The State of the Program Entering I-A
A year after mid-major rival Florida Atlantic started their program up the road in Boca Raton, Florida International University in Miami started their football history under head coach Don Strock and highly-recruited quarterback Jamie Burke. Stealing the prized Florida QB away from the Gators after Steve Spurrier left Gainesville for his ill-fated stint in the NFL, Burke and the Golden Panthers would go 5-6 in their first season of I-AA play.
FIU would have a difficult time gaining any momentum, though, after coming close to a winning record in their inaugural campaign. The Panthers would lose the first eight games of their sophomore season, slumping to 2-10 in their second year.
By 2004, as the Panthers starting to transition to the higher level with a hybrid schedule composed of five I-A opponents and five I-AA foes, they managed to improve to 3-7. During the campaign they would lose all four of their matchups against their future rivals in the Sun Belt conference.
Having totaled as many wins in their second and third season of existence as they had amassed in their first, the Panthers were entering the I-A phase of their history with little to build upon beyond a recruiting coup that had yielded few dividends.
The First Season
September offered a cruel start to I-A life for the Golden Panthers, as FIU took to the road and lost all three of their contests during the month. They opened the 2005 schedule with a trip to Manhattan, where they fell 35-21 to Kansas State on September 3. A visit to Lubbock the following weekend proved even more gruesome, as Florida International was pummeled 56-3 by Texas Tech.
After a bye weekend, FIU played their first Sun Belt game against Arkansas State. The Red Wolves, on their way to a .500 season, blasted the Panthers 66-24 in a lopsided affair. I-AA Florida A&M offered Strock’s squad their first taste of victory on the first day of October, but the momentum was arrested over their next fortnight and the Golden Panthers returned to their losing ways when they returned to the field against North Texas on October 15.
A Thursday night game against Troy on the 20th netted another loss, dropping Florida International to 1-5 through the first half of their maiden I-A season. November started better for the Panthers, as they eked out a 31-29 road victory against Louisiana-Monroe on the first weekend of the month. Their return visit to the Pelican State a week later would end in defeat, as the Ragin’ Cajuns knocked off FIU 28-7 in Lafayette.
It would be the last loss of the season for Strock and company, though, as they wrapped up the final three games on their schedule in the friendly confines of on-campus FIU Stadium. I-AA Western Kentucky came to Miami on the 19th, nearly snatching an upset before falling to the Panthers 38-35. The grudge match against fellow Floridian I-A neophyte Florida Atlantic resulted in a 52-6 beatdown of the Owls, and by beating Middle Tennessee on December 3 the Golden Panthers wrapped up a 5-6 campaign — good enough for a tie for fourth in the Sun Belt standings.
How Have They Fared Since?
The Golden Panthers would bottom out in the 2006 campaign, finishing without a victory in the 0-12 disaster of a season. The year was marred by an on-field brawl on October 14 in a cross-town derby against the Miami Hurricanes:
The fight led Strock to dismiss two FIU players from the team, with a total of 18 players receiving punishment for roles in the conflict. What was supposed to become a program-building rivalry game with the powerhouse Hurricanes instead became a defunct rivalry after the following season. After losing five of their first six by less than seven points, the Panthers fell apart after the 35-0 shutout to Miami. They would lose their final five games by double digits to complete the ignominious winless feat. Strock would resign after the season, the stress of the brawl’s aftermath and the losing streak driving away the program’s builder.
In came Mario Cristobal, an offensive lineman on the Miami Hurricanes’ 1989 and 1991 national championship teams, who had been Miami’s offensive line coach the previous season when the melee took place between his alma mater and the team that had just given him the opportunity to become a head coach. Entering the ugliest possible situation, things hardly got better in 2007 as the Panthers lost their first 11 games of the season to extend their losing streak to 23 games. Cristobal finally got his first win as FIU’s head coach on December 1, winning the season finale at home over North Texas to finish his rookie season as a figurehead 1-11.
The Golden Panthers opened 2008 with another losing streak, falling at Kansas and at Iowa before losing at home to South Florida on September 20. They would finally win their first game the following weekend, beating the Toledo Rockets 35-16 in the Glass Bowl for Cristobal’s second win at FIU. The streak continued on October 4 at North Texas and October 11 at home against Middle Tennessee, and for the first time in Florida International’s I-A history the team was at .500 in the standings. But they would go 2-4 in the second half of the season and narrowly fall short of bowl eligibility.
2009 ended with a setback to 3-9, and Cristobal entered the 2010 season with a career head coaching record at FIU of 9-27. The heat under his seat would dissipate as his squad recovered from a four-game losing streak to start the season and won six of their last eight games to reach bowl eligibility for the first time. Along the way they would finish 6-2 in conference play for a share of the Sun Belt title, earning an invite to the Little Caesars Bowl in Detroit. Taking on a Toledo team they had played in the prior two regular seasons, the Golden Panthers engineered a second-half comeback to beat the Rockets 34-32 and win their first-ever appearance in a bowl game.
The 2011 season would yield mixed results. While FIU would improve to 8-4 in the regular season, they only won five games in their Sun Belt schedule and finished fourth in the conference. Nevertheless, the Golden Panthers would receive another invite to the postseason, this time squaring off against Marshall in the St. Petersburg Bowl. This time, T.Y. Hilton and crew couldn’t pull off a comeback, and the Thundering Herd prevailed 20-10.
2012 would be a year of regression as a veteran team graduated and turned over roster spots to younger, less-experienced personnel. Cristobal would manage a 3-9 campaign with the new crew, nearly pulling off an upset at home against 11-win Louisville on September 22, but it wouldn’t be enough to save his job. After the season, athletic director Pete Garcia fired the coach with a conveniently-misleading dismissal of his record, relieving the university of the most successful head coach in its brief football-playing history.
As they prepare for a move to Conference USA in 2013, the players will also familiarize themselves with a new staff led by former San Jose State and Illinois head coach Ron Turner. After spending most of the past decade in various position coach and coordinator positions throughout the NFL, the veteran coach returns to the college ranks with a tall task at hand. He must quickly mine the talent-laden recruiting grounds of south Florida for his own Hilton to ride to glory lest he suffer the same fate as Cristobal.
About the Author: Zach Bigalke
Zach is a historian and author who has been covering sports near and far for various publications since 2006. Formerly the managing editor of Informative Sports and Global Turnstile, he has also been featured at Helium, FanSided, the Portland State Vanguard and other online publications. He currently lives in Track Town USA, where he lives with his wife while belatedly pursuing higher education at the University of Oregon.