Howard Schnellenberger put the University of Miami football program on the map by recruiting talent from what he called the state of Miami. With Miami at the epicenter, he drew a red circle around South Florida, planted a Hurricane flag in the sand and declared it his territory.
FIU coach Mario Cristobal, born and bred right here, is following a similar strategy. Cristobal, an offensive lineman during UMs heyday, saw first-hand what the savvy Schnellenberger wrought at his alma mater, where he also spent six years as an assistant, persuading local high school players to stay close to home.
Cristobal knows this corner of the Florida peninsula so well he could walk blindfolded from the FIU campus to his mothers house. He knows the inner city and the suburbs, the gated communities and the ones with bars on the windows. He knows the neighborhoods, the parks, the kids, their parents, the youth league coaches, the high school coaches. He knows the streets where the best pickup games are played.
This is not to infer that Cristobal is doing anything against NCAA rules. He is simply familiar and comfortable with the area that shaped his identity.
So he believes there is an abundance of talent to go around, otherwise he would not have accepted and stuck with the task of building something from practically nothing at FIU, which is in its 11th season. Contrast FIUs history with that of its opponent on Thursday night, Arkansas State, which has been playing football for 98 years.
FIU had too many breakdowns against the polished and opportunistic Red Wolves, who won the game 34-20.
As was the case in last seasons 34-16 victory, Arkansas State rode the arm and legs of quarterback Ryan Aplin. FIU was caught looking on big plays, including a 74-yard touchdown pass from Aplin to J.D. McKissic.
When FIU made a big play, it often materialized into nothing. For example, Jeremiah Harden looked very impressive on a 30-yard touchdown sprint with 12 minutes left, except that it was nullified by a holding penalty.
Cristobal is accustomed to competing against teams with tradition to draw upon while he is writing FIUs story from scratch. The program, like the university, is in the middle of a growth spurt. FIU has qualified for two consecutive bowl games, and the school has the seventh largest enrollment in the nation at 50,000.
Still, its bracing to see these numbers: Of FIUs six opponents so far this season, five have a combined 514 seasons of football between them.
FIU is calling this a transition year, which puts the Panthers in the same category as the University of Miami and the Dolphins. The 1-5, 0-2 Panthers are transitioning out of the Sun Belt Conference and learning how to win without the dynamic do-everything T.Y. Hilton.
Cristobal, who is in his sixth year, is determined to take the next step with local players. Like him, they have roots here. Putting FIU on the map is their goal, too.
Quarterback E.J. Hilliard is only a freshman, but he learned the ropes at powerhouse Northwestern under Jacory Harris and Teddy Bridgewater.
Receiver Wayne Times, also of Northwestern, is averaging six catches per game.
Johnathan Cyprien, from North Miami Beach, is second in the conference with nearly 10 tackles per game.
FIUs other defensive stalwarts Winston Fraser of Booker T. Washington, Sam Miller of LaSalle and Tourek Williams of Norland all hail from Miami.
Darian Mallary, a Gulliver grad, is second in touchdowns scored in the conference and added another on Thursday.
Jeremiah Harden, of St. Thomas Aquinas, is among top 10 all-time in rushing yards at FIU.
Hiltons teammate at Miami Springs, Willis Wright, is making his mark as a receiver.
Cristobal is counting on his core to create a second state of Miami on Tamiami Trail.