big Ten school), said with a smile I could hear, "There's always somebody better..."

"There's one Missy Franklin."

"Yep."

Unlike last year, FIU hasn't finished first in one Mizzou Invite event yet. Friday night, senior Johanna Gustafsdottir came closest, finishing second in the 400 individual medley in 4:14.86. She wasn't No. 1. She came in second by 3.33 seconds. Still, she lopped 3.02 seconds off her prelim time and that time beat her previous personal best by 7.18 seconds. Sounds like a win to me. Also sounds like a win for 400IM school record holder Sonia Perez, whose 4:09.59 at last year's Mizzou Invite remains the school record by a fat 5.27 seconds.

FIU also finished second in the 800 freestyle relay with Gustafsdottir, freshman Brittany Fant, freshman Skye Carey and junior Karin Tomeckova coming home in 7:20.85. That's 35 hundreths of a second ahead of last year's 800 free relay time at the Mizzou Invite with a more experienced team (Perez and Gustafsdottir were the first two legs). The 7:27.50 this year B team (freshmen Silvia Scalia and Paula Zelazna, juniors Becky Wilde and Jessica Chadwick) swam is 7.71 seconds faster than last year's B team did it.

The 200 medley relay (freshman Silvia Scalia, senior Klara Andersson, sophomore Jennys Alfani and Deist) came home fourth, but with a new FIU record of 1:41.78. That beat the 1:42.16 mark set by Gustafsdottir, Andersson, Valerii Popova and Kelly Grace at the 2013 Sun Belt Conference meet. And Tomeckova, Chadwick, Zelazna and Mayhew's 1:42.90 is the fourth fastest in FIU history.

Scalia's backstroke led off that relay just as her school record 100 backstroke led off Thursday's 400 medley relay. Friday, in the 100 back itself, she was third in 53.38 seconds just a blink off the 53.30 that started Thursday's relay. Also under Gustafsdottir's former school record was fourth place Tomeckova in 53.75. Alfani got sixth place points for FIU in 55.67.

Fant's 1:49.65 brought her home fourth in the 200 free. Jessica Chadwick got in with a 1:03.39, getting FIU sixth place points in the 100 breast. 

FIU's second in the standings overall.