Florida International U

FIU seniors ready for home finale, proud they stayed despite upheaval

Safety Justin Halley doesn’t regret staying at FIU despite the firing of Mario Cristobal and his staff after the 2012 season.
Safety Justin Halley doesn’t regret staying at FIU despite the firing of Mario Cristobal and his staff after the 2012 season. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

Seven of the 12 Florida International University football seniors who will take Ocean Bank Field at FIU Stadium for the last time Saturday afternoon against Middle Tennessee State can claim a loyalty not guaranteed in modern college-affiliated football.

They have seen the program at its best and stayed through its worst.

They didn’t leave after the firing of Mario Cristobal’s coaching staff — which recruited almost all of them — and the hiring of Ron Turner. Even as that hiring happened, potential academic ineligibilities all but guaranteed 2013 would be calamitous. They didn’t leave. They didn’t leave after the 1-11 2013 record, possibly FIU’s most embarrassing season ever.

That counts for more than it once did. This millennium’s college game sometimes features as much offseason player shuffling as its less illusive Sunday cousin, the NFL. Conceptual free agency isn’t limited to the official play-for-pay level.

“One thing I learned you can’t control is coaches,” FIU senior defensive end Giovanni Francois said. “When you’re making decisions where you want to play, one thing to keep in the back of your mind is the coaches have every right to do what they please. When I came to this university, it wasn’t for the coaches, it was for the university, the people that were here, the support staff that was here and for the people I bonded with, the players.

“As long as those guys are here, as long as the school’s here, and you know Fresh Food and the GC [Graham Center] and everything is here, then I’m happy.”

Fifth-year senior safety Justin Halley said, “As the coaches were leaving, we got together and talked about it and we wanted to stick together. We came in together, we wanted to stick together and wanted to finish it out together.”

During that turbulent time, an undergraduate degree and graduate school awaited center Donald Senat.

“It’s not even that,” Senat said. “It’s a family here. I feel as though I’m a part of something bigger than that. I really linked up with guys here. I felt, when that happened, I was supposed to, as a player who was here, help everyone stay together and stay accountable. When adversity hit, I had to be a better person, a better leader, had to be someone to help rally the troops.”

A few players left in 2013. A few players got jettisoned. One of those who left, wide receiver Nick England, caught a key pass for Old Dominion in last Saturday’s 38-35 FIU loss.

“Some guys just walked in the door and said, ‘I’m leaving,’” Turner said. “Some left before I got here. Some gave it a chance and left.”

After 2013, two-year starting quarterback Jake Medlock, brother of current long snapper Sam Medlock and quarterback Luke Medlock, left to play his final year of eligibility for Division II Valdosta State. That left these seven from the 2010 or 2011 recruiting classes:

Francois, Halley, Senat, wide receiver Glenn Coleman, safety Demarkus Perkins, linebacker Caleb Vincent and offensive tackle Jordan White.

“They’ve been through the last couple of years, tough years. A new coach coming in, a rebuilding thing,” Turner said. “I’ve got a lot of respect for those guys. Everyone that’s here bought in totally, given everything they’ve got to this program. They’ve been leaders. [I’m] disappointed and frustrated for those guys that we didn’t accomplish what our season goal was [winning a bowl game] because they’ve given everything they have to this program. They didn’t have to do that.”

To close, here’s Francois’ favorite memory from his FIU career. Not a bowl game. Not even a win. It was Senior Night, 2012.

Louisiana-Monroe went into kneel-downs up 17-10 with 28 seconds left. Incredibly, ULM fumbled a snap and senior defensive tackle Joshua Forney recovered at the Panthers’ 42. A Hail Mary heave from E.J. Hilliard to Willis Wright tied the score as time ran out. FIU lost in overtime 23-17.

“That was the truest team moment,” Francois said. “When everything was lost, all the guys were still fighting.”

Saturday: Middle Tennessee at FIU

Kickoff: 3:30 p.m.; Ocean Bank Field at FIU Stadium.

TV/radio: 33; WMNA 1210.

Favorite: Middle Tennessee by 5.

Records: FIU 3-7 (2-4 C-USA); Middle Tennessee 5-4 (4-1 C-USA).

Series: Middle Tennessee leads 6-3.

FIU injuries: Out — LB Anthony Wint (knee); RB Alex Gardner (shoulder).

Middle Tennessee injuries: No reported injuries.

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