After winless year, spirits high again at FIU

MIAMI

When those preseason magazines previewing the year in college football hit newsstands, many Florida International players rushed to grab a copy.

Most publications agreed: FIU was ranked 119th in the country out of 119 teams on the list.

“Saying we’re the bottom of the food chain? Now that’s motivation,” linebacker Scott Bryant said.

External expectations simply couldn’t be lower for the Golden Panthers, who are coming off a winless 2006 season, have a new coach in Mario Cristobal and only boast a handful of players with more than one year of college experience. Around the FIU camp, though, they’re talking about hopes of a winning season and contending in the Sun Belt Conference.

Sound crazy? Not to Cristobal, who was part of a rebuilding effort as an assistant at Rutgers and was a standout player and successful, well-thought-of position coach at Miami before taking FIU’s offer to move a few miles west of Coral Gables and become the second-youngest head coach in the country.

“It’s only a matter of time,” Cristobal said. “We’re focused on the process. That’s where all our energy will be focused on the process.”

The process is already in full swing.

Construction has started on the first phase of a new, on-campus stadium, one that’ll hold 18,000 next season and eventually seat about 45,000 plus feature luxury suites when finished. Cristobal has put together one strong recruiting class, is well on his way to another, and has already succeeded in generating interest in a program that joined Duke as the lone 0-12 teams in the nation last year.

“We’re building something here with a solid foundation,” FIU athletic director Pete Garcia said. “It’s not a sprint. It’s a marathon. I really don’t look at the magazines. I see what our coaching staff is doing out there every day. I see what they’re teaching. I see how they’re building men. And I love what they’re doing.”

FIU’s schedule is brutal, with the first four games are all against teams from power conferences. The season opens at Penn State, followed by the home opener such as it is, since all of FIU’s games are at the Orange Bowl this year because of the construction with Maryland the next week.

FIU also heads to Kansas before opening conference play, and there’s a second meeting with Miami whom the Golden Panthers famously brawled with last season on Sept. 15.

“We know what it takes to win now because last year was not a successful season,” said center Xavier Shannon, the son of new Miami head coach Randy Shannon. “So we’re coming into this year, looking at what we did last year, and trying to change absolutely everything by whatever means necessary.”

There is some talent to work with, which always helps. FIU has 15 starters coming back and experience at most critical positions, plus plenty of freshmen who are already competing for playing time.

And it’s not like the Golden Panthers got overmatched every week last season, either. FIU’s first four losses came by a combined 11 points; the Golden Panthers missed extra points in a pair of one-point losses to open the year, lost by five to Bowling Green and had a chance to stun Maryland on the road a week later, but had a pass intercepted near the goal line on the final play of a 14-10 game.

Another missed extra point in Week 6 against North Texas played a role in a wild, 25-22, seven-overtime defeat. Then came the Miami game, its brawl and the 18 suspensions of FIU players that followed, and the season degenerated quickly from there leading to Don Strock’s decision to resign and end his stint as the only coach FIU had known.

“We’re not the 2006 FIU team anymore. It’s 2007,” Bryant said. “What’s in the past is in the past. We’re going to fight, we’re going to compete, we’re going to do whatever we can on every play in every game.”

That’s precisely what Cristobal wants.

“Every single day we talk about the TBAs: trust, belief and accountability,” Cristobal said. “It’s a message we’ve driven home since day one.”

– Associated Press



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