Sports writer Pete Pelegrin ’96 chronicles the first decade of FIU football and takes a look at how the Panthers built their Cage.
FIU football opens the home schedule of its 10th anniversary season on Sept. 8 against Akron at a newly enclosed FIU Stadium. The upgrade completed over the summer marks a major development for FIU fans, putting the Cage at 20,000-plus seats. Coming off its second consecutive bowl appearance, FIU aspires to continue its rise to the upper echelon of college football in 2012 with its highest-rated signing class and the largest senior class in the team’s history.
The Panthers return 10 of 11 starters from the No. 14 scoring defense in the nation. Record-breaking running back Kedrick Rhodes aims at another 1,000-plus rushing yards season for the FIU offense behind the senior-laden offensive line led by Rupert Bryan. All-Sun Belt Conference senior defenders Johnathan Cyprien and Tourek Williams anchor the tenacious Panthers defense. Defensive backs Jose Cheeseborough and Sam Miller lead the secondary.
This will also be FIU’s last season in the Sun Belt Conference. Starting in 2013, FIU will be part of Conference USA. The move will introduce FIU football to a new audience, opening new bowl opportunities and expanding FIU’s reach to markets like Houston, New Orleans and Charlotte.
The 2012 season provides an interesting point in the history of FIU football to reminisce and peek into the future. The 10th anniversary is an opportunity to look back on how far FIU football has come. In the span of one decade, fans witnessed:
- A sparkling inaugural game – a 27-3 defeat of St. Peter’s in front of a sold-out crowd at old FIU Stadium
- The Panthers’ leap from Division I-AA Independent to Division I and the Sun Belt Conference and, eventually, Conference USA
- A change in head coaches
- Four players drafted into the NFL: T.Y. Hilton in 2012, Anthony Gaitor in 2011, and Antwan Barnes and Chandler Williams in 2007
- FIU closing the doors on the venerable Orange Bowl with a resounding win over North Texas and ending the then-nation’s longest losing streak at 23 games
- The dazzling career of the electric Hilton, selected in April by the Indianapolis Colts in the third round of the NFL Draft
- The program’s first conference championship in 2010
- Two bowl appearances: against Toledo in the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl and versus Marshall at the Beef ‘O’ Brady’s Bowl
With the continuous infusion of talented players, a relentless coaching staff, an improved FIU Stadium and the promise of a new conference, fans eagerly await the new season. However, before the new season begins, it’s time to look at the first 10 years of FIU football, as well as the building years that made the inaugural 2002 season possible.
1998: The early years
The beginning of FIU football came to light in the blue sky above the Orange Bowl Oct. 10, 1998. As Florida State and Miami battled it out on the field below, a plane above trailed a banner reading: “FIU Football…Still Undefeated.”
A year earlier, then-FIU President Modesto A. Maidique appointed a task force to investigate the possibility of FIU football.
In the days following the plane’s flight, former FIU Alumni Director Eddie Hondal ’88, MS ’00, said FIU got the response it had hoped for: “We got a ton of calls from alumni excited about how they could help create the football program.” T-shirts were printed with the catchy slogan, “FIU Football…Still Undefeated” and handed out around campus.
And so it began.