A trait that separates great teams and athletes from being average is the ability to not dwell on past failures.
FIU limped into Saturday’s contest against Miami (Fla.) (figuratively and literally) as 20-point underdogs, with a massively disappointing 5-5 record, having been outscored in those losses by a margin of 83-192.
Not to mention the wins came against teams with a combined record of 13-38. The above makes their 30-24 triumph over the Hurricanes even more noteworthy.
“In our leadership meeting, we talk about when you don’t achieve the goals that you set out to, what you do from there says a lot about your character and I think this win says a lot about us,” said quarterback James Morgan after the game.
He’s correct, the resolve they showed spoke volumes, especially missing key players (Maurice Alexander), battling injuries and doing so in the most hostile atmosphere the majority of the players have played in.
The victory inserted themselves in the conscious of South Florida sports fans after spending 18 years pleading for respect.
Now, the question is, with all eyes on “The real Miami University,” where does FIU go as a team and fan base?
The Football Team
“What can I answer for you tonight, Eric?”
Those were the first public words spoken by Butch Davis following FIU’s 37-7 dismantling at the hands of Florida Atlantic - the third consecutive defeat in as many years against their rival.
Following losses, Davis’ routine is to open with a synopsis of the game from his vantage point and field questions. However, this season has been anything but routine.
After being trounced by Tulane on opening night, he emerged from the bowels of Yulman Stadium clearly frustrated by a 28-point loss.
Postgame at Middle Tennessee, Davis sauntered towards the tunnel with a dismayed look after his team gave up 471 rushing yards to a 3-5 Blue Raider team.
Both games, he was without comment and went directly into answering my inquiries.
At the point of the team’s next loss against FAU, his question to me sounded like he was speaking about the entire season - his next words would confirm that thinking.
“Here’s the summary for the 2019 season, the self-inflicted wounds are every week,” Davis said.
14 days after he uttered that sentence, his team has a new lease on life. The victory of Miami doesn’t erase the pain of an underwhelming season, but the fact of the matter is it’s the biggest win in program history.
It only counts for one in the record books, however, it legitimizes the team in the eyes of many, who, even worse than having written them off, didn’t care one way or the other.
This week’s game against Marshall would have gone virtually unnoticed in South Florida prior to the upset of the Hurricanes. Now, with a victory, it keeps the momentum Saturday’s wave going.
As for the players, the story of the season is no longer the 1,092 combined rushing yards allowed in losses to MTSU, Tulane and FAU, or miscue-filled offensive performances in the same games.
They proved that on the biggest stage, they’re capable of not only being one of Conference USA’s elite, but they also possess the talent to beat a Power Five program.
A Fledgling Fan Base
As a football program, FIU shares many similarities to that of a high school senior who’s leaving home to go to college. Old enough to have made some mistakes, with a few successes along the way, but still needing maturing to become a finished product.
It’s fitting as the team is a game shy of completing their 18th regular season.
The fan base is a different story. In the two seasons that I’ve covered the Panthers, fan support feels as if it’s stuck elementary school.
Some have already made up their minds as to their allegiance, while others either need to be convinced or reassured that it’s safe to fully commit.
The Miami game should be enough to sway those on the fence to jump.
University President Mark Rosenberg (who was all smiles leaving the FIU locker room), athletic director Pete Garcia, and Davis couldn’t have bought the type of recognition the victory has given them in the immediate aftermath.
A nationally syndicated radio show (The Dan LeBatard Show with Stugotz) devoted a majority of Monday’s show to the Panthers. SportsCenter talked about the win, with noted college football analyst Kirk Herbstreit having FIU among his top performers of the week.
My top performing teams of WEEK 13:— Kirk Herbstreit (@KirkHerbstreit) November 25, 2019
1- @ASUFootball big upset
2- @FIUFootball Butch beats former team
3- @CharlotteFTBL Will Healy Bowl Eligible
4-@CalFootball broke losing streak to Stanford
5- @GopherFootball & @BUFootball both get bounce back wins after 1st L
The school took note and had a pep rally Monday afternoon, seeing large numbers of students and alumni partake.
Look at me and @mrhondal321 at the FIU pep rally yesterday. Have you ever seen such pure joy #PawsUp pic.twitter.com/BfnQdaSUzP— David Drucker (@FIUSportsGuy) November 26, 2019
Which leads me to my next point - with a student enrollment of over 55,000 and an alumni base of double that residing in South Florida - Riccardo Silva Stadium still sits three-fourths empty on game days.
Davis has led the program to consecutive bowl appearances and should see a third, with the win over Miami.
I understand that many of those I reference above either are, or were raised as Hurricane fans. What’s more painful, making the trip to Hard Rock Stadium for the better part of two decades of mediocre football, or taking a Saturday to visit the perceived “lesser” program?
When FIU took the field against Miami for their final “home” game, they were met with resounding boos from the crowd - many of which were FIU grads costumed as Hurricane fans.
FIU practiced with crowd noise all week. Why would they for a home game - this should answer that. #PawsUp pic.twitter.com/LvAHCTy6h5— Eric Henry (@EricCHenry_) November 24, 2019
They were left with egg on their face, starting with Stantley Thomas-Oliver’s interception on Miami’s opening drive, through Anthony Jones’ game-sealing 37-yard TD run in the fourth quarter.
FIU student Gaby Urrutia wrote a lengthy article for our SB Nation sister site, State of the U, outlining why many students and alumni root for the Hurricanes.
.@GabyUrrutia22 wrote a good article last week about “The old and boring argument against FIU students and alumni that root for Miami.” Let’s hope, for G5 and Shula Bowl reasons, that beating UM lights a spark in FIU students. https://t.co/eZvNQbI2O3 pic.twitter.com/mUXOAnY1Wf— Jake Elman (@JakeElman97) November 24, 2019
He made valid points regarding FIU’s failures this season but neglects to mention the Hurricanes’ program being stuck in neutral since I was in middle school and he was in Pre-K.
The upset of a Power Five program has happened and it wasn’t just ANY P5, it was the almighty Hurricanes.
As an outsider (I have no allegiance or ties to FIU) it’s easy to say that I don’t “get it.” In actuality, I have a Ph.D.’s worth of experience.
I attended the University of Central Florida from 2010-2015. In the four years prior, Florida won two national championships and while I was a student, Florida State won one and competed for another.
Going to UCF games for most students was nothing more than the undercard for UF or FSU’s main event showing. Choosing to remain loyal wasn’t made any easier with a winless 2015 season.
Then, what felt like an impossible feat became a reality. In two short seasons, UCF went from being a national joke to a national powerhouse, making it to consecutive New Year’s Six bowl games.
My two cents for those still unsure after Saturday’s game is to board to roller-coaster now. Because the ride is exponentially more fun when you join at the start, as opposed to chasing after it during the ascent.
That way, the loss to your alma mater won’t feel like you walked in on your significant other cheating on you - as you’re simultaneously cheating on them with someone who doesn’t actually love you.