Don Strock knew he hit the big time when his program was 2-6 during its second year of transition to Division I-A.
The Florida International coach won't go as far as to say he was feeling pressure at that point last year. But let's say a drumbeat had started at the youngest major-college program in the nation.
|Strock's Golden Panthers are eligible to win a Sun Belt title in 2006.|
After only eight games, isn't there a honeymoon built in there somewhere?
"In the back of your mind are you thinking, give me a break ... " the Panthers coach said. "We don't even compete for a bowl until next year."
Big-time membership has its disadvantages, too. FIU football is entering its fifth season of existence -- first as a full I-A member -- with expectations. Maybe not Alabama-like expectations, but still expectations.
This is why we celebrate Strock's second year of membership by including him in the annual CBS SportsLine.com Hot Seat Rankings. Each offseason we act as judge and jury on the relative job security for I-A coaches (there are 119 this season).
Strock needn't worry ... for now. He's a 1.5 this year on a seat-melting scale of 5. The Panthers are good enough to win their first conference title and go to their first bowl in their first full year of I-A membership. An on-campus stadium is due by 2008. They have a natural rival -- Florida Atlantic -- which they beat for the first time last year.
Strock's security reflects a quiet offseason for hatchet jobs. Only a handful of schools changed coaches, which means only one thing. Look out. Patience has not been a virtue for athletic directors in the 21st century. Sixty-nine percent of the current I-A membership has changed coaches at least once since the end of the 1999 season (82 of 119).
Alabama is one of those schools with multiple-personality syndrome. Mike Shula (also a 1.5 this year) was Alabama's third coach in seven years. For now, he is a "survivor," having recently signed a contract extension that will pay him $1.8 million per year.
At the other end of the pay and hype spectrum is Strock, who was at the Miami campus with the program with little more than shoes, pads and promises.
Fortunately, the Panthers won their final three games in 2005 to finish 5-6. Not bad considering the school was more or less forced to move up to I-A status early, after the conference shakeups around the country.
"It's a different world, I think," said Strock, the former Dolphins backup quarterback, "when you starting talking about a tradition of Alabama, Penn State, a tradition of Miami and what they've done the last 20 years.
"Someone is talking about Miami going 9-3 and having a bad year. Give it to me."
Strock would have liked to have the ramp-up time of in-state startups Central Florida (18 years from startup to I-A) or even South Florida (five years).
FIU's quick start is proof that the tap on Florida talent hasn't run out. Football was started at the school essentially because it made sense. The commuter school of 34,000 students was the largest in the country without the sport.
President Modesto Maidique had a vision of the big time during a visit to The Swamp. Strock was hired in 2000. The school's first team kicked off less than two years later.
Last year, the Panthers were within seven after three quarters in last year's opener at Kansas State. It lost by three against defending Sun Belt champ North Texas and went 4-1 at home.
Two defenders -- linebacker Keyonis Bouie and defensive end Antwan Barnes -- are on this year's Lombardi Award watch list.
"The talent here is unbelievable," Strock said. "At the Dade-Broward (high school) All-Star game I saw Pete Carroll, Lloyd Carr and Phil Fulmer. They weren't here vacationing. I'm thinking. 'OK, why leave (to go recruiting)?'"
There's enough cruelty waiting on the road. Like most Sun Belt teams, FIU has to play its share of body-bag games, enough to ruin a sane man's psyche. This year's paycheck games are at Maryland, Miami and Alabama.
"Keep in mind we're not going into our 50th year, we're in our fifth year," Strock said. "The first group that came in here and we promised them they would be I-A and be in a conference. We didn't lie to them."