Call it a week of backyard fence-mending for the Florida International University football program.
FIU worked toward healing its broken ties with the cross-town Miami Hurricanes and solving its estrangement with the Miami Herald, hoping to fix two important relationships that needn’t be adversarial but somehow were. The neighbors are on speaking terms again. Fire up the barbecue grill. This might call for a block party!
Now if FIU can just figure out a way to win a doggone football game, the school will have hit the trifecta.
The Golden Panthers host Wagner on Saturday night. I don’t know who Wagner is. Never met him. I only know that beating any opponent would be huge for an FIU team that was 1-11 last year and then lost this season’s opener to Bethune-Cookman on a botched last-second field-goal attempt. FIU has lost eight consecutive games dating to last season and 13 of its past 14. Few coaches need the salve of victory more than second-year Panthers boss Ron Turner.
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The sporting peace treaty with UM came Friday in a news conference that included athletic directors Blake James of Miami and Pete Garcia of FIU, and school presidents Donna Shalala and Mark Rosenberg.
The schools’ relationship was fractured by an ugly 2006 bench-clearing football brawl in a 35-0 UM win, an embarrassment that saw 18 Panthers and 13 Canes suspended or otherwise disciplined. The schools were contractually obligated to play again in ’07 but have not competed — in any sport — since.
That will change, it was revealed Friday, with football games scheduled for 2018 and ’19. We hope that is the start of UM and FIU playing every year in football as a fixture on their nonconference schedules. The plan is for the schools to resume playing in other sports, too.
Détente was a long time coming but always a noble goal. UM and FIU competing is smart from a logistic/financial standpoint and as much from a community/common sense standpoint. “It makes sense,” as James simply and rightly put it.
It makes selfish sense for each, too. For Miami, a more accomplished athletic program playing in the top-tier Atlantic Coast Conference, FIU is a soft spot on the schedule, relatively speaking. For FIU, with less athletic tradition and competing in second-tier Conference USA, the Hurricanes are a glamour, attention-getting opponent.
At this point in its development, FIU football is better served by taking its lumps against higher competition whenever possible. The Panthers will gain far more attention and credit playing Miami again, and playing Pittsburgh and Louisville this season, even if they lose, than by playing, say, Wagner.
Facing each other in football will instantly cement a natural rivalry that will find the Canes seeking to always stay ahead as bigger and better, and give the Panthers a backyard measuring stick and max incentive.
The school was equally smart to make peace with the Herald, which did not cover last week’s game after the school refused to issue a credential to the newspaper’s beat writer, David J. Neal, over objections to some of the coverage. (I can tell you from experience that very few coaches of 1-11 teams are chummy with the beat writer and love the coverage.)
FIU — a program starving for national attention and trying to get it locally in the shadow of the Hurricanes — was smart to quickly realize how self-defeating a feud with the Herald was. Neal’s credential was reinstated on Wednesday. On Thursday, Herald and FIU leaders met to discuss the issues, and both sides now move forward.
The Panthers haven't shown much evidence that they are close to ready to play at UM’s level or moving in that direction. Then again, the Hurricanes’ level is not what it was in the five-national-title heydays.
Monday night’s season-opening 31-13 UM loss at Louisville was a reminder that had many restless Canes fans expressing growing impatience with coach Al Golden.
Miami winning its home opener against smaller Florida A&M on Saturday night won’t placate UM fans as much as hold them at bay. The Canes must start winning big games again — such as Nebraska Sept. 20 and dare say Florida State in November — and start getting into big bowl games again to truly please fans.
I’m not sure if or when Miami will get back to championship caliber, and I’m not sure if or when FIU football will reach a level where it’s eye-to-eye with Miami.
It will be fun to watch both programs continue to reach for those elusive goals, though.
And to see them share the same field again, like it should be.