Now that FAU and Middle Tennessee are hopping out of the Sun Belt and into Conference USA in 2013 instead of 2014, the football scheduling process can actually resume. Expect a finished schedule in a few weeks.
According to FIU athletic director Pete Garcia, that schedule for FIU will include games against FAU and Middle. So, the Shula Bowl which has gone from "Off Indefinitely" to "Off For At Least 2013" is now back to "Same Time, Next Year." Though the game was in Boca Raton last year, it's undecided who gets the home date this season.
Former University of Illinois coach Ron Turner will be announced as FIU's coach Friday afternoon.
"I'm excited about everything Pete Garcia and the president (Mark Rosenberg) have been doing to get this thing going," Turner said Thursday night. "Not that it hasn't been successful if you look at the strides made in a short amount of time."
I asked Turner why the return to college coaching when 12 of his last 20 seasons have been in the NFL.
"I love being a head coach," Turner said. "I love the college game. People would ask me which I liked more and I'd tell them, 'Whichever one is where I am.' I love working with young guys as 18 years olds, watcing them grow and leave four years later as men. I've got guys I recruited my first year at Illinois that I still keep in contact with."
Turner was 35-57 in his eight seasons at Illinois, 1997-2004, peaking in 2001 with a 10-1 team that won the Big Ten, then lost the Sugar Bowl. (The Rose Bowl, traditionally Big 10 vs. Pac 12, hosted the Bowl Alliance national championship game with the University of Miami and Nebraska). He said he thought Illinois was on the verge of bouncing back after the 2004 season because of the good young players they had. Ron Zook took over there and after a pair of two-win seasons, went 9-4 in 2007.
Turner said he didnt' have a great amount of experience recruiting South Florida, though they got some players out to go to Illinois, but "we will make every effort to keep local guys here."
Turner, brother of longtime NFL assistant and head coach Norv Turner, spent last season with the NFL's Tampa Bay Buccaneers as quarterbacks coach on the same staff with special assistant Butch Davis, long the presumed favorite for the FIU job. According to Ron Turner, this was the only college job he interviewed for this year.
He said though his offensive background tended to be more the so-called West Coast Offense "I believe in pushing the ball down the field and playing up tempo." He said there would be some spread and spread option in his offense, but it wouldn't be exclusively spread. So, yes, FIU fans, you'll be seeing your quarterback under center. Turner said he thought after playing college football in his offense, which incorporates a lot of NFL offensive elements, players would be able to adjust more quickly from college to the NFL. He didn't say this, but that could be a selling point in recruiting, which he has to get hopping on after the American Football Coaches Association convention.
FIU executive director of sports and entertainment Pete Garcia said Monday afternoon when asked about the stories bouncing around the Internet that Butch Davis was in as FIU's next head football coach, "Butch Davis is not the FIU football coach. That story is totally false."
So, that's the official word from Camp Mitch for now. Still, I'd say expect an announcement Jan. 2-6.
Bigger dance hall, swankier dance partners, but the shoes are the only thing FIU coach Richard Pitino wants as a major change for tonight's game with No. 5 Louisville at the KFC Yum! Center.
Pitino said he spotted the South Beach model adidas at a summer AAU game. The adidas rep at the game welcomed Pitino's request that FIU get some and Pitino decided they would make their FIU debut at the Louisville game. (Thanks to Joey de la Rosa for contributing his shoe and a steady prop-holding hand to the above shot).
Otherwise, he wants to keep everything the same as most games, despite the fact they'll be playing in front of 10 times the crowd they usually face and FIU's highest ranked opponent since No. 1 UCLA in the 1995 NCAA tournament.
"It's an opportunity for us to get better," Pitino said after Wednesday's morning shootaround. "Regardless of who we're playing, that's been the goal from Day One when I took this job. Let's get better every single day. This is another opportunity."
Louisville shouldn't be familiar just to Pitino. FIU players should recognize the Cardinals' high pressure style.
"It's funny because we play the same defense as they do," Pitino said. "When we're going over scouting, I'll tell them to get into Louisville's "White Press." All of a sudden, they're playing harder and it's more aggressive. I want to tell them, 'Guys, that's our defense, too! Play that hard every single time!' So we may switch the name of our press to "Louisville' instead of "White" to see if it'll work and carry over. It's good for them to see those guys playing the same style defensively, showing them that we can do it, we've just got to play a little bit harder."
I know I'm usually up on the swimming thing and I knew about this one yet it still slipped through the cracks. Sonia Perez broke the FIU record in the 1000 freestyle with a 10:11.36 at Nova Southeastern's Sharks Invitational, won the 200 Individual Medley, the 400 IM and the 1600 free.
So the Sun Belt awarded Perez her second consecutive Swimmer of the Week award and her third of the year.
Called in our lawyers this morning. What I've asked for doesn't take long and in an information age, should take a few minutes. Pop a colada and get it done.
That is, it shouldn't take that long if said records actually still exist...
Junior guard Jerica Coley received her sixth Sun Belt Player of the Week award, the most by an FIU women's basketball player.
Coley put up 39 points against Dartmouth Saturday and 22 against Central Florida, both wins. Perhaps most impressively, she hit 24 of 25 (96 percent) free throws. She's sixth in the nation with 22.1 points per game.
Tuesday, I received an update that everything I wanted from athletic director Pete Garcia and former head football coach Mario Cristobal's files were being compiled.
Now, as I had specifically separated Garcia's evaluations as being more urgent than everything else -- they were first requested July 14 --I eagerly anticipated seeing them in my e-mail box yesterday. Hey, I'd been with The Herald about a decade when I asked for copies of all of my evaluations. It didn't take five months. It didn't take five hours. It took closer to five minutes. If they'd had to scan them, that would've been maybe 10 minutes.
My e-mail box remains light on Garcia's evaluations. So what reasonable conclusion can we reach about said evaluations and how much should I trust what I eventually will receive?
Camp Mitch sources confirm the Rivals.com report that Texas defensive coordinator Manny Diaz interviewed for the head football coach job Monday. CBSSports.com reports that Diaz removed his name from consideration Tuesday.
My thumbnail analysis of Diaz can be found a few posts ago. The opinion remains that if FIU wants to sell the next hire as a guaranteed upgrade on Cristobal, they'll want someone with head coaching experience who'll look good in front of the national college football media in early January when they're in town for Notre Dame vs. Alabama.
I indulged in a long planned vacation with wife and kid in New York. I skipped one full day blogging despite being on vacation. I checked back in today and it sounds like the lobby of Bailey Building & Loan.
To answer some questions that have been posed in the comments section:
1. NCAA transfer rules aren't waived because a coach is fired. A player would still have to sit out a year unless he could get a waiver. As I wrote previously, many players are taking a wait-and-see attitude because they'd like to see who the new coach is. It doesn't make much practical sense for most players to transfer.
2. The list of people who know who the next football coach will be is short and, as of right this very second, doesn't include me. I've been around long enough to also know some folks, for their own benefit, will attempt to mislead me or lie to me. I will report what I know, what I'm told and, in this forum, sometimes analyze the information I get. I'm not going to say, "I think (some name here) will be the next FIU coach" until I have a more solid idea of that.
Sometimes, I'm told things way off the record -- as in, "please don't print or blog this, even using me as an unnamed source" -- and all I can tell you is what those tidbits might mean.
3. FIU would like to know Cristobal's next stop before talking money with the next coach, but it's not a red light. That's especially the case if FIU lands someone who doesn't need a ton of money in the early years of the deal (i.e. Houston Nutt, Butch Davis).
Obviously, those aren't yearly evaluations. I requested them again. The request was forwarded to Liz Marston, FIU's Associate General Counsel, who e-mailed that those were the only performance evaluations that could be found. I chuckled and knew I'd revisit this when the football season ended.
Last week, I re-requested those evaluations from Marston, pointing out that Garcia said he was evaluated each year as the coaches were. I also requested any official commendations, suspensions and censures in his file, as well as Mario Cristobal's performance evaluations, commendations, suspensions and censures.
Marston e-mailed back that they were in the process of gathering the documents and would respond in a reasonable time. I noted to her that Friday was five months from the original request, so "reasonable time" was in the past. I found it ridiculous, but interesting, that I was being told that something as basic as performance evaluations for an employee making over $350,000 a year in base salary didn't exist.
The leaking of Mississippi State Geoff Collins and Texas defensive coordinator Manny Diaz's names as the possible next football coach feels awfully convenient.
Collins, FIU's defensive coordinator in 2010, vaulted to the SEC after guiding a unit that was the Sun Belt's best across the board. Diaz fits the FIU suit.
He’s from Miami (Miami Country Day graduate), which might soothe the feathers of those angry over a loyal-to-the-305 guy getting blind side sacked. He just did two years as a coordinator in one of the two or three most massive programs in the nation, by any measure. He’s linked to the same Miami-Dade County power structure as FIU’s Board of Trustees and executive director for spoots and entertainment Pete Garcia, albeit by chromosomes (Manny Sr. is a former City of Miami mayor).
Also, on a purely football level, as a coordinator for seven seasons at Middle Tennessee State, Mississippi State and Texas, Diaz’s in-game decision-making might be a bump on one of Mario Cristobal’s weaknesses as a coach.
And about Butch Davis and money (even though he's told FIU he's not interested...)
Davis is guaranteed $590,000 in 2013, 2014 and 2015 from his North Carolina contract. He's able to double dip his income chip now with Tampa Bay as a "special assistant" because he's technically not a coach. But if he gets back into college coaching -- and Butch wants to get back into college coaching -- that salary will decrease North Carolina's part of the $590,000. Let's say someone paid him $500,000. North Carolina's now on the hook for only $90,000.
Theoretically, FIU could pay Davis cheap for three years and give him a bump in the fourth and fifth years of a deal.
Despite what I just said on 640AM's The Andy Slater Show, perhaps ESPN Joe Schad's report from earlier today is correct.
About two minutes into my nuked turkey marsala lunch, heard through the Camp Mitch grapevine that rippling through the FIU hierarchy is that former University of Miami and North Carolina coach Butch Davis doesn't want FIU's head football coach job. Now, that doesn't mean he can't change his mind later, but, for now, he's out.
Also heard that a) perhaps FIU's attention has turned to Florida State offensive coordinator James Coley, a Miami native guy who coached at Norland High a decade ago when the Vikings were a power and b) some big muckety-mucks at Camp Mitch aren't happy with the way Pete Garcia handled this. Not like he's going to get rung up or anything, but it doesn't do to make the muckety-mucks unhappy when you're rolling the dice.
Half the assistants south of Olney, Illinois might be blowing up Pete Garcia's phone. Garcia said to me yesterday this wasn't the same job Cristobal took in 2007. He's right. Ironically, Cristobal's a large reason for that. Still, FIU's seen as a stepping stone, unless someone truly loves living and working here. Some people get attached to their starter house and it becomes the family home.
This afternoon, I asked Garcia what if, two or three years down the road, FIU remains at three-to-five wins a season after he makes what many see as a bold move in firing Cristobal. What does that mean for his job?
"I'm held accountable for everything in the athletic department," Garcia said. "My job is to make sure the entire athletic department is headed in the right direction. Right now, I didn't think the football program was headed in the right direction. It's my job to hire a coach that will make us competitive year in and year out and successful. Success is going to bowl games and having winning seasons. That's how our coaches are evaluated and how I'm evaluated."
If that's not the case, he said, "Then I've got to be held accountable."
Garcia hired Richard Pitino nine days after firing Isiah Thomas last spring, although Garcia insists he didn't know Pitino was available when he fired Thomas (see my posts from back then for commentary on that). But Garcia said he hasn't talked to anyone about the job yet, though his cell phone is being blown up, and the timetable is to have a coach in place by the time classes resume on Jan. 7. That leaves one month before signing day. He won't, he insists, speed up the process if it means settling for a candidate on which he's lukewarm.
Garcia has a pal named Butch Davis who needs a job and knows how to recruit in South Florida and to South Florida. And I'm not a fan of personnel or coaching moves to please a fan base, but there needs to be a juicing of excitement about the football program, both in paid attendance and booster bucks because it's the only thing close to a revenue sport FIU has.
Now, as far as the money to pay a name coach...Cristobal worked relatively cheap for the job and the market, making a base salary of $453,183 (various bonuses pushed that over $500,000). According to Cristobal's contract, FIU now owes him $906,366 if he doesn't get a job next season. If he does, FIU owes him one year's base salary plus a pro-rated amount.
Texas A&M paid FIU $500,000 to get out of its commitment for a game next year and FIU's saving the $500,000 they won't pay A&M to come down. The Maryland game gets them another $500,000 or so.
On the field, FIU might lose Collins Hill (Ga.) quarterback Brett Sheehan, one of FIU's first 2013 verbal committments, who had a stellar year. Sheehan retweeted a Scout.com report that quotes him saying he's decommitting from FIU in the wake of Cristobal's firing. Sheehan's rated at two stars by Scout, Rivals and ESPN.com.
SWIMMING & DIVING
I'd planned to spend today writing about how Johanna Gustafsdottir went from being a fat (by swimming standards) burnout victim to an owner of half the FIU swimming record book who feels very much at home in Miami.
As it turns out, my only break in Cristobal coverage is to tell you that Sonia Perez was picked as Sun Belt Swimmer of the Week and junior Sabrina Beupre as The Belt's Diver of the Week.
Perez won the 400 Individual Medley at the Mizzou Invitational setting a new school record of 4:12.95 That and her school record 500 freestyle time of 4:50.32 were among four Sun Belt-best times this season she reeled off at the meet. Beaupre placed third in both the 1-meter and the 3-meter competitions at the University of Missouri-hosted meet.
FIU fired head football coach Mario Cristobal after six seasons Wednesday, the last of which was a 3-9 season after FIU was the preseason favorite for the Sun Belt title. FIU heads into Conference USA next season.
"It was based on going 3-9 this year with 30 seniors and what was supposed to be his best team," FIU athletic director Pete Garcia told The Herald. "He's done a very good job for this program, but we've gone backwards over the last year and a half. Over the last 22 games, we've gone 8-14."
That's a reference to FIU's record after a 3-0 start in 2011 that included wins over eventual Big East champion Louisville and defending Conference USA champion Central Florida. This year, Garcia said, FIU's wins were over 1-11 Akron; rebuilding FAU; and South Alabama, in their first year of FBS competition.
Garcia can be temperamental and his relationship with Cristobal the past few years could be called "strained," if you want to be very generous. Cristobal several times made public reference to not being fully aware of the coming NCAA sanctions when he took the job. Also, sources at Camp Mitch said Garcia told a group of boosters before this year's regular season game against Troy that, though this season hadn't gone as planned, changes would be made after the season. Upon hearing that a week or two later, Cristobal almost exploded. His worry wasn't for himself, but for his assistants, who he felt it was his province to handle.
But I don't think Garcia swings a wrecking ball without plans for the next building. Butch Davis is a name, just as Isiah Thomas was a name and even Richard Pitino is a name (a last name, at least). Davis and Garcia go back a ways. Garcia said he hasn't talked to Davis or anyone about the job.
This comes 12 months after FIU played in its second consecutive bowl game in only its seventh year of FBS play and in the fifth year after Cristobal took over a NCAA sanction-ridden program that had gone winless in 2006. The team went to bowls in 2010 and 2011 after 6-6 and 8-4 regular seasons, the only two regular seasons at or above .500 in FIU's 11 seasons. That earned Cristobal attention from the University of Pittsburgh after the 2010 and 2011 seasons. Rutgers was ready to hire Cristobal in February. But he chose the current happiness he and his family experienced living on South Beach and working near the neighborhood where he was raised.
Cristobal's overall record was 27-47.
This year, FIU wasn't helped by losing starting quarterback Jake Medlock to injury, forcing true freshman E.J. Hilliard to start three games against bowl teams and play the second half against Sugar Bowl-bound Louisville. FIU lost two games on last minute scores and another in overtime. Starting running back Kedrick Rhodes spent most of the season with two sprained ankles.
Still, when Medlock was healthy, offense rarely proved to be a problem compared to defense and special teams, expected to be the backbone of a team that received Top 25 votes in the preseason coaches poll. Those two units failed spectacularly with several fumbled returns, three missed extra points, three bad punt snaps leading to two opposing touchdowns and a safety and the defense ranking 67th in total defense and 90th in scoring defense despite returning 21 of 22 on the two-deep roster from the No. 16 scoring defense in 2011.
Senior defensive end Tourek Williams came on late in the season to earn First Team All-Sun Belt honors, as did senior safety Johnathan Cyprien. Senior offensive tackle Caylin Hauptmann was Second Team All-Sun Belt.
FIU athletic director Pete Garcia said Wednesday morning that he and president Mark Rosenberg are lobbying Conference USA to invite FAU to join in 2014.
FIU's motivation is obvious. Why it wouldn't be a surprise if Conference USA warmed to the idea was detailed in my last post. And the Shula Bowl would resume after a one-year break.
C-USA's other replacement school? Couple of sources say it might be Middle (again, see my last post for why this wouldn't be surprising). This all might be happening within the next two days.
For those thinking Big East for FIU...slow down. Realize where you are. Look around at FIU's facilities and fan support for football and the basketballs (yes, that should improve over the next 10 years across the board, at least for football) and be happy they're moving up one step on the conference ladder, this year's Sun Belt vs. C-USA football records notwithstanding.
Lauderdale Lakes Boyd Anderson offensive lineman Sandley Jean-Felix, a 6-5, 300-pounder, committed to FIU Saturday night. Rivals and Scout.com both have him at three stars with various other offers. The Herald high school hawks ranked him as the No. 7 senior in Broward County. Word is at FIU's camp he was folding opposing linemen like corrugated boxes.
The AP Top 25 poll came out Saturday. As far as FIU's concerned, the biggest news is Louisville, which visits Sept. 22, starts the season ranked no. 25.
Oh, by the way, for the Duke game: ACC zebras. That's all I'm going to say about that (for now).
(UPDATE: I was called Monday afternoon with the information that Sun Belt officials will be used for the game against Duke. I guees my Camp Mitch source, usually unimpeachable about such things, was mistaken)
Spearheaded by Pete Garcia, the athletic department and the Student Government Association will bus 1,000 students to the Sept. 15 game at Central Florida, feed them on the way and give them a ticket to the game.
How will the students be selected? OK, before Aug. 31, they have to click https://qtrial.qualtrics.com/SE/?SID=SV_difTrGx3YgRUinr. Then, they have to attend the home-opener, Sept. 8 vs. Akron. An e-mail will be sent afterwards to students who attended the game telling them where and when they can get their Road Trip pass. First 1,000 to pick up the pass, you're on the road.
A few things from the perusal of Isiah Thomas' file and Richard Pitino's contract for the above story:
1. Under "Termination by University for Just Cause" there are nine ways this can happen that are spelled out in Thomas' contract. There are 19 in Pitino's. The phrase "win-loss record is not considered "just cause"" appears in subsection (a) of Thomas' deal. It doesn't appear at all in Pitino's, although his (a) is otherwise identical to Thomas': "failure to perform Head Basketball Coach's duties as set forth in this Agreement or refusal or unwillingness to perform such duties as set forth in this Agreement."
2. The performance bonuses show Thomas' people knew they were negotiating from strength. Pitino gets only $10,000 for winning the conference tournament or getting an at-large NCAA bid while Thomas would've gotten $20,000. Conference Coach of the Year and each NCAA round bonuses each had the same 10-20 disparity. Thomas also would've gotten $10,000 for each postseeason NIT win. Pitino gets a handshake and another road trip. But Pitino does get $100,000 should FIU make the Final Four and $250,000 for winning the national title. Thomas got nothing for the Final Four and $100,000 for winning the title. Pitino gets roster bonuses. Thomas didn't.
3. In an amazing coincidence, FIU's individual game ticket sales were identical in 2009-10 and 2010-11. According to sales reports in Thomas' file (he got half the ticket revenue over $1,000), in each season, FIU sold 16 of the $60 Floor Seats; 846 of the $10 reserved seats; 353 of the Upper Bowl Adult tickets; and 187 of the $5 Upper Bowl Junior or Senior tickets. They also sold 36 season tickets for the Floor Seats each season and 65 Family Plan season tickets.
Most remarkable numeric coincidence since Rams NFL title game appearances after the 1951, 1979 and 1999 seasons all ended with the NFL's No. 1 offense getting the winning touchdown on a 73-yard pass. Or Henry Aaron, No. 44, hitting his 715th career home run in the fourth inning of the fourth game of the 1974 season, in the fourth month of the year, in a game that had seen four runs scored already.
The volleyball team announced four signees Tuesday.
Lucia Castro, 6-1, is a member of Puerto Rico's National Team
Maryna Samoday, a 6-1 outside hitter from the Ukraine by way of Seminole State College, will play both regular and sand volleyball.
Kimberly Smith, a 6-3 middle blocker from Zionsville, Indiana (a now-bustling suburb just on the other side of the northern county line from Indianapolis), spent two seasons at Robert Morris University-Illinois. Last season, she was in the NAIA's top 35 in hitting percentage, blocks and blocks per game.
Brittany Spencer, a 6-2 middle blocker, did one year at Miami-Dade and comes from Chesterfield, Virginia.
A Hallandale High coach announced that FIU offered linebacker Jeremy Derrick Tuesday. An FIU coach also was at Tallahassee Godby High visiting defensive back Lester Thomas and wide receiver Earl Calloway.
A few quick things from this afternoon's official announcement that FIU would be joining Conference USA:
*The FIU-FAU football game is up in the air after 2012 because FIU doesn't know how many conference games it'll play and has other committments to honor.
*Mario Cristobal looked terribly happy. As he said, recruits like exposure for themselves and to know their families can see them on TV if they can't make the game. C-USA's TV deals are much better than the Sun Belt's.
*Pete Garcia pointed out that despite the closest school being Alabama-Birmingham or Southern Mississippi, travel costs actually could wind up better for FIU because teams can fly into major airports instead of flying in and going for a bus ride.
*The Sun Belt issued a statement from commissioner Karl Benson that both FIU and North Texas "were cooperative and kept and open line of communication throughout the process."
While trying to console a 7-year-old who somehow injured a calf in the shower and now can't go to sleep, we bring you the long awaited news projected on this blog back on August 13 and spoken of often since.
The FIU-Sun Belt marriage is about to go through the year of legal separation before D-I-V-O-R-C-E. The Other Conference waiting to walk down the aisle with FIU is, of course, Conference USA. Camp Mitch sources confirm that FIU will be joining Conference USA in 2013. FIU's already a member for men's soccer.
Official announcements likely will be made within a week. FIU athletic director Pete Garcia refused comment other than to acknowledge FIU had been in talks with C-USA for weeks.
Conference USA lost UCF, Houston, SMU and Memphis to the Big East. Inviting FIU replaces the UCF with another school with the massive enrollment in a large Florida market and up-and-coming athletic program. Houston and SMU account for two large Texas markets, Houston and Dallas.
The Sun Belt's having a media conference call tomorrow to discuss the future of the conference, which also probably loses North Texas (near the Dallas TV market) to the C-USA rebuild. I thought they'd lose FAU also because smart expansions usually don't leave a team without a natural nearby potential rival or travel partner. But the Owls' Nest is a mess right now, despite the swanky new football joint.
The Conference USA-Mountain West full football merger's been put off, but C-USA does have its own football championship game. Football motivates the movement these days. Conference USA includes Marshall (FIU's conqueror in the 2011 Beef O'Brady's Bowl), Tulsa (Jerry Rhome, Dolphins Very Good Howard Twilley), Lousiana Tech (Terry Bradshaw), Southern Mississippi (Favre); UTEP. All should be better draws than Sun Belt teams and bring more folks with them.
Senior Katie Mundy, who finished second after a playoff for the individual Sun Belt title, has been invited to the NCAA East Regional at Penn State next week.
A few things from today's introduction of Richard Pitino as FIU men's basketball coach:
It was an eclectic group attending the media session: the usual athletic department folks; a few players stopped their informal shootaround on the court below to check out the new guy; former director of basketball operations Hashim Ali Alauddeen was there.
Afterwards, Lekan Ajayi was brought in to meet Pitino and they were exchanging smiles and polite chatter as I left. Ajayi, a transfer from Wyoming, will be eligible after the 2012 fall semester. The 6-11 center got an 89 rating out of 100 by ESPN Scouts and was considered a coup for Wyoming. Smart move by Pitino. He said he hadn't spoken to any 2012 recruits yet, but might want to get on the phone with 6-4 Milton Doyle out of Chicago Marshall. You never know how recruits will flower or wilt in college, but The Chicago Tribune named Doyle third team All-State, a nice honor in a traditionally strong basketball area. If Pitino has to start over, he could do worse than those two guys.
Pitino also vowed to have an up-tempo team that would be fun for fans and players. I don't doubt it. He's only four years older than the three-point shot in college ball. It's no accident his dad's first Final Four team, 1987 Providence, came in the first year of the three. Rick Pitino resurrected Kentucky in the 1990s by being one of the first coaches to make the three-pointer part of his team's offensive nucleus. But have you ever noticed no coach comes in saying, "We're going to be a walk-it-up, half-court team that takes four passes on each half-court possession before we shoot?"
I got a solid "maybe" that sounded like a probably not when I asked Pitino former longtime Miami Pace High coach Mark Lieberman, Louisville's Director of Basketball Operations, would be joining his staff.
I asked Pitino about the transition from the Kentuckiana area, where the game rules to an extent that it's just called "ball," to building support for the No. 2 or 3 Division I program in area that's the statistically worst large US metro area for college basketball. He replied, "Winning is important. Playing hard and doing things the right way is important. We've got to do a great job of recruiting. We've got to do a great job of developing players. We've got to do a great job of getting out in the community and meeting as many people as possible. The great thing about FIU is with 46,000 students, there's a lot of alumni, a lot of people throughout the community who are dying to support this program."
Sunday night at the Panthers playoff game (that's hockey, folks), a few of us who knew we'd be at the first appearance of Pitino (whenever it happened) hoped Pete Garcia either wouldn't be there or would be available in separate media session or one-on-one discussions. If he's on the podium with Pitino, we sighed, Pitino has to sit there while we ask questions about the Isiah Thomas firing and the scholarship releases.
(And, no, we can't just not ask because that would violate basic journalistic common sense and get us gutted by any editor not too busy to do his job).
Sure enough, after opening statements -- yes, Garcia did mention "national championship" again and I'm thinking, "how about just 10 wins on a regular basis?" -- Tim Reynolds of The Associated Press asked why the firings took so long to happen and why did they happen?
“I appreciate the question. I said in the release (10 days) ago, I want to thank Isiah and his staff for the three yars they put in to help put in to help build this program. I’ll always be grateful to his staff. I appreciate everything they did. However, I’m going to stick with that statement for right now. Today is about Richard Petino and FIU basketball going forward. But I want tos ay this: I'm grateful and thankful to Isiah Thomas and his staff for the work they did here for three years."
Tim followed up by asking if Monday was about going forward, what about the players who've asked to be released from their scholarship...?
"That's an NCAA procedure," Garcia said. "I'll have coach address it in a second. Obviously, our interest is for the players to stay here and get their degrees. There is a process that goes on. But I'll let coach address how he feels about it."
Pitino took the baton and said, "The most important thing for us with these guys signed up to play basketball at FIU is to get their degree. For us, that's the most important thing. They’ve got a week left of school, then they’ve got finals. They need to focus on finishing up strongly in the classroom and studying for their finals. And They’ve got to get to know me. They’re not going to want to play for me without even knowing me. The most important thing for me the first couple of days is to be around these guys as much as possible.
"They’re going to have to be recruited a little bit. I certainly understand that. I’m fully confident I can do that. At the end of the day, the most important thing for these guys is they're provided the opportunity to do well in the classroom and finish up strong.”
Garcia chimed back in, "One of the things that Isiah taught these players was loyalty. I appreciate and respect their loyalty that they're showing. I'm grateful for that, too."
Then, I asked when first contact was made with Pitino, how many applicants did he speak to and was first contact made at the Final Four? Garcia was there. So was Pitino, as a Louisville assistant. Less than a week later, the axes fell. Nine days after that, Pitino had the job.
"I was at the Final Four. I didn't hlod the Final Four results against Coach Petino. I did make contact wtih him on Tuesday of last week. I did not talk to anyone for about four or five days. We gathered information, we went through resumes, we did our due diligence, we narrowed it down to a number of finalists and started bringing them in last Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. After that process was done, sat down with the administration here and we made our final decision."
Senior Katie Mundy leads the field at the Sun Belt Conference Championships with a 3-under 69 after the first day. FIU is fourth as a team.
In the wake of the coaching staff's firing Friday, several men's basketball players have asked for release from their scholarships and have been denied by the school -- for the moment. Players have appealed via e-mailed letter to a higher FIU power, FIU President Mark Rosenberg, and some hope to get their release by the end of the week after meetings with FIU staffers.
According to a source close to FIU, a school asking about one of the players was told in an e-mail by FIU that it was against athletic department policy to release players from scholarships during a coaching search.
One player I spoke to today said some players wanted to meet whomever the new coach will be, but desired their release just to keep their options open.
Joey de La Rosa, on the other hand, said he's transferring because, "Coach Thomas was my guy, loyalty is the key" at the start of a passionate defense of the coaching staff that focused mostly on the way the staff influenced kids off the court. Sophomore forward Dominique Ferguson also said this would be his last semester at FIU.
Sources say starting guard Phil Taylor also has asked for his release.
"I'm sure they feel like they had the rug pulled out from under them," Thomas said Wednesday night. "I'm sure whereever they go, they'll be assets to their school. I'm deeply humbled. I love those guys."
Thomas also said, "The unity and commitment they've shown each other in this tough time only strengthens my belief that next year was going to be a great year for us."
Whether or not that's accurate, expect those committed for next year, including Chicago's Milton Doyle, to head elsewhere.The next coach could come in with a stripped down roster and taking the table scraps in recruiting.
This is the full text of a letter sent to FIU Presdent Rosenberg:
Dear President Rosenberg, FIU Administrators, Faculty, Staff and Media:
We are writing this letter in regards to a few concerns we have surrounding the firing of our coach, Isiah Thomas, and his staff. First, we would like to explain that on Monday night at the Sports Banquet, we meant no disrespect to our university or anyone in attendance, but only wished to exercise our human right to protest and support our coach and mentors in a time of grief. Our staff taught us five values -- Honesty, Loyalty, Belief, Sacrifice and Trust -- so I am sure you can see that our “silent protest” stems from these excellent principles.
Our main concerns that we wish someone to address include why Coach Thomas and his staff were fired and why it was done in such an ugly fashion? Nobody in this university has sat down and given a thorough explanation as to why they were dismissed. This is very troubling because even though we are athletes we are still humans and have rights which should be respected. What is confusing is if Coach Thomas was fired for losing games, he is not alone in fault because we were the ones playing the games. He was given five years to fix an existing problem, and then it was cut to three. The team he had coming in next year was young but by far his best class. Neither he nor we got the opportunity to finish what we started and have no explanation as to why our goal was cut short by this university.
We also ask someone to look into why Coach Thomas and his staff had to be humiliated by being told they were fired and to pack their belongings immediately, with no explanation of what was going on in front of our team and other FIU staff members. It was quite embarrassing for us to witness and hurtful. They deserved a better way to leave. It is already embarrassing being fired.
We would like everyone to know that we came to FIU not only to gain an education and play basketball but also to be mentored by Coach Thomas. This is why we are extremely upset about his firing; we lost not a coach but a mentor. Maybe you are not knowledgeable of the many things that Coach Thomas has done in helping develop us as young men. These things don’t show up on the scoreboard at FIU but do show up on the scoreboard of life. There are too many to discuss but we will mention to you one of the most important ones he did and that you can investigate.
Please contact the writers of a book Coach Thomas suggested we read, “Out of Bounds, When Scholarship Athletes become Academic Scholars” by Dr. Jabari Mohair and Dr. Derek Van Rheenen from UC Berkeley. Not only did Coach Thomas tell us about this book but on multiple occasions he brought these authors to FIU to lead academic workshops which stimulated our minds and helped us to understand what it is to be a true scholar athlete. These workshops were also attended by FIU faculty and students who were not athletes. Even NBA All Star Amare Stoudemire sat in the workshops which lasted over a weekend. But, more amazing is that not only did Coach Thomas and his staff participate in the workshops but Coach Thomas has led by example by taking classes in sports and education with the professors via Skype. He also was admitted into the MA program at Berkeley in the School of Education. He was not only telling us to go to class but served as a role model by being a student himself. Please reach out and ask these professors about our team and coach and how education and mentoring was the focal point of his short tenure, not winning on the court but in changing lives. Coach would tell us that “our record may be losing on the court, but that will change in time but our graduation rate is 17-2 which is more important”. This is the Isiah we know and love not the one which the media attempts to destroy. If they brought their cameras and notepads into these workshops they may find it beneficial to report on how sports should be used to build character not destroy it.
Lastly, the AD of FIU told us only that Coach Thomas was fired because “we are going in another direction,” and we respect his decision even though we disagree with it. Every human has a right for “freedom of choice” which is a given not a privilege. We chose to come to FIU for at least 5 years to be mentored, play basketball and enjoy college life. FIU has given us a great opportunity and is a fine university. We have appreciated our time here.
Yet, some of us have asked to be released from the school and have been rejected by the AD. We ask that with our mentor being fired you to give us the freedom of choice to “move in another direction.” Please help us receive our athletic “releases” so that we can find a coach and program which will be a good fit in our growth. America has many fine universities to choose from, and we only wish to have the option of staying here or finding a place which has a coach that will continue in the same tradition as Coach Thomas. Even if FIU was to hire another ex- NBA coach that would not change our feelings about leaving because we did not come here thinking Isiah Thomas was going to take us to the NBA. But the person of Isiah Thomas as a mentor is what was important in our decision.
In one of our meetings with the Professors we learned that “when an athletic department uses players as commodities it loses its moral leadership”. We hope that this school sees us not as “bodies” but “minds” which can grow develop and become productive citizens of the world.
FIU men’s Basketball Team
Athletic director Pete Garcia hasn't responded to calls or text messages the last few days, blowing up the basketball coaching staff then going underground like the athletic director of The Weathermen. Which brings to mind the first rap song...
All of the above overshadowns FIU senior Ashley McClain being named one of the 25 finalists for this year's USA Softball Collegiate Player of the Year.
McClain's hitting .419 with a .667 slugging percentage. She leads the team with nine doubles, five home runs, 29 RBI and a .534 on-base percentage that's 12th in the nation. She's one home run from tying the school record for career homers.
FIU dealt No. 6-ranked Louisiana-Lafayette only its second loss of the season Tuesday before being shut out Wednesday.
What next? A return to the NBA? Recently fired FIU men's basketball coach Isiah Thomas said he needed to "take a couple of days to digest this."
"My plan today was to take a recruit out to dinner," Thomas laughed darkly hours after he and the FIU men's basketball coaching staff had been sacked.
Thomas said he had been interviewing a candidate to replace resigned assistant coach Frank Holloway when he got the call from FIU athletic director Pete Garcia using that euphemism "we're going in a different direction."
(And a hilarious euphemism it is. A pro sports radio play-by-play announcer heard that phrase as he was fired and laughed, "What, going in the direction of not having a play-by-play announcer?")
Thomas felt as if he really had only two years to turn FIU around because he was hired on Signing Day three years ago, essentially eliminating a recruiting season. He didn't go into this, but it's worth saying -- when he was hired, FIU wasn't just a program with a long tradition of losing amidst total apathy on campus and in the metropolitan area toward college basketball. Also, the program had its piece of the probation under which the whole athletic department labored since 2006. It's a program with no regular local radio broadcasts and no television.
The record says that hasn't changed much: 26-65 in three seasons, 14-36 in the Sun Belt and the Sun Belt record breakdown went 4-14, 5-11, 5-11. A 2-9 home record this season and eight wins overall was inexcusable considering FIU pulled off some shocking road wins.
Rarely have I seen a team that so often lapsed into dumb basketball for five to seven-minute blocs as this year's FIU men. Some teams have occasional brain farts and other teams live in a state of terminal brain flatulation. But this was a team that seemed to suffer rolling synapse blackouts. That points to coaching, but, at some point, players have to take some responsibility for that.
"But we're playing with freshmen and sophomores," Thomas pointed out. "At no place in the country do you walk in and win with freshmen and sophomores unless it's Kentucky freshmen and sophomores. The close games we lost, those are the games freshmen and sophomores lose."
A team with no margin for error got kneecapped with an injury that took out its best player, guard DeJuan Wright, for several games midseason. They lost power forward Tola Akamolafe to academic ineligibility sources say stemmed from bad advice given him. While we're on that track, other Camp Mitch sources said during the year FIU delivered academic rejections to point guard K.C. Ross-Miller and North Texas' dazzling Tony Mitchell. Too risky. To be fair, each got academically bumped from LSU and Missouri, respectively. But FIU's got athletes just as academically questionable competing in other sports.
As far as academics, 17 of 19 players graduated in Thomas' three years at FIU. Not surprising -- the man spent six NBA offseasons going back to school until he got his degree and is still taking graduate courses 25 years later. He doesn't pay lip service to academics. He cares about the books far more than the average college basketball or football coach. Would he bring in an academic risk? Yep. Would he also get angry if that kid or any other kid wasn't pushed to attain their academic potential or got lazy about it? Yep.
I asked him if he thought FIU was ready as a program and athletic department overall to be a consistent 18-20-win team that could contend for the NCAAs regularly out of the Sun Belt. He said he thought so with Myers, Chicago's Milton Doyle and Tim Williams coming in next year and four of the state's top 50 recruits verbally committed for 2013.
Next year's team won't have Wright or Jeremy Allen for leadership. As of now, it will have Phil Taylor moving to shooting guard, a more natural position for him, and five players 6-9 and over (if they all stay, post-Thomas): Brandon Moore, Dominique Ferguson, Joey De La Rosa, Gilles Dierickx and transfer Lekan Ajayi.
Here are some things from a Monday night conversation I had with FIU AD Pete Garcia.
His reaction to the day's events: "Rutgers handled everything in a professional manner. I'm very happy Mario decided to stay. I agree with him that he's building something special here."
"Obviously, money isn't everything, especially when you're like Mario, who's from down here, who has worked down here to build something over the last five years."
When I asked about the still-ongoing talks for another deal, he said, "We've talked about things, but this wasn't a leverage thing. It was never about that."
Nobody knows completely what's going on in Cristobal's head. But I find myself thinking of my Herald colleague Dan LeBatard, a 43-year-old Cuban-American born, raised, educated, working for 22 years of post-college life in South Florida where he has family. Dan has said often -- and I know it to be true -- that he's had a number of opportunities to leave South Florida for much more lucrative, higher profile jobs in sports media, but he stays because he's happy in this area.
Cristobal is a 41-year-old Cuban-American born, raised, educated and working for most of the last 20 years in South Florida, where he has family. He works for an AD that he's known for 20 years and has a program he rebuilt and of which he's emperor. He and I have talked about that moment on the drive home to Miami Beach when you're coming over one of the causeway crests and you take in the beautiful breadth of the bay, boats, buildings. You can't help but smile and think how lucky you are to be driving toward that scene every day because it's home.
Take care of yourselves out there -- there's stomach virus going around, dropping kids and adults like Sonny Liston in a bad mood on a good day.
They might still be hammering, painting and punch-listing stuff inside The Branch as the entrance renovations and suite(s) debut today. And it won't look finished until there's no more oversized Tonka stuff digging up the northeast corner of the arena area or the landscaping is truly finished on the southeast side.
But, hey, this is Miami-Dade County, where basic contracting has recently advanced all the way to 1968 ("Maybe the gate to the garage doesn't work because your windshield is too thick") and waiting for projects to finish could've been the inspiration for the Chinese Restaurant episode of Seinfeld. So, while we have the Acronym Agony Shootout inside today between two men's teams just trying to get themselves together for the Sun Belt Tournament, FIU should count itself lucky the building's Just For Men treatment got done in time.
Speaking of today's men's game, it's on The Sun Belt Network and (my shallow understanding is) blacked out locally on ESPN3.com because it's on The Sun Belt Network. That's mimosas and white sangria if you have Comcast Cable, which has The Sun Belt Network. It's you and the kid with a stomach virus if you don't.
TV's also why the men's game open's for the women's game today. Of course, had the scheduling been done by record, it also would've been a situation in which the women's teams, the two with the over .500 records, could've told the men, "Go warm 'em up for us."
As mentioned, neither FIU or FAU, the men's preseason conference favorite, is having the level of success of even its most reasonable hopes. Some of you have asked about Isiah Thomas' job security. My sense is Thomas, who'll have two years left on his contract after this season, is more likely to fire FIU than FIU is to fire Thomas. Dealing with off court, paper wrangler mistakes such as the eligibility problems of forward Tola Akomolafe, who didn't stumble in any of his classes according to an athletic department source familiar with the situation, are the type of thing that can cause someone who doesn't need the job to say, "To Compton with this crap."
FIU sports long have been hindered on the field/court/pitch is that the school always seems to be playing catch up in the offices and board rooms. They went Division I in basketball without the proper infrastructure. They did the same in football. They've lost tournament bids, favorable rulings on transfers, etc. out of political weakness. Whatever you want to say about Pete Garcia, he brings a political savvy and a knowledge of relationship value to the FIU athletic department that's been arid in that area for years.
On Garcia: he feels there are certain sports FIU just should be winners in just on being in South Florida -- golf, tennis, soccer (I'd debate that one), baseball, football. And he wants to be a power in sand volleyball, which the NCAA has added for spring.
"I've emphasized it and here's why: I want to win," Garcia said. "It's a new sport. No school has a 100-year head start on us. No school has a winning tradition over us. No school has better facilities than us -- everybody's building the same facilities. And, there's only a couple of regions in this country that can have as good a weather and South Beach for sand volleyball. You add that up and we should be very competitive, very quickly at the highest level because we don't have those things to overcome. We're not trying to catch anybody and we have some advantages they don't have at Nebraska. Michigan."
I asked him why FIU basketball games aren't on the radio anymore. FAU's on 760AM up in Palm Beach. Even Nova Southeastern has its games on the air, 640AM.
"You've got to be a superfan to listen to FIU radio basketball. And if you're really that superfan, we've got to do everything we can to get you here," Garcia replied. "And remember, radio is expensive -- they're not paying us. We'd have to pay them to be on the radio. You've got to buy the time. It's an expense. How much are you getting out of that expense? Are you better off spending that money on marketing, promotions, the low hanging fruit. What's our low hanging fruit? Our students, right there in the dorms. Let's use that money, buy pizzas, let's do this or that, let's promote it over there right across the street and let's get them to come."
FIU got the doubles point to take a 1-0 lead on No. 14 Clemson in the women's tennis season opener. Then, Clemson went West Virginia-on-Clemson on FIU, taking the six singles matches to win 6-1. Karyn Guttormsen and Giuletta Boha won their doubles match and Lisa Johnson and Christine Seredni won theirs.
She threw it down on so many tunes for so long. But this is the one that, to me, not only fit romance (wife and I had a second "first dance" to it at our wedding in 1999), but for any athlete who ever won a long pursued championship.