Mario Cristobal can remember his playing days at Miami’s Christopher Columbus High. He and his teammates would get on the bus to make the trip over to FIU to play games in a stadium that was too small, sat too few people, was too dimly lit and became too muddy with the least bit of rain.
Today, some 25 years later, Cristobal is the FIU coach, and he can look out over those same FIU surroundings and this is what he sees: a squeaky-clean college stadium that seats more than 20,000, has a state-of-the-art playing surface and has modern-day training facilities nearby.
There’s no doubt that Cristobal plans to use the stadium and other new facilities at FIU to attract athletes and keep his school and team moving up the Football Bowl Subdivision ladder. Cristobal has literally seen the present stadium rise from the ground, and at 6 p.m. Saturday that will give him a sense of pride as he leads his team onto that field to take on Akron.
The contest will be FIU’s home opener after a season-opening 46-26 loss at Duke. Akron is 0-1 after a 56-14 thrashing from UCF.
When Cristobal arrived at FIU, the old high school stadium he used to play in — located on the Dade County Youth Fairgrounds — was deemed unacceptable as a college field, so FIU played its games at the Orange Bowl.
Obviously, FIU’s stadium doesn’t have the size, history and atmosphere of the late, great Orange Bowl — few stadiums do. But in 2008, FIU began striving to make a bit of its own history as the team displayed its on-campus stadium for the first time.
“It was incomplete, maybe three-quarters of the way done,” Cristobal remembered of that season. “There wasn’t really a fieldhouse in play yet.”
In addition, the end zone seats were bleachers — actually, they were bleachers that FIU had to rent. Things have improved consistently and considerably.
“Slowly and surely, we’ve been chipping away to continue to upgrade it,” Cristobal said. “And right now, it’s a beautiful-looking place, something that our fans will really share in and really, really enjoy. It creates a nice game-day atmosphere for them.
“Lots of big games in your home stadium — that’s a big part of the growth of a program,” Cristobal added. “Everything just continues on a steady incline.”
As FIU’s attendance has grown, so has the stadium. Since the end of last season, some 3,000 seats have been added to the north side of FIU Stadium to give it a capacity of 20,000. A season ago, the stadium had three sellouts in which it exceeded its 17,000 capacity by selling standing-room-only tickets.
The stadium has been built so a second deck can be added once attendance consistently demands more capacity, and that double-decking would add about 25,000 seats.
These days, huge cranes can be seen just across the street from the stadium as new dorms are being built.
“More beds on campus … more students on campus,” Cristobal said.
He smiled because he didn’t even have to add the final part, which would be, “More fans on campus.”