Thoughts, sights and sounds from the Saturday ceremony honoring Cindy Russo and Inge Nissen (or "The institution honoring institutions.").
Nobody seemed to be having more fun than the table with Russo's earliest FIU players. That table also stood nearest the alcohol. Possibly not a coincidence, although they sounded more loaded on camaraderie and nostalgia. They talked about running on the soccer field at 5 a.m., flashlights for light, and not touching a ball for weeks early in training camp. My favorite story: if Russo found out two players didn't like each other, she'd make them room together so players either worked out personal beefs or kept them on the down low.
Another table of former players stood shocked as FIU let Rice dribble out the clock on a 68-62 loss. The Panthers trailed by two three-pointers with enough time for two desperate possessions if Rice missed free throws. Alas...
FIU named the women's basketball locker room after Russo and gave her a key symbolizing free admittance to all future FIU athletic events. In the first place, isn't lifetime free athletic event admittance something that should be given to every coach who stays at FIU five years or longer? What, there's a shortage of seats available? FIU really needs the bucks that they can't give the wave-in to every coach who lasts five years in an athletic department perpetually at that awkward age?
Secondly, giving Russo the locker room? I guess that's what left. FIU's sold the court to Lime restaurant. I'm sure they hope to sell the arena name to somebody again (Is there a Sunblazer company making anything, providing any services? Be funny if it were Sunblazer Arena again...). So maybe slap Russo's name on a section of seats? Or, how about both Russo and Nissen's names on the basketball bench?
Speaking of which, Nissen maneuvered players out of Eastern Europe to go to FIU. You think she can't pull a few dollars out of some potential donors? Plus, she's got respect. Find her a job in development for the school or athletic department.
But learn how to pronounce her name first. She was at FIU only 26 years. I'm not talking to you, President Rosenberg. Who am I kidding? Yes, I am.
Whether Andrea Nagy, Branzova and Dessi Dakova stand as FIU women's basketball's Apollo 11 or Mercury Three, they were pioneers who rocketed the program forward. FIU got the jump on talent from the former Warsaw Pact countries once the Soviet Union collapsed. The success of the Hungarian Nagy and Branzova and Davova from Bulgaria prompted other Eastern European players to consider coming to play at a little known American school in a well-known American town.
"How we got them out, I still don't know," Nissen said. "We got lucky that Albena's dad was affiliated with the (Bulgarian basketball) federation. We had sent packages to the federation. And he found them -- "These have my daughter's name on them, what are these?"
Nissen said Daddy Branzova was told "Oh, no, no, don't touch those" then took them anyway. "Then, we were able to contact them," she continued. "When I called over there -- at times, you couldn't get through and you couldn't hear anything worth a damn in the first place."
Then, there was the language barrier. Nissen spoke French to Dakova's mother, who spoke French, and Dakova.
"American basketball was the standard for that time," Dakova said. "There was nothing like it. It was (exciting) for us to go and actually experience that, to train under and American coach. And we said, "Why not?" I think most of us were adventurous at that time since we had played all over the world before coming here. We didn't know anything about the school. We just knew it was here. Miami! Nice beaches!"
Nissen recalls Branzova had to take the SAT a few times to get into FIU. Dakova said she focused on the math part, got almost all the points she needed for eligibility right there.
"She gave us lots of freedom," All-American point guard Nagy said describing Russo's style coaching those early-to-mid-1990s teams. "She brought in all these great players that made us a great team."
The last women's basketball team I covered before leaving the Neighbors Northwest-North Central/FIU slot for the Florida Panthers beat played the most aesthetic basketball I saw in this town until the Heat's Big Three era. Later FIU teams with many of the same players reset the program's standards for success. Nagy picked the 23-4 1993-94 season, the first year FIU got ranked and made the NCAA Division I tournament, as her favorite memory.
I wish I'd seen that team or the 1995 team that went 27-5 and made it to the second round of the tournament. Because Nagy's sophomore year, 1992-93, FIU's women performed with the athletically stylish cohesion of a basketball Alvin Ailey company.
The 6-4 Branzova was the chessboard queen or Eddie Murphy's shoe-throwing mother -- she could mess up your whole program from anywhere. She could score in the post all the way out to three-point range. If she had the ball down low and the defense fell asleep on the backside, she'd whip a no-look pass over her shoulder to a cutting forward for a layup. Nagy ran the fast break with perfect fundamentals, head up, with BMW M3 speed and maneuverability. As soon as someone came open, ZIP! Layup.
"I think we just got lucky," Nagy said. "We had Albena who was a really good shooter. Myself, who loved to pass and had the speed to push the ball. And we had Tatana (Pokorna) who would get out there and finish the fast breaks. Everybody else were parts to the puzzle to make us something really great."
Swimming & Diving -- Saturday vs. Illinois, 11 a.m.
Football -- Saturday vs. Charlotte, noon
Volleyball -- Sunday vs. North Texas, 1 p.m.
Q: What's up with junior tight end Jonnu Smith?
A: FIU coach Ron Turner called Smith day-to-day. Smith was padless with a brace around the left knee. Didn't look day-to-day unless those days were today and a week from Saturday.
Q: Any other injury updates?
A: Freshman running back/wide receiver Anthony Jones will be back, and maybe fifth-year senior running back Anthon Samuel. Turner hated having to overuse Alex Gardner, who played every offensive snap Saturday then faced the media, visibly hurt by the loss.
Q: Is Juwan Caesar ever going to see the field?
A: He's got three games left before his college career finishes without taking the field. He seems to want to play on whatever's wrong with his knee. Why not try him, especially when they're unhappy with Thomas Owens as they were last Saturday?
FIU played "Ask Rosenberg" on Twitter Tuesday night. As this is a sports blog, we'll stick to the sports questions I saw. Quoting the questions and answers without commentary on either.
Q: When will our football team get a better coaching staff? Our football program is not getting any better.
A: We appreciate fan support. Our coaches are hard working and committed.
Q: Are there any plans to expand athletic facilities? For example, a future natural grass practice field.
A: Facilities improvement is an ongoing imperative.
Q: Are there any plans to expand and improve FIU Stadium? Better concessions and perhaps an upper bowl for the stadium?
A: (No answer)
Q: FIU football disaster. So r other FIU Athletics teams. Facilities & fan support are a joke. Why is Pete Garcia still employed?
A: (No answer)
Q: When is Cheerleading at FIU going to receive the same benefits as other athletes on campus?
A: I appreciate what our cheerleaders do to build the school and want the best possible conditions for them.
Q: 1st -- I'm a huge fan! 2nd -- why is Pete Garcia still at FIU. As an alum, it hurts to support when he is in charge.
A: (No answer)
Q: Hope to see you at the game Saturday afternoon
A: Absolutely, go FIU.
Q: let me know when and where :)
A: Give me your contact info and I will get you that information.
Junior goalkeeper Sophia Trujillo and her 4.0 in sports and fitness studies made the Conference USA All-Academic team.
Freshman Maryna Veksler went 10-2 in singles matches during October and won the ITA Southeast Regional Consolation Bracket.
For this, Veksler was named Conference USA Women's Tennis Athlete of the Month.
The FIU Alumni Association put a message on its Facebook page today in semi-reaction to the statement from Alumni Association President Frank Pena calling for a change in FIU Athletic Department leadership:
"The FIU Alumni Association would like to clarify that recent statements made by Alumni Association President Frank Peña do not necessarily represent the views of the Alumni Association's Board of Directors or its members. Peña himself has said that he was expressing personal views regarding the Athletics Department leadership.
The FIU Alumni Association unequivocally support our student athletes, our coaches and President Mark B. Rosenberg, and strive to continue our mission of serving and supporting FIU's alumni by providing lifelong connections to the University. The Alumni Association is focused on furthering key University priorities such as the expansion project and FIU's Next Horizon Capital Campaign."
Conspicuous by its absence on the Alumni Association support list: Athletic Department leadership.
I ran into Executive Director for Sports and Entertainment Pete Garcia at The Miami Beach Bowl Welcome Event Thursday afternoon.
No surprise as Garcia and FIU President Mark Rosenberg were at the announcement of the creation of the Miami Beach Bowl (to be played in Miami). The bowl's Executive Director Carlos Padilla said he's been in constant contact with Garcia the last few months. I wonder after a couple of years, if the visiting teams don't travel well, the bowl says "to heck with it" and FIU winds up there the way Louisiana-Lafayette winds up in The New Orleans Bowl. The Miami Beach Bowl has BYU this year, a school with a huge worldwide following. Memphis? Well...
Anyway, about FIU...
*Garcia said he didn't know exactly how much the current FIU Arena roof repairs/upgrade were costing the athletic department (the money is coming out of several different FIU pockets), but said Athletics was taking the brunt of it because the school belief is Athletics will benefit most from it. Because of the Miss Universe pageant, the work got put rushed to be finished in time for the pageant to hang all its lighting.
Garcia said this will allow FIU to be a contender for concerts, which I'm guessing like similar heavy lights and stuff for its stage show.
I heard from an FIU source across campus from Athletics that the department ponied up around $400,000 for those repairs/upgrades.
*I've heard talk that Garcia's contract, which is up in 2016, will receive a three-year extension in 2015. He said nope, there have been no extension talks yet.
Maybe a little bit. You hate to say that because it sounds like you didn’t expect much. But you never know how a young guy’s going to respond. Once I saw them in training camp, I wasn’t surprised by what they did in games. Guys like Anthony Wint and Fred Russ and Treyvon Williams and Jordan Guest, those linebackers from day one were overly aggressive – “Guys we don’t need that late hit, this isn’t full contact.” That’s a problem you want to have. You can’t teach someone to be aggressive, but you can teach them to be smart about. (Safety Demarkus) Perkins was playing with that attitude in camp.
(Defensive end Michael) Wakefield, unbelievable motor. Goes full speed all the time. (Defensive end) Denzell Perine, another of those guys with a great, great motor. They got a little bit bigger, stronger in the offseason. They stepped up. I think that affected all the other guys on the defensive line. Giovanni (Francois) stepped up and started to show the same kind of motor that Wakefield and Perine showed. It was contagious. The norm was for them to play hard with a great motor. It was great to see.
(Linebacker) Davison Colimon, he’s a guy with great motor. He was a totally different guy this year. Colimon played great football for us. He played with great intensity both on defense and special teams.
What do you plan to do about your punting situation?
Find somebody, hopefully. Terrible. Jose (Laphitzondo) stepped in, the first time he’d ever played and did the best he could do. Chris (Ayers) has a good leg. He just hasn’t been able to put together, stay healthy, punt with confidence. But we’re looking. We’re looking for guys out there as well. I don’t’ know if it’ll come from within, but we’re looking at guys on the outside as well.
The problem is you don’t have a lot of scholarship spots. It’s hard to give one to a punter you don’t have here or one to a kicker because they’re so hard to evaluate. But we’ve definitely got to get better. The field position that cost us...we’re going to go back and chart, but it’s just…we’ve got to get better.
What about Luke Medlock? (an All-State punter in high school)
He’s got a chance. We worked him at a lot, early, especially. But he was just too inconsistent. But he’s got a chance. He’s got a strong leg, so he’s in the mix. He’ll be there along with Chris, Jose and (kicker) Sergio (Sroka) wants to try punting as well. We’ll give anybody (a chance).”
What players who have eligibility remaining do you not anticipate coming back?
(Quarterback) EJ (Hilliard) is not coming back. I don’t anticipate (wide receiver) Dominique (Rhymes) returning. (Wide receiver) Richard Burrows, he’d be a fifth-year guy and you’re not going to bring him back for a fifth year. Other than that, I don’t know. There’s a couple of guys I’ve talked to…we’ll see. People think that because the guy’s a fifth-year of eligibility, he automatically comes back. No. They’ve got to want to come back and we’ve got to want them to come back. That’s not just here, that’s everywhere.
What do you see you need to beef up in recruiting?
Overall depth. Every position we need to bring guys in. Playmakers, speed is one thing we’ve got to get. And playmakers aren’t always speed guys (DJN digression: the Hall of Fame wide receiver nicknamed “The Playmaker,” Michael Irvin, wasn’t a speed guy). Speed guys and or playmakers. We’ve got to continue to get them, whether it’s offense, defense, whatever.
We lost six senior offensive lineman. We brought in a really good freshman offensive lineman class last year. So we’ve got to continue to keep those numbers up where they are. That part is going well at that position. Offensive line and defensive line, you’ve always got to recruit numbers and get depth. To me, we’ve got numbers and good players, guys that we really like who are committed. We’ve just got to hold onto them.”
How has recruiting changed this year as opposed to last year, especially locally?
Last year, I thought our guys did a really good job of recruiting. The reception we got out there was good. I think it’s even better this year. I think people are seeing what we’re doing. Every high school coach I’ve talked to are seeing what we’re doing and seeing the strides we’re making, seeing what our guys are doing off the field as well as on the field and in the communi9ty and how they’re playing. I’ve had several coaches say “It’s night and day difference when we watch on the field this year than last year.” We’re basically full on our commitments. We’re actually getting guys calling us who were committed elsewhere who are asking “Do you still have scholarships available?” That’s a positive.
Do you plan to reach out to any of the Alabama-Birmingham kids, who are now free to go anywhere?
We possibly could. We’ve talked about it as a staff. There might be a couple of positions, offensive line, defensive line, if they’ve got some guys who have eligibility remaining, I don’t care if it’s one year, three years, whatever. Yeah, it’s something we’d look at. First of all, I think it’s a sad, disappointing thing. I feel so bad for those players. Watch that video of the team meeting. It’s a bad, bad deal. Those kids go there and – I look at our team room and I see how hard our guys work and everything they’re doing. The trust they put in us. And to see it pulled out from them like that without any warning. I look at the coaches, they went there a year ago, Bill Clark and his staff. I don’t know Bill really well, just from meetings and playing them. He seems like a really class, good human being. To see him go there a year ago – everybody talks about the head coach, but you’ve got a staff, nine full time assistants – and to have it all pulled away, it’s a sad deal.
On one hand, you almost feel like a vulture if you go in and take those guys. On the other hand, those kids want people to come in and recruit them because they want to play Division I football. We are going to take a look at it and see if there are guys we have spots for. We don’t have a lot of spots unfortunately – and if it’s a good fit. I spoke with Bill Clark this morning. It’s just a tough, tough deal. Those kids are going to go somewhere. So, we’ll get in the mix, try to help them. And, help us.
Any staff changes?
I hope not. I love our staff. I think we’ve got everything exactly where I want it right now. I couldn’t be happier with them. There will be no changes on my part. You never know what’s going to happen. Jobs open up, guys come calling from bigger conferences or the NFL. I told the guys, “You have something you’re interested in, someone contacts you and it’s better for you and your family, I’m 100 percent supportive and I’ll do what I can do to help you get it. But I really want everyone to stay. And I’ll do what I can do to try to get you to stay.”
(DJN: According to USA Today’s assistant salary table, FIU spent $1,065,400 on assistants last year, fourth in Conference USA behind UTEP, North Texas and Middle Tennessee State)
It’s hard to get a staff together, nine full time coaches and four graduate assistants that everybody gets along. Egos usually get in the way and you have some issues there. We have zero. We have a group of guys who are not afraid to express their opinion, talking about what they want to do. At the end of the day, if we decide “this is what we’re going to do” whether it’s a defensive scheme or offensive scheme or how we’re practicing, they’re 100 percent behind it. The personalities on the staff and how they get along could not be better, as good as I’ve been around. I think our players have a lot of confidence in our coaches and know our coaches care about them as individuals, not just winning games. And they’re all doing a really good job of recruiting.
Facilities-wise, what’s the next thing you’d like to see?
Grass practice field. That’s something I’ve been talking to the AD (Pete Garcia) and to the President (Mark Rosenberg) about. It’s going to happen at some point, I’m not sure when. Just the wear and tear of that (points out the office window to Ocean Bank Field) takes its toll a little bit. It’s not mandatory that we get it, but it would be nice if we get that.
Other than that, they’re doing a good job, they’re committed to a lot of stuff. Other than that, there’s not a whole lot. All the players I’ve gotten in here, I ask every one of them, I ask one-on-one, “Do you have any issues? Any concerns? Do you have anything you’d like to see done better?” Every once in a while, somebody will say, “Well, the food…” But they say that in NFL camps when they’ve got gourmet food coming in. Other than that, they’re happy with the support staff, happy with the academic staff, happy with our medical staff.
We’re putting in a little player lounge for them which I think they will enjoy. Somewhere they can do to relax a bit. We’ll try to get some things like that done. We’re not at a competitive disadvantage within our conference in any area, so…
What did you think when you saw the massive donation at FAU and what FAU’s planning?
What’s FAU planning?
They just got a $16 million gift from the Schmidt Family Foundation toward a $45 $50 million facility that’s supposed to have an indoor practice facility, academic center, weight room, etc.
I didn’t know anything about that. Good for them. The thing we have to do is make sure we’re not at a competitive disadvantage in our conference and teams we’re playing. Hopefully, we’ll continue to upgrade our facilities. I don’t think we need to do a whole lot. We’ve got pretty good facilities here. Obviously, there are some things you can do every year.
I think all that stuff is good, but what sells recruits more than coming in and seeing a nice locker room and this and that – I think our facilities don’t take a back seat to a lot of people, but the thing that kids and their parents are most impressed with is the people. Obviously, it’s nice to have great locker room, great everything for them to come to, but the bottom line is the people. If we get them on our campus and they get around our coaches and they see what kidn of people we are, they get around our players. We have a very good chance of getting htem. Last year, on our visits, we had one weekend where we had 20 kids visit. And we had 19 commit to us when they were here.
Turner said the season captains were voted as Michael Wakefield, Richard Leonard and center Donald Senat. The game captains changed weekly, save Wakefield.
“As coaches, we talked about it every Monday. I’d say, ‘OK, game captains this week” and they would nominate some guys. Every time, somebody said, ‘Wakefield” it would be ‘OK, it’s going to be Wakefield and Richard’ or ‘Wakefield and Perk’ or ‘Wakefield and somebody.’ By the second half of the season, we didn’t even say his name, we’d just say ‘Wakefield and who else?’ Based on work ethic, performance the week before, doing the right things. We tried to get at least one offense, defense, special teams.”
I'll get to Saturday's Former Sunblazers-Current Monarchs in football in a minute. First, FIU vs. Old Dominion footballers on the pitch Friday night.
Let's put aside that FIU lost 3-2 on a penalty kick golden goal by Sidney Rivera in the 104th minute after FIU senior Quentin Albrecht tied his last college game on a shot from maybe 4 yards inside the area in the 86th minute. FIU ends the season 6-9-1, 2-6 in Conference USA. Here's what I saw:
A school with similar soccer history to FIU's and an undergraduate enrollment of just under 20,000 playing in a this-century retro brick soccer stadium drawing several hundred fans covered in hats, gloves, scarves and blankets (my fingers are still thawing from being ungloved for occasional Tweets from the game). OK, Senior Night might've helped the crowd, but it's not exactly senior sayonara for Old Dominion. Next week's Conference USA tournament is on their home turf.
The apparent multi-level support -- economic, administrative, fan -- for that program should not outstrip FIU's to such an embarrassing degree. There's no excuse for it. Just as there's no reason Old Dominion, at $37 million, should have an athletic budget almost 50 percent larger than FIU's.
When I heard rumors FIU might host next year's men's or women's conference tournament, I wondered "How? Where? Did FIU show the conference pictures of Barry's place (University, not Jackson) or Little Haiti Soccer Park?" And how does a Division II school and a rundown neighborhood in one of the worst run major cities have superior soccer facilities to a massive school's athletic department gorging annually on all-you-can-eat student fees?
Maybe I'm smoking about this just because my body's still looking for any form of heat. By the way, some of you have asked about evaluations of executive director or sports and entertainment Pete Garcia. This was the most recent one, according to a records request response from FIU Download President to PG.
FIU's got a low flow money shower paralleled by its low flow offense. The latter should be helped today by facing an Old Dominion's Yard Sale defense -- show up, take what you want, including this yard, that yard, 10 yards, the whole development. The Monarchs give up 233.1 rushing yards per game, 485.8 yards per game and 40.7 points per game. They're like the prom date everybody wanted.
Still, FIU coach Ron Turner said, “If we get in a shootout with them, we have no chance. We have to play our game. And play within us. We’re not a get-in-a-shootout type offense. Obviously.”
And, obviously, Old Dominion knows this. The Monarchs know if you take away the tight ends, especially sophomore tight end Jonnu Smith, the Panthers lose their fizz aside from the occasional bomb to Glenn Coleman. FIU wants to pound it with Anthon Samuel and Napoleon Maxwell and keep Old Dominion senior quarterback Taylor Heinicke (pronounced like you're not going to pay a lot for this muffler) on the sideline, chilling in the late afternoon breeze.
To do this successfully, FIU must avoid its knack for the pre-snap boo-boo that turns the Panthers offense into a cha-cha dance -- two steps forward, one step back, 7 yards forward, 5 yards back -- and puts them in long yardage situations on second and third down. It's a demerit on the analysis sheets for both players and coaches that this remains a problem this deep into the season. It speaks to discipline. John Madden, who coached the legendarily rambunctious 1970s Raiders, used to always say he didn't define a disciplined player by whether he dressed cleanly, said "sir" and "ma'am," and made curfew. If he jumped the snap on third and short, he was an undisciplined player.
Speaking of discipline, after last week's 31-17 loss to Rice, Turner clearly was fuming about some aspect of team discipline. He didn't name names, but junior cornerback Jeremiah McKinnon got stapled to the bench after nobody covered James Mayden up the seam on his 69-yard touchdown catch.
“Just didn’t have a great week of preparation. He knew he didn’t," FIU defensive coordinator Josh Conklin said. "We gave up the deep one, which was one we covered all along. And we just felt some fo the other guys were playing a little bit better at the time. (Freshman Shemarke) Spence can cover and he did a pretty decent job covering the big guy (Rice's Jordan Taylor) until the end there. He can cover guys in the slot. We’ll use some different matchups this week. Jeremiah’s ready to go. We had a great talk. We’ve got to have those guys play well and use their matchups.
"I thought Wilkenson Myrtil played a really good game, solid game, physical on the perimeter, which was good to see."
Heinicke's top three receivers, Antonio Vaughan, Zach Pascal and David Washington, have 42, 45 and 30 catches, respectively, and yards per catch averages of 17.7, 13.5 and 13.0. Translation: he'll look for the best matchup not involving Richard Leonard and work that. As I've written here repeatedly, FIU's four wins under Ron Turner have been Saturday morning at Roslyn's bakery -- a total of 20 turnovers in those four games. The three wins this season each featured a defensive touchdown by Leonard. Sometimes, coaches don't overthink themselves, go A=B, B=C, therefore A=C and tell their quarterbacks things like, "stay away from turnovers and, unless we're Liam Neeson looking for our daughter or saving Private Ryan, I don't want to see us in Leonard's neighborhood."
Leonard might not see the ball aside from kickoff or punt returns, where Old Dominion's gives up a whopping 15.9 yards per punt return, worst in the nation, and 24.3 per kickoff return.
Old Dominion opened a 2.5-point favorite and is now up to a 5-point pick by the smart guys. The over/under is 60 after starting at 60.5. So, they're seeing 33-27 or so.
I'll go 35-31, Old Dominion.
But that's one Irish-Native American-West African descended man's opinion. I could be wrong.
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.”
Quick hits from the news conference announcing The Miami Beach Bowl:
A formal rotation opposite the American Athletic Conference, the owner and operator of the bowl, hasn't been decided upon yet, but it'll include Conference USA, the Sun Belt and the Mid-American Conference. However, I was told, if FIU is bowl eligible to this level and it isn't Conference USA's turn, FIU likely would get chosen while the other team gets lateraled elsewhere.
Also, the AAC champion could wind up in the game. Just using logic, if Central Florida or South Florida winds up eligible or the AAC champion, look for them here.
Sheesh, there are a lot of FIU folks here. FIU athletic director Pete Garcia is on the dais. The program said he'll do the translating for the Spanish language media.
"FIU president Mark Rosenberg and Pete Garcia have been invaluable in connecting us with the right people in Miami-Dade County," said AAC senior associate commissioner Nick Carparelli.
Carparelli claiming $34 million economic impact for the county. We all know such things are more inflated than a carnival bouncy house, but there it is.
Miami Beach mayor Matti Bower's a born politician. Just because I happened to be standing net to her, having no idea who I was or where I lived (South Beach for 23 years), she introduced herself and took the time to have a conversation on Miami Beach flooding. Then, when she had to slide away to greet other folks, made sure to give the conversation a proper benediction.