The Shade Locker | Cayla Bush
A look at many of the FIU sport’s rosters will illustrate a difficulty that many coaches have continually expressed: Florida athletes aren’t very likely to pledge to the Panthers.
“We have a better chance to get a higher level of kid internationally than we do domestically,” FIU swimming and diving Head Coach Randy Horner said.
The problem is, many domestic players opt for bigger named schools, especially our “big brother” to the southeast, University of Miami.
FIU men’s soccer Head 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 Head 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.
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 the University’s first Conference USA team championship in any sport last February.
Last Friday Jan. 8, FIU edged No. 44 University of 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.) 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.
While it can be argued that the reason that FIU has more clout internationally than domestically is because we are somewhat advantaged due to our location and Miami is a really well-known city everywhere, the same can be said for why a US born athlete would want to attend.
Yes, climate and location is a huge advantage for us, but the truth of the matter is athletes want to play for a school that will get them noticed. I cannot think of one student-athlete that does not plan on a professional career.
FIU simply does not provide that sort of attention in most mainstream sports. The football, basketball and baseball teams don’t bring out the huge crowds that UM does. According to Horner, omnipresent merchandising and mass media noise favors the well-known schools from the 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.”
It’s the thrill of the crowd that entices these students into choosing a bigger, more well known school. The crowd that comes not only from being in a specific conference, but from having a loyal fanbase – something that FIU simply doesn’t have.
Each of the athletes that play here understand what it’s like to play with no crowd – the worst of which is probably the football team. There are countless photos on social media showing how empty the stadium is during football games, how quiet it is compared to an Alabama or UM game.
Our coaches have to expand their horizons to find players because we don’t support them. We’re not in the stands cheering them on. In fact, this past football season there was sort of a “waiting for them to fail” vibe on campus in terms of support.
FIU wants to be a University that can run with the big boys, that can hang with Bama, Ole Miss, UF and UM. Students and athletes want to attend a university that is known, but all of that comes from putting in work.
If we continue to refuse to support the team, the players will continue to leave once they capture the attention of a more advantageous school, our coaches will continue going overseas to bring in talent that is unaware of the pecking order.
We’re at the bottom of the totem pole not because of questionable administration decisions, but because we don’t support our athletics department the way favored schools do. As long as we continue to play ourselves, we’ll never get the major keys to success.
FIU is capable of greatness and drawing in local talent, but we’ve got to give our athletes and potential recruits a reason to want to be great and attend, other than to leave for greener pastures.
Additional reporting from TNS Staff
The Shade Locker is a weekly column offering commentary on various sports topics. The Shade Locker is published each Wednesday. To send suggestions or thoughts, email Cayla at firstname.lastname@example.org