FIU football

FIU Panthers take a step back

 

A year after firing Mario Cristobal, the Panthers regressed on the field and suffered a drop in fan interest.

dneal@MiamiHerald.com

Thursday marks one year since FIU executive director for sports and entertainment Pete Garcia shocked FIU fans, local and national media by firing football coach Mario Cristobal.

Though a personality clash certainly came into play, Garcia’s stated reasoning was that FIU, after rising from 1-11 to consecutive bowls in 2010 and 2011, was moving backwards: 8-14 in the Panthers’ previous 22 games, including 3-9 in 2012.

In the year since the firing, FIU won one game, saw a rise in official attendance and a precipitous drop in actual attendance.

Cristobal’s firing, the hiring of Ron Turner and the general state of FIU football this season — which was worse, losing 72-0 at Louisville or 34-13 at home to FCS school, Bethune-Cookman? — prompted some FIU fans to adopt “Fire PG” as their motto (along with starting a website, firepetegarcia.com, that also has a Facebook page).

“FIU seemed to be rolling along there recently until somebody fired the wrong coach and they took a step back,” opined former University of Miami and Florida Atlantic coach Howard Schnellenberger.

Meanwhile, the coaching staff that eventually got fired in its entirety (the last two assistants weren’t fired until National Signing Day in February) saw their parachutes blown, generally, to good situations.

Of the 10 full-time coaches fired, nine found other coaching jobs for the 2013 season. Six found jobs at FBS schools. One got hired at an FCS school. Three got assistant jobs at the junior college level.

Besides Cristobal — now offensive line coach at 11-1 Alabama — former assistant Alex Mirabal is preparing Marshall’s offensive line for the Conference USA championship game. Marshall ranks sixth in scoring offense nationally.

But the coaching staff of the year in C-USA might be former UM coach Larry Coker’s staff at Texas-San Antonio, where Jeff Popovich coaches defensive backs, as he did at FIU. In UTSA’s third season as a program and first in FBS, the Roadrunners went 7-5, 6-2 in C-USA.

That’s not the kind of season FIU experienced as a C-USA newcomer. A staff hurriedly constructed by Turner played from behind in recruiting, then dealt with a number of academic and discipline issues throughout the spring, summer and early fall of 2013.

Turner felt shorthanded on players throughout a season that seemed to reset FIU’s program where it was the first year under Cristobal, 2007.

Well, not totally, as 2007 was the last season before the opening of FIU Stadium. Attendance there this season, officially, outstripped the record. Unofficially, it undercut the record on the field.

According to FIU’s response to a Herald public records request, 10,569 season tickets were sold in 2012. The average paid attendance per game was 12,146. The average official attendance, which counts the free-entry students and all tickets distributed and sold, was 13,634.

This season, only eight of 16 suites were sold to entities outside the school. Season ticket sales stood at 10,045 through Sept. 9 according to FIU’s reply to a Herald public records request.

Numbers say one thing. Eyesight tells another.

FIU sold 1,107 single game seats for a Friday night home game against Central Florida, which drew a packed house for a Saturday night game in 2011. For the loss to Bethune-Cookman, FIU sold 2,618 single game seats. The official attendance average for the season: 15,453.

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