Miami’s Florida International University
inaugurates its new football stadium,
a major milestone in that institution’s
investment in sports
written by: Cláudio Lovato Filho
photos by: Américo Vermelho
Let’s go back a few hours before Rivest’s historical punt. It’s late morning, just five hours before the start of the game against the Bulls. The FIU campus is one big party. Students meet under canopies and around coolers containing lots of cold drinks to beat the heat while they wait for the big game to start. There is no shortage of hot dogs and hamburgers. They are having tailgate parties, a student tradition on American university campuses. These young people are living some of the best years of their lives and celebrating a very special event: the inauguration of the stadium in which the Golden Panthers, the home team, one of the sources of pride in their academic community, will host their games from here on in.
None of them seems to be worried about the fact that the Golden Panthers have lost their two previous games – the first of the season, both away games: 40 to 10 for the Kansas Jayhawks, the team from Kansas University, and 42 to 0 for the Iowa Hawkeyes, from the University of Iowa. They throw water on each other to cool off and have fun. They dance a lot and take pictures. In small groups or with their fraternity colleagues, almost everyone is wearing a piece of clothing bearing the letters “FIU” and the Golden Panthers logo: a big cat that’s about to pounce. They are young people like Omar Regalado, 21, an accounting student at FIU since 2005. He is thrilled: “It is a beautiful stadium,” he says. “It will generate more motivation for the students at FIU.” And what about the team, Omar? “It’s a young team. I hope that we have a good game today. But it doesn’t matter if the Panthers win or lose. I’ll always root for them.”
Omar was with a group of friends, listening to music cranked up to the highest level, but Joseph Medina walks along, alone, wearing his clown’s hat, gazing in awe at the new stadium. He is 19 and is in his freshman year of Biology. “This stadium is great, everyone here is very excited.” Sylvia Pozo, 25 years old, has been working at the FIU Alumni association for two years. Just like Joseph and Omar, she does not hide her enthusiasm: “This stadium will help unite the students.”
Back to the game. Or better, a few minutes before it begins. At the quick inauguration ceremony on the field, FIU President Modesto Maidique (who clearly would have complimented Sylvia Pozo if he had heard what she said) remarks: “This is the first day of a great tradition. Everyone here today will always be able to say: ‘I was there.’” Gilberto Neves, CEO of Odebrecht Construction, and Project Director Rudy Armenta are also on the turf. They feel rewarded. They applaud Maidique’s words and smile. Odebrecht was the company that built the new stadium. Maidique has a conviction: “This stadium will be a great gathering place for the ‘FIU Family.’”
In a few moments, the Golden Panthers will come onto the playing field, to the deafening cheers of the blue-and-yellow fans. Quarterback Paul McCall, number 12, attracts most of the attention. The fans place most of their hopes on him. Everyone hopes he will have a good day. In American football, the quarterback is the player responsible for making the offensive plays. He is the “brains of the team.” The Bulls come onto the playing field and, from the portion of the bleachers reserved for them, the small but noisy visiting group of fans shows its colors. Then the time comes for Dustin Rivest’s kick-off. He sets the ball on the turf with all the care in the world, takes his stance, pauses, breathes deeply and darts forward.
A new “cage”
The 38,000 students attending FIU come from more than 150 countries. Its alumnus community is composed of more than 100,000 people. Founded in 1972, FIU now offers around 200 graduate, post-graduate and doctorate programs, and is among the 30 largest universities in the country. The Golden Panthers, their American football team, are a young squad that was established five years ago and has been in the first university football division for 2 years. In the United States, the sport is one of the foremost ways that a university is able to set itself apart and gain recognition. Sports in general receive large investments, within the possibilities of each institution, but nothing currently compares to American football, the most popular sport in the United States, ahead of basketball and baseball. It was in the universities that football began to gain popularity. It should be pointed out that sports – especially a popular sport like American football – are a significant visibility factor. They are key to attracting new students.
“This has been a good year,” confirms the university’s Athletic Director, Pete Garcia. He has good reasons for saying this. The new stadium is an unequivocal sign that FIU is well on its way to becoming a sports hub in the academic world of Florida and the United States. The home of the Golden Panthers is the only stadium of the first division of college football located in a campus South of Orlando, which covers a vast area.
Ground was broken in May of 2007, under Project Director Rudy Armenta’s leadership. Since then, the small existing stadium on the campus has been transformed into a modern arena (or “cage,” as the FIU students jokingly call it, alluding to the team’s name, the Golden Panthers). The new stadium cost USD 45 million.
The bleachers have 17,000 aluminum seats. The stadium has four 1,000 kW (kilowatt) floodlight pillars, assuring lighting within the standards required by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), because most of the games are played at night and broadcast on TV. The inaugural game against the Bulls was televised on the ESPN sports channel.
A 600,000-sq.m club will operate at one end of the stadium. It will house a body-building gym and other facilities. There are 19 VIP boxes and 20 washrooms. The turf was laid in August. The field of the new stadium can also be used for the other kind of football (soccer, to Americans), because it was modified to contain the required measurements after a change in design, made at FIU’s request.
To begin its work, Odebrecht demolished the old stadium, with the exception of a 3,000-seat section. This part was incorporated into the new project, but will be demolished for the work in the second phase of expansion, which will increase the capacity of the home of the Golden Panthers to seat 45,000 people. The entire new structure was implemented according to the standards of protection from hurricanes and already in anticipation of this second stage. In the place of the remaining section, an admissions building will be constructed for new students. “It is a way for them to see, right under their noses, that the university has a beautiful stadium,” says Rudy Armenta.
Born in New York, Rudy is crazy about American football. He is happy to have led the construction of the new stadium for the Golden Panthers. But he is not just proud because he is a fanatic for the sport. Rudy got his engineering degree from FIU in 1996. “I feel very proud to be back,” says Rudy, who joined Odebrecht as a trainee, a year before graduating.
A faithful fan of the San Francisco 49ers, from San Francisco, California, Rudy was one of the almost 17,000 voices cheering for the Panthers in the inaugural game on September 20th. “To build a football stadium at the university that educated me is the best feeling!” says Rudy. “This stadium was designed and built by people that love sports, people that conceived it thinking about how they themselves would like to feel in a stadium,” he observes, referring to the Odebrecht team that worked on the project.
The first university client
FIU is the first university client that Odebrecht has had in the United States. “Our relationship is excellent,” stresses President Modesto Maidique. “The company has done a magnificent job in building this stadium, which will be a major meeting place for the FIU family.” Like him, FIU hopes to attract more local athletes, from other parts of Florida and from other states.
CEO Gilberto Neves, a Miami resident since 1991, is a fan of American football. He began a relationship with FIU shortly after arriving in the city. Many Odebrecht members in the United States have studied there. On the day of the inaugural game, Gilberto organized a group of Golden Panthers fans made up of Odebrecht Miami members. The company held its own tailgate party under a tent set up close to one of the stadium gates. On the t-shirt made specifically for that occasion, the following words were printed: “Odebrecht – Proud Builder of the FIU Stadium.” On the back, the Golden Panthers logo. “We have had a long and productive relationship with FIU,” says Gilberto. “A relationship that will continue with new projects here on campus.”
After the tailgate party, everyone went into the stadium to cheer the team on. The final score? It was 17 to 9 for the Bulls. Yes, the Golden Panthers lost. But it was a defeat that felt like… a tie. According to official projections, based on the statistics that take into account, among other things, the position of each team in the American college football rankings, the Bulls should have won the game by 28 to 0. As it was, the 120th-place Golden Panthers were facing the 12th-place Bulls. But the blood-bath many expected didn’t happen. Moreover, in the last quarter, the FIU team gave the USF Bulls a hard time, to the delight of fans that were discovering a new passion and another reason to have substantial pride in their university.
The Golden Panthers finally won a week later, in Toledo, Ohio: 35 to 12 against the Rockets, to the delight of their ever-vibrant head coach Mario Cristobal. They also won the following game, in Denton, Texas, in a confrontation with the Mean Green team: 42 to 10. The first victory on their home turf came on October 11th, against the Blue Raiders, from Middle Tennessee State University: 31 to 21. A date, a game and a score that all the future generations of FIU students will know by heart.