Is it all about the ‘U’ or are you for FIU? Schools are friendly neighborhood rivals

At FIU, some students think the Panthers walk on water. And once a year, some of them actually do. FIU student Juan Vega takes an early lead and goes on to set a record of 1 minute, 2 seconds in the annual “Walk on Water” race on the FIU campus on Thursday, Nov. 9, 2017.
At FIU, some students think the Panthers walk on water. And once a year, some of them actually do. FIU student Juan Vega takes an early lead and goes on to set a record of 1 minute, 2 seconds in the annual “Walk on Water” race on the FIU campus on Thursday, Nov. 9, 2017.

Whether you think it’s “all about the U” or you’re a Panther for life, there’s no denying the growth of Florida International University and the University of Miami in both size and prestige. And even though the two schools are different — in size, athletics, demographics — they each are striving to be viewed as South Florida’s preeminent place of higher learning.

The universities are neighbors — just eight miles separate the main campuses — but are so different that one’s successes and faults hardly affect the other. There is a large amount of overlap in students and alumni — graduates of UM might go to grad school at FIU, FIU alumni might become professors at UM, the children of Panthers might become Canes. There is no stark divide in the alumni community of the two schools.

“We share students, trustees, and donors,” FIU President Mark Rosenberg said. “We have a common purpose of advancing our community.”

Perhaps the perfect example of this mixture between the schools is the current Panthers football coach, Butch Davis. He was the coach of UM’s Hurricanes from 1995-2000, continued on to coach the Cleveland Browns and the University of North Carolina Tar Heels before returning to South Florida in 2017 at FIU.

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When the Hurricanes are playing football, especially when the opponent is Florida State, UM fans all know it’s all about “The U.” These UM fans show their support at Doak Campbell Stadium in Tallahassee on Saturday, Oct. 7, 2017. AL DIAZ

Similarly, Pete Garcia, a former associate athletic director at the University of Miami, has been athletic director at FIU since 2006. Instances like this are commonplace in Miami, making any “rivalry” between the two schools a friendly, neighborhood one. As the two schools simultaneously strive to be the best in South Florida, they are also hugely aware of their hybrid alumni network, shared faculty, and the many divided households that are equally devoted to each university.

FIU, a large public university, has a total enrollment of 55,000, more than three times the 17,000 of UM, a private university. The two schools have vastly connected alumni networks, however, they are distributed differently. UM alumni live in all 50 states and 154 countries, and out of the 202,800 alumni in the university’s history, more than 51,510 reside in Miami-Dade County. FIU’s alumni network is slightly larger than UM’s, with 215,000 living in every state and 138 countries worldwide. According to Rosenberg, about 150,000 alums live in Miami-Dade County.

FIU President Mark Rosenberg

“You’re only as good as your alumni,” Rosenberg said. “And we have a very dedicated, proud alumni network.”

While UM is famous for its medical programs, FIU Law has made headlines in recent years for its consistently impressive passage rates on the Florida Bar Exam. The FIU passage rate was 85 percent on the February 2018 test, exceeding the statewide average by 27 points.

“We are two very different universities,” UM President Julio Frenk said. “But we are united by our connection to the community and our desire to connect to our common home.”

Maria Gil, former editor at South Florida News Service and a recent graduate of FIU, says FIU’s biggest rivalries are with fellow public schools Florida State University, the University of Central Florida, and the University of Florida.

“We have this academic rivalry with UF,” Gil said. “My adviser always says the nerds go to UF, and FIU gets the leftovers who couldn’t make it. It makes us want to beat them.”

On an athletic level, it’s difficult to understand why there isn’t a stronger rivalry between the two universities. All the factors to fuel a rivalry are there, said Michael Warrell, the external vice chair for Category 5, UM’s spirit programming board.

“A lot of these players grew up locally and played against each other their entire lives,” Warrell said. “They grew up in similar neighborhoods, and those neighborhoods hated each other.”

One piece is missing, though. The schools don’t play in the same conference and haven’t met on the football field in over a decade. It’s hard to have a rivalry when there’s little competition.

“To have a rivalry you have to play each other pretty often,” Warrell said. “For example, we play FSU every year, which fuels the rivalry.”

UM and FIU will face off in football for the first time in 12 years on Sept. 22. The 2006 game notoriously ended in a brawl, resulting in 31 one-game suspensions for players.

“It was unfortunate,” said Donna Shalala, who was president of UM at the time. “We moved on and took a breather before playing each other again.”

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A UM fan flashes the ‘U’ while surrounded by FSU fans doing the Tomahawk chop as the Seminoles host the Miami Hurricanes at Doak Campbell Stadium in Tallahassee on Saturday, Oct. 7, 2017. AL DIAZ

“This game isn’t different from any other,” said Lauren Fuster, a rising junior at the University of Miami. “It’s a normal game where everyone is going to root for their team.”

Along with the mixed alumni populations the schools share, UM has a peculiar, yet extremely devoted, fan base. Many die-hard Hurricane fans have no connection to the university. This is because, in many ways, the Miami Hurricanes were Miami’s first “pro” team.

The Hurricanes’ first football season was in 1926, bringing major college football to South Florida 40 years before the Dolphins wouldn’t become Miami’s first major pro team. The Hurricanes were perennial national title contenders for the better part of 20 years starting in the early 1980s, winning five championships. FIU’s first football season wasn’t until 2002.

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FIU Panthers head coach Butch Davis on the field before the start of the Bad Boy Mowers Gasparilla Bowl at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Florida, on Thursday, Dec. 21, 2017. AL DIAZ

FIU and UM both pride themselves on being truly global universities. The majority of FIU students are minorities, and a significant portion of the student population is first-generation, Rosenberg said.

“By the virtue of the immigrant experience in Miami, our students are much more cosmopolitan than students in other parts of the country,” Rosenberg said. “They understand that there’s a world out there and that everybody has different experiences.”

The same goes for UM. About 25 percent of all undergrads identify as Hispanic or Latino, Frenk said. Additionally, the university attracts not only African Americans, but students of African descent from the Caribbean, which further diversifies the student body.

UM is simultaneously connected locally and globally, Frenk said.

“We have students from 110 countries,” he said. “Because we are in Miami, we have a strong connection to Latin America and the Caribbean.”

Both FIU and UM emphasize expansive study abroad opportunities to draw in prospective students. The two schools urge students to broaden their horizons by “becoming global citizens” and “strengthening global perspectives.”

“We need to educate young people who truly are global citizens,” Frenk said, according to the UM website.

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Julio Frenk throws up the ‘U’ after he is installed as the sixth president of the University of Miami at the BankUnited Center, Friday, Jan. 29, 2016. Emily Michot

Similarly, FIU prides itself upon being a “global location for internships and work experience,” according to Rosenberg on the FIU website.

UM and FIU both produce alumni who are leaders in the workplace, no matter the industry. UM has the only academic health system in South Florida, which “creates the next generation of doctors and nurses,” Frenk said. Additionally, the university has the world’s largest hurricane simulator and a successful athletic program.

Similarly, FIU is “a major driver of upward mobility for our community,” Rosenberg said. “It is a major driver for leadership and entrepreneurship.”

“One of the top three leaders of every bank in our community is an FIU grad,” Rosenberg said. “In Dade County Public Schools, about 35 percent of the teachers are FIU grads. We have a far-reaching role in the future of this community.”

Both FIU and UM begin classes for the fall semester on August 20.

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