Back when flat-tops ran the court, FIU’s men’s basketball coaches used to snip bitterly that they could recruit in Detroit easier than they could in Miami-Dade County. While that has changed for basketball, some current Florida International University coaches find it’s as easy to recruit “International” as “Florida.”
Easier in some cases.
“We have a better chance to get a higher level of kid internationally than we do domestically,” FIU swimming and diving coach Randy Horner said.
FIU men’s soccer coach Scott Calabrese agreed. Calabrese thought FIU could compete for top international players with Promethean programs such as North Carolina or UCLA.
“That’s probably more the case than with the domestic players, who have a better sense of the pecking order of the major programs like a UNC or UCLA or a mid-major program like FIU,” he said.
Women’s sports such as tennis, golf and sand volleyball all need more student visas than Sun Passes. Former women’s basketball coach Cindy Russo beat almost everybody but McDonald’s into Eastern Europe once it opened up in the early 1990s and the roster still reflects it — five from Florida and four international, including second-leading scorer Janka Hegedus of Hungary.
There’s no question the fine Wedgewood in FIU’s athletic cupboard got imported. FIU might have the only swimming and diving team that got pulled out to draw fans to a football game and a season-opening basketball doubleheader. The squad always ranks among FIU’s top teams academically and brought home FIU’s first Conference USA team championship in any sport last February. Last Friday, FIU edged 44th- ranked Kansas in a three-way meet. (Also, no team supports its fellow athletes more — swimmers were half the student section at last week’s women’s basketball near-huge upset of Western Kentucky.)
And 17 of the 25 team members come from outside the United States. Six of the remaining eight are from Florida. Foreign-born swimmers hold all of FIU’s individual records.
When you look at international recruiting, we are somewhat advantaged because of our location. Miami is a really well-known city everywhere. The climate is a huge advantage for us as well as the city.
Scott Calabrese, FIU men’s soccer coach
The demographics come with a simple explanation to Horner: omnipresent merchandising and mass media noise favors the well-known schools from the so-called Power Five conferences.
“Sometimes, [recruits] will sacrifice what kind of scholarship or even what kind of contribution they can have to their program because they want to wear that shirt,” Horner said. “Take it further, their parents. It’s a badge of honor for them where their kid goes because of the culture of athletics in the United States.
“Then, sometimes, I feel a club coach wants to put their athletes where it’s going to be more marketable for their parents,” he continued. “So if they place a bunch of kids at schools that are more brand name, that’s marketable to the parents — ‘Look how many kids I placed at these large Power Five or whatever you want to call them schools.’ ”
While Horner feels like he’s fighting lifelong brainwashing with top U.S. swimmers, “International recruits? Cut past all that. They haven’t grown up around any of that. First time they’re hearing about most of their universities is when they get a little older. If they’re into U.S. sports, they might know about some of the more prestigious universities. But you’re not fighting a lifelong marketing campaign. We have a better shot. They’ll listen to the objective, what you can do for them, what are the opportunities. They look at the black and white without all the propaganda, I think.”
Also, a U.S. teenager being recruited by, say, Auburn and FIU hears “Auburn of the SEC” vs. “FIU of … the Sun Belt? Conference USA?” A teenager from Europe or South America with the same two schools in his/her ear is more likely to hear “Auburn, Alabama” vs. “Miami, Florida, South Beach,” etc.
“When you look at international recruiting, we are somewhat advantaged because of our location. Miami is a really well-known city everywhere,” Calabrese said. “The climate is a huge advantage for us as well as the city.”
Four years ago, FIU athletic director Pete Garcia said with the South Florida talent base, FIU should be good in tennis, soccer and golf. Since then, golf won the 2013 Sun Belt Conference title and had the individual medalist at the 2015 Conference USA meet. Men’s soccer took the 2015 Conference USA championship.
But the championship golf team’s roster numbered five international, two Florida. FIU’s top player then and the record-setting Conference USA medalist two years later came from England, Cambridge’s Meghan MacLaren. Men’s soccer counts a 14-9 majority for Florida, with two All-Region players (Miami Killian High’s Daniel Gonzalez, Parkland Douglas’ Luis Betancur) from nearby and another, defender Marvin Hezel, from Germany.
Women’s soccer coach Thomas Chestnutt thinks South Florida, though improving, produces one or two blue chip women’s players each year as opposed to 10 or 15 for men’s soccer. The pre-eminence of Florida, Florida State and Miami in the ACC — “traditionally the best conference in the country for women’s soccer. That recruits itself” — leaves him no choice.
“In order to get the kids you need, you have to look elsewhere,” Chestnutt said. “You have to look outside the state and outside the country. It’s very competitive. Before, maybe five or six years ago, going outside the country, you’d be recruiting a kid and you’d be the only one recruiting that kid. Not now. Now, you’re battling everybody else for the same kids.”
FIU coaches never fail to say they’d love to have more Floridians on the roster. Then again, they also know no bonus clauses or new contracts get earned for the number of “Fs” or “Is” they get. Only Ws.
A look at how many members of each team are from the state of Florida and how many are from outside the U.S.:
Swimming and diving
**Plus two from Puerto Rico; *Plus one from Puerto Rico