FIU athletic director Pete Garcia spent halftime of Friday night’s ‘home opener’ at Legion Field watching CNN’s latest update on Hurricane Irma and its destructive path toward South Florida with a worried look on his face.
“I have no idea when we’ll be heading back home,” said Garcia, who was not only talking about FIU’s football team, but all 170 student-athletes in eight sports who made the trip to Birmingham to get out of the storm’s way. “It all depends on how bad this really ends up being. But it’s not looking great.”
Even with most of the 5,017 fans in attendance cheering for the ‘road team’ and the threat of a dangerous storm affecting the lives of their families a topic hard to ignore, the Panthers found a way to get past Alcorn State 17-10 and make coach Butch Davis a winner in his second game as coach.
“I think I can speak for everybody on our team, everybody that lives in Florida, leaving your family behind, that’s really tough,” said linebacker Anthony Wint, a Homestead resident whose mother and grandmother left earlier this week for Georgia to get out of the storm’s path.
“But I think Coach Davis and our whole staff did a good job of making sure we just worried about these 60, 70 plays before focusing on anything else after. Tunnelvision, I think we did a good job of that.”
Wint led FIU’s defense with six tackles. After giving up 31 first downs and 587 yards of total offense in their 61-17 season-opening loss at UCF on Aug. 31, FIU’s defense allowed only 12 first downs and 269 yards of total offense.
If not for a 43-yard missed field goal by Jose Borregales on the game’s opening drive and a first-half fumble by receiver Thomas Owens at the Alcorn State two-yard-line, FIU might have had an easier time Friday night with the Braves, an FCS program that has won the Eastern Division of the Southwestern Athletic Conference each of the last two years.
Quarterback Alex McGough’s one-yard sneak with 1:12 to play turned out to be the difference for the Panthers, who rolled up 465 yards total offense and 26 first downs in a vastly different peformance than a week ago.
“We gave Coach Davis a game ball after the game,” said McGough, who finished 21 of 33 passing for 328 yards and led the game-winning seven-play, 80-yard drive after a 49-yard field goal by Alcorn State’s Corey McCullough had tied the score at 10 with 3:54 to play.
“We love him and he loves us. We couldn’t be happier with Coach.”
Friday’s game was first scheduled to be played Saturday night at Riccardo Silva Stadium on campus. But once it became a strong possibility Irma was on its way toward South Florida Garcia said he and FIU administrators began making plans to move as many student-athletes out of harms way as they could.
At first, Garcia said the plan was to send them to Atlanta. But Mark Ingram, the athletic director at the University of Alabama-Birmingham, called him Monday and told him to bring FIU’s athletes to town so they could not only escape the storm but also continue to practice using UAB’s facilities. Being able to play the game against Alcorn State, Davis said, was simply a bonus.
The football team took a chartered flight to Birmingham Wednesday and a chartered bus carrying another 90 student-athletes from the swimming and diving team, men’s and women’s soccer teams, men’s and women’s basketball teams, and women’s tennis and golf teams left FIU Thursday morning. The bus made its way up congested highways like the rest of the state’s 5.6 million hurricane evacuees and finally arrived in Birmingham early Friday morning.
Many of those same student-athletes in other sports who were on the chartered bus for nearly 24 hours could be heard chanting for FIU after McGough’s go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter.
“I heard them out there,” McGough said. “It was good to have them there. After the game, they said good job and stuff. It’s a fun time really when so much bad is happening and there’s something you can look on and be positive about.”
Like athletes in other sports at FIU, not every football player made the trip to Birmingham, Davis said.
“We had several players that did not make the trip just because they had family members that could not be left alone,” he said. “One of them had a 10-year-old brother he had to stay and take care of. Several of them had grandparents that were elderly and they had nobody else on the planet to make sure they were safe and taken care of. Our hearts and prayers go out to the ones we had to leave behind to take care of family members. Hopefully we’ll be blessed and it will miss a big part of Florida and dissipate and we won’t be reading about enormous casualties.”
Garcia said FIU’s student-athletes will stay in Birmingham and continue using the facilities there until a safe resolution for their return to South Florida can be reached. The football team plays at Indiana Sept. 16 and at Rice Sept. 23. The team is not scheduled to play at home again until Sept. 30 against Charlotte.
“My first year at Miami in 1984 with Jimmy Johnson our first four games were on the road,” he said. “We played Auburn in the kickoff classic. Then we played Florida in Tampa. Then Michigan in the Big House. The fourth game we had to go to Purdue and play. It’s like being in the NBA: You’re on a long road trip. If we had a train we’d just go around the country and just play somebody I guess.”