The Board of Trustees Athletics Committee meets every few months to get reports on the athletic department’s doings from athletic department people with titles. There’s public discussion of those doings between the suits on the Committee and the Athletics Titles. The Suits and Titles exchange pats on the back or harrumphs. The Titles vow to improve. Then, the Suits get coffee as a slightly different set of Suits comes in for the next BOT Committee meeting. The Titles whoosh back to the west side of Camp Mitch.
The value in these meetings come in the chunks of information or analysis the Titles lay on the Suits. After a moment of feistiness from committee chairman Jorge Arrizurieta regarding the minutes of the February meeting, the Sept. 10 meeting carried a happy feeling. Not quite Up With People happy, but it was a Prozac-and-Percoset party compared to the last two Athletics Committee meetings I attended.
STUFF A CASUAL FAN MIGHT CARE ABOUT
A committee member happy to see the FIU vs. the University of Miami football series revived asked if FIU was working on any kind of football relationship with Florida State or Florida.
“We’re working with all the major schools around the country,” FIU athletic director Pete Garcia said. “We wanted home-and-homes. We feel we can bring those games here. As you’re seeing Pittsburgh this week, Louisville’s coming here to play, we feel at this point in our development, we want to do home-and-homes. We’re willing to play anybody anywhere as long as we do home-and-homes.”
STUFF A HARDCORE FAN MIGHT CARE ABOUT
Garcia admitted sophomore Stephanie Texeira, the softball team’s best player as a freshman, played a larger than usual role in the selection of Gator Rebhan as FIU’s new softball coach.
“Obviously, when we go through the process of selecting a head coach, for the most part, you don’t talk to the student athletes that much about the search process. This was a little bit different,” Garcia said. “She was very adamant about what they wanted. The night we selected our next softball coach, she was actually sitting in her car about two hours outside my office waiting to hear if Gator was going to be our next coach.”
Early on in these things, the athletic department presents a proudly FIU example of the student-athlete ideal. It gives the committee a hot chocolate feeling inside before getting an ice bucket challenge of real problems elsewhere. Texeira got the call for this one. It won’t be her last.
Texeira pointed out her Mom-and-Dad home is only 15 minutes away but she stays at FIU. She extolled the Student-Athlete Academic Center (SAAC), the first of many attaboys for the SAAC on this day.
She went on to talk about Rebhan: “Gator has been my mentor for 6 years. I played for him in travel ball. I was fortunate enough to have a coach who was able to push me, to challenge me, he did everything he could to push me to the best that I can be. And it’s not like he picks on me. He picks on everybody. And everybody knows he does it because he cares.”
Then, with “We have a Turtle (baseball coach Thomas). Now, we have a Gator,” Garcia introduced Rebhan.
“This is a dream come true for somebody who was born and raised in Miami, coached the last 20 years here to be a coach at FIU,” Rebhan said. “It is an honor. I think the admiintration and the support of everybody to give me this opportunity.”
He stated, “One of the goals here is I want to keep the local talent from leaving. We have so many great players here in our backyard that for years we let get away. That’s one thing I want to focus on – keep our local players here. Girls like Stephanie, All-Americans, we keep them here, it builds excitement and fills the stands.”
He also thanked the administration for the new softball stadium. Rebhan pointed to the softball team’s 3.34 team GPA last year to applause and stated the goals for the season: 40 wins, winning the FIU-hosted Conference USA tournament, “and hopefully go far in the regionals.”
Rebhan closed with “One thing about girls softball, from coaching baseball and softball -- with girls, they have to feel good to play good. And right now, being out there watching these girls out there, they feel good. They feel good about themselves and the program.”
NUTS AND BOLTS STUFF THAT FEW CARE ABOUT IN PROPORTION TO ITS IMPORTANCE (JUST ASK FOOTBALL AND MEN’S BASKETBALL…)
Without mentioning FIU’s most recent appearances in the national media noise, Garcia swung into talking about Compliance, the SAAC and academic progress rating (APR). This is usually when “How did this happen?” gets asked often enough to be each meeting’s signature catch phrase.
Not this time. Compliance hadn’t bungled anybody’s eligibility. Nobody’s been put in academic time out. There’s no new APR problems.
“I feel very comfortable about what we have going on in the SAAC and the Compliance department with our APR and it’s been a total, total team effort,” Garcia said. “We’re starting to see the results. In a lot of these areas, you don’t see the results until two or three years down the line. What’s really encouraging is we’re seeing immediate results.”
He sang of Vice President for Academic Affairs Elizabeth Bejar – “She’s a workaholic. She gets things gdone. She’s very demanding, I’ll say that. But it makes everybody go to the next level.” – before handing the floor to Compliance Director of several months Hank Harrawood.
“I know from our last meeting, the certification process was important to make sure our student-athletes on the field are indeed able to represent us on the field,” said Harrawood, hired in the months following the Ray Taylor and Marita Davydova oops-ups that cost both basketball teams.
Now, the new web-based certification system will, he said, “allow for cross checking. It’ll allow everybody to go back and see what others have done. It’ll allow for greater accountability in the certification process and help majkre sure our athletes are indeed able to represent us when they do represent us on the field.”
Also, all the coaches who needed to be certified to recruit off campus passed the certification the first time. Harrawood said from what he’s heard that’s an FIU first.
Arrizurieta gave kudos that, so far, Compliance being under the Athletics umbrella works. Garcia extolled Harrawood’s work ethic with “weekends, he’ll call me in the middle of the night. Then, he introduced APR consultant John Shukie.
Shukie used to work for the NCAA. Now, he’s the president of Forward Progress Athletics Company, which works with 20 schools. Right before Shukie made that transition, he got a call from FIU as a school staring the APR abyss of men’s basketball and football.
“Let me paint the picture for you in the summer of 2013 when I did get that call,” Shukie said. “FIU athletics, especially men’s basketball and football, were facing some difficult APR issues. The men’s basketball team knew they’d be ineligible for the men’s basketball tournament coming up this past academic year. Football was looking at a very difficult sittaiton where they might fall in that same boat.”
“The first thing I did was diagnostically figure out, How did FIU get there? What put them in this situation?”
Shukie listed staff instability (the SAAC had more directors the last few years than Gone With the Wind) plus a lack of resources. Then, when bringing up the APR issues that penalized basketball and threatened to do so with football, he pointed at former men’s basketball coach Isiah Thomas and former football coach Mario Cristobal.
“What was lacking were some coaches who didn’t necessarily buy into the concept of APR,” Shukie said.
Having had a long APR discussion with Cristobal as he groaned about the difficulty in raising a low APR, I’d call that assumption into question. I'd also say the problems in Compliance and the SAAC, the same ones being celebrated as being fixed, contributed heavily to the basement APR. Such as the SAAC advisor who advised one athlete to take a course he'd already taken and passed, helping his academic ineligibility (she later advised a track athlete right into inelgibility).
“We are still, in some senses, paying for what happened in 2010-11 and 11-12 now because we keep those numbers until they roll off four years later,” Shukie said. “We had coaches, at least from what I can tell -- who have since left (or been fired – DJN), I did not deal with them -- weren’t necessarily recruiting with an academic purpose. They were probably recruiting with an athletic purpose, to win games, but there didn’t seem to be a real strategic plan for recruiting student-athletes who could be successful on the court or field and off the court or field.
“Over the course of the year, I’ve witnessed a 180,” he continued. “I thind it starts at the top. When I say at the top, there’s a group of people at the top. It starts with Pete Garcia stressing to his coaches, emphasizing to his coaches the importance of academics. I wasn’t a witness to what was going on before I got hired, I assume those conversations happened before I arrived as well.
“What I have seen is coaches buying into that. Especially in football and men’s basketball, where a lot of my work has been focused. We have coaches that buy into the concept of APR. They’re bringing in student-athletes who are focused athletically and academically.”
So, does Shukie think change started at the top with Garcia or at the coaching level? He seems to say both.
Anyway, Shukie lauded the involvement of men’s basketball coach Anthony Evans and football coach Ron Turner: “I’ve had more phone calls from Coach Turner than any coach I’ve worked with across the 20 schools I’m involved with.”
Shukie said any athletes coming to FIU just for a visit have their academics fully vetted before coming. If not in order, he claims, no visit. Remember the cancelled visit by all-purpose guy Javonte Seabury, for a while FIU’s highest rated 2014 football recruit? There you go.
“Part of our strategic plan is to have them create relationships with the faculty For men’s basketball, we require them to face to face interactions with the faculty, not just sit in the back,” Shukie said. “They have to actually go introduce themselves. We also require men’s basketball to participate in the on-campus mentoring program so they can have an administrative, faculty mentor. Not just helps them academically, but ties them to this school. So they feel tied to FIU and not just tied to FIU men’s basketball program.”
Arrizurieta half-joked, “if we were the first (client) and helped you get another 19 clients, we should get a reduction on our fee.”
Garcia countered, “Mr. Chair, just the penalty alone for football for any school that doesn’t make the APR (minimum) is $300,000. He’s worth every penny.”
The February meeting introduced a new bigger budget for the SAAC. This meeting officially introduced the new SAAC Director, Wes Maas.
Maas said the SAAC will add two learning specialists by the end of this semester as well as an assistant director position. The SAAC itself is getting a construction version of a workout-and-wardrobe makeover.
Maas wants to increase “the pride in our facility so our student athletes, who are 18 or 19 years old, feel as good about walking into the SAAC that they feel when they walk into the math lab on campus, which is amazing, state of the art and it’s new.”
They won’t be walking in for study hall. Maas eliminated it because he felt that a system of simply counting hours turned SAAC employees into timekeepers. It failed to provide the in-person attention some athletes need.
“We want to create independent learners. We don’t want to hold hands, we don’t want to facilitate eligibility,” Maas said. “We take the syllabi, break down the reporting status, so we know every week what our student athlete is supposed to be doing. We bring them in on Sunday or Monday. We have the student athlete create their objectives for the week, what they’re supposed to complete and when. We can assign them tutoring, we can assign them office hours with faculty, we can do anything in that time to ensure the student-athletes have the resources they need. Then we follow through the week and make sure the student-athletes complete the objectives they’re assigned.
“This is obviously for freshmen and athletes new to the university. But the idea is teach them how to do it, so that the next year they can do it and be independent in the process.”
After Maas finished, Arrizurieta said he was proud of the work the committee did in pushing for improvements in the SAAC and Compliance.
“Whatever else this board needs to do to support the initiative of athletics, the SAAC, Compliance, I’m incredibly happy to see that we are generally in the direction of progress, we’re tangibly seeing progress,” he said.
Vice Chairman Mitchell Adler assented.
“Thank both of you and the rest of the trustees for pushing the envelope and making us better,” Garcia said. “I’d like to thank President Rosenberg and the administration for giving us the resources we need to make this work. I echo the senitments that its been a team effort from both your stand point, the administration and everybody who’s doing the actual day-to-day work. I couldn’t be more proud of what everybody’s done and more excited for our future. Because without academic success, we’re not going to have any other kind of success.”
Arrizurieta stayed for the Finance Committee meeting that followed. He asked FIU Foundation president Howard Lipman if there was a policy of “a donor gone bad,” a clear reference to David Alfonso. The donation deal between FIU and Alfonso that put his name on the football field now called Ocean Bank Field ended after only three of its five years.
Lipman said as far as taking a donor to court “I don’t think that would be anything I would ever recommend.”
In 99 percent of cases, Lipman said, an unfulfilled donation occurs not out of any maliciousness but bad situation, i.e., market downturn, business dropoff, something happens in their lives (bad health and bad divorce can suck your money faster than the biggest black hole -- DJN).
“The last thing we want to go is create a policy toward the 1 percent,” Lipman said.
Arrizurieta said some protection must be given because “We’ve been through this before. It’s not intangible, it’s tangible and it’s happened.”