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Pete Garcia puts FIU on the map, wants program to go the distance

FIU Stadium stands as metaphor for the Pete Garcia Era of FIU athletics.

In 2006, the stadium existed as concept and dirt, much as FIU’s athletic department lay in the dirt academically and in image as Garcia took the athletic director position. The stadium opened in 2008 as the department got to its feet.

Now, the final enclosing of the north side creates a compact, flawed stadium with room to grow — there are moorings for second-deck support columns — as FIU is a compact, flawed program with room to grow. This academic year is not just the last for FIU in the Sun Belt Conference before moving into Conference USA, but it is the first after serving the NCAA punishments for problems that prompted Garcia’s hiring.

Now, FIU makes a quantum chomp into the lead of more established athletic programs or plateaus under its sometimes Machiavellian director.

“We don’t have the resources of the other state schools, Florida, Florida State. But I expect, at some point, to compete with them,” Garcia said. “I probably can’t do it with 10cents on the dollar, but I can do it with 30 cents on the dollar. If we hire the right coaches with the support we have here, we can do it.

“It’s all about recruiting, whether you’re recruiting a spouse, a coach or a kid. To bridge the gap, you’ve got to have relentless recruiting as coaches.”

A ‘visionary’

Arkansas State athletic director Dr. Dean Lee knows the view from Garcia’s chair, somewhat. Just as Garcia must deal with the presence of the University of Miami, Florida and Florida State, Lee has Arkansas in state, LSU over the border and all manner of Texas schools over the border in another direction.

“I think he’s a tremendous visionary,” Lee said of Garcia. “He really sees the big picture. He’s got big aspirations and big goals. He’s been able to put all the pieces in place to make that thing to grow and explode down there and he’s done a great job with it.”

And there’s potential for a landmark season in the highest profile college-affiliated sport, football, coached by Garcia’s first coaching hire, Mario Cristobal. How important is that for FIU and the athletic department, funded greatly by student fees?

The school wants to reach 60,000 students. Yet, its national profile remains such that the game program for last year’s football game at Louisville placed FIU in Tampa. During the ESPN telecast, FIU wide receiver T.Y. Hilton scored on two long touchdown plays and an FIU athlete was trending on Twitter — worldwide.

That’s advertising.

“When I got here, I never saw anybody wearing anything FIU and I’ve lived here my whole life, except five years,” Garcia said. “Now, you go around town, and everybody’s starting to wear their colors. Why? Because there’s pride. Are you going to wear ‘FIU’ if your team went 0-12? But you start having success and they start coming out of the closet.”

Said Cristobal: “In terms of football, the best thing he’s done for us is he lets us do what we need to do. I don’t know how it is at other places around the country, but sometimes, there’s a lot of interference with what’s going on. Pete makes sure he’s not involved in personnel or [assistant] coaching hires.”

All teams have regained their full scholarship allotment for the first time since the NCAA slammed the department for various academic and compliance violations. Academic Progress Rate (APR) numbers are up across the board after being successively so bad in football, baseball and men’s basketball that the NCAA took scholarships from FIU like lunch money.

Alfonso Field at FIU Stadium and U.S. Century Bank Arena got major facelifts in January. Renovations are in progress on the softball stadium and the seemingly perpetually upgraded baseball stadium. Construction equipment is working on the big sandbox that will be home to sand volleyball, which FIU begins in 2013.

“Sand volleyball, I’ve emphasized it, here’s why I’ve emphasized it — I want to win,” Garcia said. “It’s a new sport. No school has a 100-year head start on us. No school has a winning tradition over us to start. No school has better facilities than us — everybody’s building the same facility. And there’s only a couple of regions in this country that have as good a weather and South Beach for sand volleyball. Add all that up, we should be very competitive at the highest level with beach volleyball.”

Garcia’s stamp on it

FIU’s athletic department has become Garcia’s fiefdom. There’s an actual Compliance Department, instead of just one person, with an assistant director devoted to APRs. All the head coaches are Garcia hires, save Cindy Russo. Her 33 years as women’s basketball coach not only predates Garcia’s time at FIU, but it also exceeds 29-year-old men’s basketball counterpart Richard Pitino’s entire lifetime.

Pitino is the typical Garcia coach hire — young, energetic, similar to Cristobal, track and field’s Eric Campbell, Kenny Arena (men’s soccer) and Thomas Chestnutt (women’s soccer). Though success attracted bigger-budget suitors for Cristobal and baseball’s Turtle Thomas, who reignited the once strong FIU program, both remain. Garcia is under contract until 2016.

“It is still a tough job for our coaches,” Garcia said. “Absolutely, because we want to compete at the highest level. We don’t want to go into a high school and say, ‘That kid’s getting recruited by Florida, Florida state, but not FIU.’ We want to recruit the same kids that the big programs are recruiting.

“There’s no reason we can’t compete at the highest level in every sport with what we’re doing, if you hire the right coaches and they outwork everybody else.”

Garcia’s fiefdom isn’t athletic utopia.

The unsuccessful basketball program and the much more successful baseball program share the characteristic of picayune crowds. One FIU athlete noted if it weren’t for the support from athletes on FIU’s other teams, “there’d be nobody” at basketball games.

“We’re having to grow our own alumni affinity here because even though we do have a 150,000-alumni base, a lot of those alumni came here — the school’s, what, 30 years old? — when the school didn’t have a football team,” Garcia said. “They were commuters. They never went to a sporting event. But the alumni we’re creating now, the students leaving a year or two ago and in the foreseeable future, because we’re graduating 10,000 per year, are the ones we’re reaching out to to support us in the future. When they came here they had a football team. When they came here, they had a winning football team, when they came here we had a stadium. Here’s the thing — 90 to 95 percent stay in South Florida. So they’ll keep coming to the football games, the basketball games, the baseball games.”

He says the regional talent dictates FIU should win at soccer, but FIU Soccer Field might be the most neglected of the sports facilities, putting coaches at a recruiting disadvantage. Chestnutt overcame that. Former FIU player, assistant coach and coach Munga Eketebi, hampered by scholarship reductions in the tough Conference USA (FIU is in the Sun Belt for all other sports), couldn’t do the same. Eketebi was fired and replaced by Arena this year

For all the time and money invested in men’s basketball over the years, there has been minimal return. Along with only 26 wins in three years under ballyhooed Garcia hire and Hall of Fame guard Isiah Thomas, including only eight last season, the 2010-11 single-season APR clanked at 833. That’s low enough to draw NCAA sanctions and deliver a killing blow to Thomas’ employment in April.

Players present said the coaching staff got bum-rushed out of its offices that afternoon almost like criminals. After clashing with Garcia during a testy departure, former men’s soccer coach Karl Kremser isn’t acknowledged by anything at FIU Soccer Field despite 27 seasons during which his teams often were among the nation’s best even while playing in Division II. The athletic program’s only two team national titles came under Kremser.

Pushing forward

“Maybe I pushed too hard, knowing all the obstacles we had to overcome, that’s my personal impatience,” Garcia said. “I’m not a very patient person. I pushed too hard, too quickly. And sometimes that’s not good.”

Under previous FIU president Mitch Madique, Garcia received a 2009 reprimand for “unprofessional management and poor leadership style, misuse of state funds and hostile work environment,” according to a report filed with the Employee and Labor Relations department of FIU’s Human Resources Division.

“Yes, I did ruffle a lot of feathers because a lot of people didn’t have the mind-set of a winning culture,” Garcia said. “But I always had the support of the administration and I have the support of this administration, especially now that they’re seeing some results.”

Feel free to translate “results” both as “wins” and “school exposure.” ”

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