Heart of the City: FIU

June, 20, 2011
6/20/11
10:30
AM ET
We are profiling city schools that compete in a market alongside an NFL franchise. Up next:

School: FIU
Location: Miami
Enrollment: 44,000
Bowl appearances: 1
NFL first-round picks: 0
Losing seasons: 4
10-win seasons: 0

Source: ESPN Stats & Info (Note: Numbers date back to 1936, the first year of the AP poll. NFL numbers date back to 1970.)

The good: It’s hard to beat the location for FIU, in one of the most diverse cities in the country. The school has blossomed into one of the biggest in the United States in a short period of time. FIU opened its doors in 1972 in an abandoned airfield. Largely still known as a commuter school, the main campus is in the western part of Miami-Dade County, about a half hour drive from the bright lights of South Beach -- without traffic, of course. One of the best parts about FIU is its diversity -- about 60 percent of the student-body is Hispanic, and the school caters to a large international population. The football team had a breakthrough season in 2010, posting its first ever winning season, winning a share of its first Sun Belt title and winning its first bowl game. Coach Mario Cristobal, a Miami native who played at the University of Miami, also won Sun Belt Coach of the Year honors. The Little Caesars Pizza Bowl win against Toledo was one of the most thrilling of the bowl season -- Jack Griffin kicked a 34-yard field goal with no time left to lift FIU to the 34-32 win. Expectations are high for 2011 with many starters returning, including quarterback Wes Carroll and Sun Belt Player of the Year T.Y. Hilton.

The bad: Cristobal knows what he is up against at FIU. The University of Miami is the bigger school in the bigger conference, with all the history and tradition FIU lacks. The Golden Panthers have only been playing on the FBS level since 2004, and eight wins in 2004 and 2005 were vacated because of NCAA violations. Thirty scholarships were docked as well. The team lost 23 straight games between 2006 and 2007. In fact, when Cristobal took the job in 2007, his friends thought he was crazy. But Cristobal sees the potential. He sells his players on making history at FIU, on being on the ground level of a program that has nowhere to go but up. He has plenty of talent to choose from in the South Florida area, and has worked hard to convince kids to forget about Miami and pick FIU. But the truth is, the Miami Dolphins and Miami Hurricanes dominate the headlines in South Florida. FIU plays in an 18,000-seat stadium, second smallest on the FBS level, and has to fight for every nugget of publicity it can get. South Florida fans are known to be some of the most fickle in the country and generally only come out to support a winner. So if FIU continues on its upward path, perhaps the Panthers will have their own niche in football-obsessed South Florida.

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