FIU Stadium stands as metaphor for the Pete Garcia Era of FIU athletics.
In 2006, the stadium existed as concept and dirt, much as FIU’s athletic department lay in the dirt academically and in image as Garcia took the athletic director position. The stadium opened in 2008 as the department got to its feet.
Now, the final enclosing of the north side creates a compact, flawed stadium with room to grow — there are moorings for second-deck support columns — as FIU is a compact, flawed program with room to grow. This academic year is not just the last for FIU in the Sun Belt Conference before moving into Conference USA, but it is the first after serving the NCAA punishments for problems that prompted Garcia’s hiring.
Now, FIU makes a quantum chomp into the lead of more established athletic programs or plateaus under its sometimes Machiavellian director.
“We don’t have the resources of the other state schools, Florida, Florida State. But I expect, at some point, to compete with them,” Garcia said. “I probably can’t do it with 10cents on the dollar, but I can do it with 30 cents on the dollar. If we hire the right coaches with the support we have here, we can do it.
“It’s all about recruiting, whether you’re recruiting a spouse, a coach or a kid. To bridge the gap, you’ve got to have relentless recruiting as coaches.”
Arkansas State athletic director Dr. Dean Lee knows the view from Garcia’s chair, somewhat. Just as Garcia must deal with the presence of the University of Miami, Florida and Florida State, Lee has Arkansas in state, LSU over the border and all manner of Texas schools over the border in another direction.
“I think he’s a tremendous visionary,” Lee said of Garcia. “He really sees the big picture. He’s got big aspirations and big goals. He’s been able to put all the pieces in place to make that thing to grow and explode down there and he’s done a great job with it.”
And there’s potential for a landmark season in the highest profile college-affiliated sport, football, coached by Garcia’s first coaching hire, Mario Cristobal. How important is that for FIU and the athletic department, funded greatly by student fees?
The school wants to reach 60,000 students. Yet, its national profile remains such that the game program for last year’s football game at Louisville placed FIU in Tampa. During the ESPN telecast, FIU wide receiver T.Y. Hilton scored on two long touchdown plays and an FIU athlete was trending on Twitter — worldwide.
“When I got here, I never saw anybody wearing anything FIU and I’ve lived here my whole life, except five years,” Garcia said. “Now, you go around town, and everybody’s starting to wear their colors. Why? Because there’s pride. Are you going to wear ‘FIU’ if your team went 0-12? But you start having success and they start coming out of the closet.”
Said Cristobal: “In terms of football, the best thing he’s done for us is he lets us do what we need to do. I don’t know how it is at other places around the country, but sometimes, there’s a lot of interference with what’s going on. Pete makes sure he’s not involved in personnel or [assistant] coaching hires.”