Brawl a blow to images of Miami, Florida International

Published 2:58 pm Thursday, October 19, 2006

University of Miami season ticket holder Carlos Alvarez sat in the stands at the Orange Bowl, his loyalties conflicted as he watched the Hurricanes play his alma mater, Florida International University.

“I’ve been a Hurricane fan for many, many, many years,” Miami-Dade County’s mayor said. “But I was rooting for FIU. Up until four years ago, they didn’t even have a team.”

Separated by only 9 miles, Florida International and the University of Miami are worlds apart when it comes to football. The crosstown matchup of underdog versus perennial power stirred strong sentiments when they met for the first time Saturday night, and emotions erupted in the second half with a bench-clearing brawl.

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No one was injured, but the melee has been played repeatedly on national television, hurting the image of both schools.

“It was outrageous,” said Gov. Jeb Bush, who considers Miami his adopted hometown. “It was horrible, a complete embarrassment. As a Hurricane fan I’ve gotten enormous grief, and justifiably so.”

For Miami, the fight reinforced a stereotype dating to the 1980s, when coach Jimmy Johnson’s trash-talking teams developed a rogue reputation that subsequent coaches have struggled to quell.

But the notoriety is new to Florida International, a commuter school striving to escape UM’s shadow since being founded in 1972.

“It’s unfortunate that some folks who have never heard of Florida International University now associate it with what occurred at the Orange Bowl on Saturday night,” said Alvarez, class of ’74. “FIU has made great strides as a university. It has a law school and is going to have a medical school. It’s a first-rate school.”

With nearly 38,000 students from more than 130 countries on a campus surrounded by suburban sprawl, Florida International is more than double the size of Miami. Programs at the state school range from hospitality management and creative writing to biomedical engineering. Alumni include U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Boston Red Sox third baseman Mike Lowell and Stephanie Burns, the president and chief executive of Dow Corning Corp.

Annual in-state tuition at Florida International is $3,400, compared with $30,000 at Miami, a private school founded in 1925 in verdant Coral Gables. Singer Gloria Estefan, actor Sylvester Stallone and NBA Hall of Famer Rick Barry went to Miami, which boasts a large medical school, a world-class oceanography program — and five national titles in football. Its president is Donna Shalala, who was President Clinton’s health and human services secretary.

The game Saturday offered Florida International an opportunity to make a big splash at the expense of its more renowned neighbor. The winless Golden Panthers’ roster is filled with players passed over by Miami recruiters, and there were plenty of former high school rivals on the two teams.

“This is a chance for a lot of guys here to show guys there, ’Hey, I could have been there with you,”’ Florida International linebacker Antwan Barnes said last week.

In the aftermath of the brawl, Hurricanes coach Larry Coker said he had feared trouble.

“You’ve got a lot of players maybe from their team that are frustrated because they’re not here and maybe weren’t recruited,” Coker said. “I was very concerned.”

The fight erupted in the third quarter of a surprisingly close game, just after the Hurricanes scored to take a 14-0 lead. Players charged from the sidelines, swinging helmets, throwing punches and stomping on each other until coaches, some teammates and police separated them. That made the final score a footnote — Miami 35, FIU 0.

“It was really disheartening to see two South Florida teams fall into that trap of trying to beat somebody with talk rather than with play, and then the thing escalating like it did and going on for so long,” said former Hurricanes coach Howard Schnellenberger, now the coach at Florida Atlantic. “To have something like that happen is really disgraceful.”

Florida International, in consultation with the Sun Belt Conference, kicked two players off the team and suspended 16 others. Miami conferred with the Atlantic Coast Conference and suspended 13 players.

One more game — next year — is scheduled in the series. Shalala will meet Thursday with Florida International president Mitch Maidique to decide whether the 2007 game should be canceled.

Florida International has long competed against Miami in other sports without problems. Sun Belt commissioner Wright Waters called the brawl “nauseating,” but said he hopes the rivalry can continue.

“This is a great thing for the city of Miami,” Waters said. “We had more than 50,000 people there.”