Three years ago, one victory was cause for celebration at Florida International.
Now, the Golden Panthers are enjoying something much more impressive — a trip to a bowl. It's a big step forward for a team that's endured embarrassing scenes on the field and tragedy off it.
"It's really one of the best stories in college football," coach Mario Cristobal said. "And I'd be saying it if it wasn't our team."
Three seasons after ending a 23-game losing streak, FIU will play in the Pizza Bowl on Sunday night against Toledo. It's the first bowl appearance for the program, which is in its sixth season in the Football Bowl Subdivision.
When Cristobal took over as coach, the Golden Panthers were coming off a winless 2006 season — and that was hardly their only problem. That year had been marred by an ugly brawl against Miami, where Cristobal had been an assistant.
"A month after we took the job we found out they were losing 25 scholarships from the previous regime's infractions," Cristobal said. "We knew we'd fall off the face of the earth for a couple of years."
The Golden Panthers finally snapped their losing streak in their final game of 2007, and they appeared to be on the rise when they went 5-7 the following season. Instead, they won only three games in 2009.
All those on-field woes were put into perspective this past March, when running back Kendall Berry was stabbed to death on campus.
For a program in need of some happy news, this season has been refreshing. After starting with four straight losses against a difficult schedule that included trips to Texas A&M and Pittsburgh, FIU went 6-2 in Sun Belt Conference play, finishing tied atop the league with Troy.
The reward for FIU (6-6) is a matchup with Toledo (8-4) at Detroit's Ford Field — not exactly a long trip for the Rockets. Toledo is returning to a bowl for the first time since 2005.
"This is huge for our program," Toledo coach Tim Beckman said. "It means we are getting better as a team, and we only have to travel 65 miles down the road."
Toledo quarterback Austin Dantin hurt his shoulder in late October, but Terrance Owens has done a good job filling in. The Rockets are dangerous as long as Eric Page is in the lineup. The 5-foot-10 sophomore has caught 94 passes this season and returned three kickoffs for touchdowns.
FIU has its own multidimensional threat. Wide receiver T.Y. Hilton caught four touchdown passes this season, ran for four more TDs and scored on a kickoff return.
Toledo would have preferred to make an even earlier visit to Ford Field, but the Rockets finished a game behind Northern Illinois in their division of the Mid-American Conference and missed out on the MAC title game, which was in Detroit.
"We wanted to be here on Dec. 3, but we're just going to be here 23 days later," Beckman said. "It's great that our kids will get a taste of Ford Field before next year's MAC championship game."
This is the second time in three years this bowl has brought in a Sun Belt team from Florida. In 2008, Florida Atlantic made the trip and beat Central Michigan 24-21.
It will also be the third straight season Toledo and FIU play each other. The Golden Panthers won at Toledo in September 2008, and the Rockets went on the road and returned the favor last year.
The teams will meet again this weekend, but on a grander stage. It's the type of moment Cristobal envisioned when he first took over.
"We thought maybe Year 4 or 5 we'd be competitive," he said. "So we're way ahead of schedule."
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