At age 12, FIU football is an adolescent.
And acting like one.
Impulsive. Moody. Unreliable. Impressionable. Eager to please. Overconfident. Underconfident. Confused. Confusing.
Best of luck to parent Ron Turner, who made his home debut as FIU’s newest coach Friday in a 38-0 loss to UCF.
Don Strock got FIU through an exhausting infancy. Mario Cristobal oversaw its rocky youth. Now it’s up to Turner to lead the maturation process.
So far, not so good. But FIU was the underdog in its first two games, and no one was surprised that Panthers underclassmen surrendered 576 yards in a 43-10 loss at Maryland and 390 yards to UCF.
The Cage — the nickname for Alfonso Field at FIU Stadium — was rattling early but emptying out by the third quarter. Next week, when Bethune Cookman visits, FIU will try to restore the roar on campus.
It’s been missing for a year. Last season, when things turned sour during a seven-game losing streak and got nasty when Cristobal was fired following a 3-9 dud, the buzz surrounding FIU football went splat.
Turner represents a fresh start. Certainly, he has the authority and know-how to restore the promise that flashed in FIU’s bowl seasons of 2010 and 2011. He turned around Illinois in 2001 and was named Big Ten Coach of the Year. His 36 years as a coach include 12 in the NFL as an assistant, with a particular expertise teaching quarterbacks. He came to FIU from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, where Josh Freeman set franchise records for passing.
Turner, younger brother of NFL coach Norv, has worked with Chuck Pagano, Lovie Smith, Dave Wannstedt, Dennis Green and Jackie Sherill. He’s been to the Super Bowl and eight college bowl games. If any coach has seen the right way to do things, the wrong way and every way in between, it is Turner. He gives FIU massive experience.
This young football program, like this young university, is still forming an identity.
For now, though, FIU’s team is in regression mode. On the field, FIU looked somewhat better in Week 2 than it did in Week 1.
“We still made too many mistakes but definitely some improvement,” Turner said. “We make a couple plays, we get a spark. I believe in this team.”
But on Friday, the nation’s two best high school teams, who were squaring off nearby, probably could have beaten FIU. Central and Booker T. Washington, ranked No. 1 in different polls, showed how great Miami football is played at Traz Powell Stadium.
FIU trailed 24-0 at halftime, was consistently two steps behind UCF, dropped passes and missed a field goal because of a high snap.
In the second half, the Panthers got a drive going to midfield, but another errant snap and fumble resulted in a UCF recovery at FIU’s 17-yard line. Four plays later, another UCF touchdown. FIU had only a whisper of a ground game. Quarterback Jake Medlock was hassled on nearly every play. The Panthers struggled to convert on third down and were 0 for 1 in the red zone.
Those are merely the on-field issues, and are correctable. Thirty-seven of the 62 players on Turner’s game roster were freshmen or sophomores. Four Panthers on defense and seven Panthers on offense started for the first time at Maryland.
FIU’s serious problems have occurred off the field. They’ve got roots. The number of suspensions and the number of players kicked off the team for academic or conduct issues is alarming. FIU’s roster has already been damaged by the loss of some of its best players, including Richard Leonard, FIU’s top cornerback and return man (grades); wide receiver Glenn Coleman (grades); wide receiver Willis Wright (grades); running back Kedrick Rhodes (gun incident); and running back Jakhari Gore (grades and arrest after altercation with female student).
“They hurt the team by not being accountable, not taking care of business,” Turner said. “And I promise you, we will get that stuff cleared up.”
How did the culture of responsibility on the team deteriorate? Why do kids made senseless mistakes? What went wrong during the transition between coaching staffs? Turner is trying to answer those questions.
“This is a monumental year for FIU athletics,” says Pete Garcia, FIU’s executive director of sports and entertainment — the elongated title gives you an idea of the ambition of the man formerly known as athletic director. But it hasn’t been an auspicious entry into Conference USA.
Garcia fired Cristobal in a controversial move after determining that 2012 was not an anomaly but a giant step backward. Cristobal, very popular in his native South Florida, is now the offensive line coach at Alabama.
Garcia has beefed up his compliance and academic staff and hired “the first known Academic Progress Rate (APR) specialist in the country.” They’ve got their work cut out for them. And so does Turner. He’s got a green team. He is hoping for a growth spurt.