BY MICHAEL VASQUEZ
In a year when public universities statewide are slashing academic programs and laying off employees, FIU’s cheerleading team is the latest to get the ax.
The decision follows FIU’s recent move to eliminate its marching band — also a fixture at football games.
To fill the musical void, the school is exploring the possibility of bringing in high school bands so that fans can still hear FIU’s fight song between passing plays.
”This economy has forced us to make some very tough choices,” FIU Athletics Director Pete Garcia said in a written statement. “Unfortunately, FIU athletics is neither immune to the current economic conditions nor to the fact that the university, in general, has had to cut prominent programs across the board.”
This year, state funding for public universities dropped significantly as lawmakers in Tallahassee coped with a third consecutive year of shrinking tax revenues. To close a nearly $35 million budget gap, FIU increased tuition 15 percent, imposed staff layoffs and eliminated some sparsely attended degree programs.
Doing without a cheerleading squad will save FIU an estimated $45,000 annually.
FIU’s cheerleading coach, however, protested the way university administrators handled the decision. For one, FIU just recently finished recruiting this year’s squad — which required extensive tryouts and interviews.
Coach Maria George, a former Miami Dolphins cheerleader, also questioned why FIU administrators hadn’t responded to her offer to work for free and to finance the cheerleading team through private sponsorships and donations.
”All FIU now has is a mascot and a dance team,” George said. “They’re cutting the college pageantry out of college sports.”
Before these lean economic times, FIU’s athletic department worked ambitiously to make a name for itself.
Last year, the school opened its new $50 million on-campus football stadium. Then in April, FIU tapped well-known — though controversial — Hall of Fame basketball player Isiah Thomas to coach the long-struggling men’s basketball team. That same month, FIU also touted the cheerleading squad’s national ranking.
”FIU cheer: The rebirth of a dynasty,” proclaimed the athletic department’s website.
FIU administrators now say they’re only willing to keep cheerleading if George can raise enough private funds, and that dollars also be committed for future years.
One-time dollars ”would just push it off a few months, and that wouldn’t solve the problem,” said Richard Kelch, assistant athletic director for media relations.
By Thursday afternoon, George said news reports of the cheerleading team’s demise had prompted an outpouring of community support. FIU cheerleaders were scheduled to be interviewed Friday morning on the highly-rated Enrique Santos Show on La Kalle 98.3 FM. TV news crews planned to publicize the team’s 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday car wash fundraiser at Wheels Boutique 2, 9280 SW 40th St.
Through that fundraiser and others, George was hopeful that enough private money could be pieced together for cheerleading to survive. George said $25,000 in donations would keep the program going for the 2009-2010 academic year.
But the coach was less optimistic about meeting FIU administrators’ demand that the team also secure sufficient private funding for future years before being reinstated.
”Just ridiculous,” George said of that requirement. “These kids are athletes. They need to be supported by their school.”
While other colleges offer cheerleaders full tuition scholarships, FIU’s cheerleaders receive only a modest scholarship to pay for textbooks. Yet the program has blossomed under George’s leadership during the past eight years. ”FIU has a great reputation — year after year we always rank really high in the national competition,” said team captain Rachal Girolmetti. “A lot of kids come from out of state to FIU just to cheer on our cheering team.”
As a result of their national standing, George roughly doubled the size of FIU’s squad during this year’s tryouts — the team grew to 46 students.
But instead of learning new routines, FIU’s cheerleaders are now preoccupied with paying the bills and dealing with an uncertain future.
”All the kids are willing to fund-raise,” George said. “All the parents right now are looking for sponsors.”