In the age of the vaunted transfer portal, there’s one word that should be the point of emphasis for FIU in competing with programs eyeing their talent – culture.
At the time of this article’s publishing, the Panthers have seen seven players who played at least 50% of the season’s snaps enter the portal, including six full-time starters. This comes off last year’s exodus that while expected due to the inevitable coaching change, saw two starters choose to sit out of the final two contests in preparation to enter the portal.
To be clear, this is not unique to FIU.
In the portal’s infancy, Power Five players who for one reason or another chose to transfer were the desire of most programs across the country. Fast forward to the fourth year of the portal’s existence and arguably, the most desired targets are Group of Five and FCS players who went under the radar during their high school recruitment.
Transfer portal entries by scholarship players from each G5 conference since 8/1— FarrellPortal (@farrellportal) December 1, 2022
Sun Belt: 33
Mountain West: 19
So why is culture a viable path to competition for the Panthers?
Roughly 750 miles away from Miami lies Conway, SC and Coastal Carolina University. The Chanticleers under former head coach Jamey Chadwell have become a Group of Five heavyweight, winning 39 games in four seasons with a top-15 finish in 2020. Even more astounding than the program’s meteoric rise has been Chadwell’s ability to keep homegrown talent in Conway, specifically superstar quarterback Grayson McCall, who has spurned Power Five offers in consecutive seasons to stay in tiny Conway.
“Previously in the (2021) season, I’d said something about pissing teal and everybody got a good kick out of it,” McCall told The Athletic. “It’s really about the culture here, I love it here and this is where I want to be.”
Following FIU’s season-opening win, I waited in the team meeting room for Mike MacIntyre’s postgame presser to begin and noticed something that I hadn’t in the four seasons prior. An assembly line of families were making their through the hallway that leads to and from the FIU coaches offices and locker room. A toddler, who was clearly up well past their bedtime to take in the overtime thriller could be heard crying and consoled from the press room.
MacIntyre has heavily – borderline incessantly stressed the need for a family-like environment at FIU and he’s backed up on that promise. Each home game, offensive coordinator David Yost’s sons can be seen playing catch and running routes during pregame warmups – something that hasn’t been lost on the 26-year coaching veteran.
“Coach Mac does a great job (emphasizing family) – my kids have been at more practices this year then they’ve ever been to,” said Yost. “I’ve been able to watch my daughter’s games at Doral Academy when the time has allowed, this is the most my kids and family have been able to be around the team in my entire career, they know our players.”
Shortly before the final postgame presser of the season, Kristen Eargle, wife of tight ends coach Joshua Eargle walked into the press room and asked which players media requested. Her reasoning for asking – Kourtney, their 11-year-old daughter wanted to hug tight end Rivaldo Fairweather following his career-best performance against Middle Tennessee.
“She was so proud of Rivaldo’s huge night,” said Kristen Eargle. “These players are truly like her big brothers.”
Last season, I saw an endless number of acts that sharply contrast the previous regime. Athletic Director Scott Carr takes the time to greet every player coming off the field following games or helping the support staff hand out Gatorade and postgame meals to the players before they board the bus.
“It’s hard to put into words but things just feel more like a family around here,” said right tackle Lyndell Hudson before the start of fall camp.
Running back Lexington Joseph echoed those thoughts following the Panthers first FBS win in several years when they defeated New Mexico State in October.
“After the Western Kentucky (73-0) loss, we didn’t start pointing fingers and that’s the way it felt in the past, Coach Mac has emphasized staying together and it feels different around here,” said Joseph.
Four days before the season’s end, I asked MacIntyre about the seemingly inevitable transfer portal losses. His answer was mostly general but he ended with an emphasis on his attitude towards his players.
“We’ll sit down with each of them and keep loving them,” said MacIntyre.
A common refrain that’s easier said before the moment, the Panthers’ head man kept the same sentiment as players who announced their departure earned postseason honors.
Here’s the deal – these things matter because FIU doesn’t have what the Power Fives have.
No disrespect to former Panther Johnathan Cyprien intended, but Inside The Cage is still in its burgeoning stages and likely will never be an NIL powerhouse that others possess.
The allure of playing for a more high-profile program may simply be too much for some players to turn down. However, if MacIntyre can create and keep a culture that players and coaches alike want to be a part of, it’s their biggest bargaining chip against the things that they have no control over.