Saturday, May 21, 2022

A move 25 years in the making, Mario Cristobal aims to bring emotion and edge back to Miami football

CORAL GABLES, Fla. — Mario Cristobal told Butch Davis he’d be here, sitting in the ultimate position of power as Miami’s head football coach. The proclamation came a quarter century ago. Cristobal, one of the heaviest of heavyweight coaches these days, was interviewing to become a graduate assistant at his alma mater.

“What do you want out of this?” asked Davis, then the Hurricanes coach.

“I want to be in your seat,” Cristobal replied.

“What do you mean?” countered the coach with three Super Bowl titles to his name.

“I want to be head coach at the University of Miami,” Cristobal said.

That was 1997. Cristobal was making the move from public relations to coaching. Davis was busy dragging his program out of a crippling NCAA probation. Before leaving for the NFL in 2001, Davis stocked the roster with some of the best collegiate talent of all time.

In December 2021, Cristobal finally filled that seat he had coveted for so long. It’s come 20 years after the Canes’ last national championship. Actually, it’s come because it’s been 20 years since the Canes’ last national championship.

The school has chased Davis’ legacy for that long. Five coaches have come and gone since 2001. Larry Coker won a championship with Davis’ players but didn’t sustain success long enough. There was Randy Shannon, Al Golden, Mark Richt and Manny Diaz.

Something changed when the administration decided to go all-in on Cristobal last year. The 51-year-old former Miami offensive lineman with two national championship rings was conflicted before ultimately deciding to leave Oregon after a highly successful five-year stay.

“I was not leaving until [Miami] was designed to be a championship program,” Cristobal said. “Without that, there is no reason.”

The new coach isn’t only recent Canes coaches with ties to the area. Shannon was a Miami linebacker from 1985-88. Diaz grew up in Miami; his father was mayor of the city.

But perhaps no Miami coach in the last 25 years has articulated the mission at The U so well.

“I wore this uniform,” Cristobal said. “Our alumni, that’s a brotherhood. … I’m talking about in here, the blood.”

Cristobal ultimately made the choice to leave one of sports’ biggest power brokers, Phil Knight, and join a nouveau riche of administrative clout at Miami. Reports out of South Florida stated the move was orchestrated by a small cadre of boosters with the blessing of UM president Julio Frenk.

“All I want to say is I was very supportive,” said billionaire John Ruiz.

Ruiz has been more than supportive. He developed a name, image and likeness collective that the Miami Herald reported will pay 17 Miami football players more than a combined $500,000 this year.

Miami’s new power brokers moved so quickly that Cristobal was hired before athletic director Dan Radakovich, who ultimately replaced the fired Blake James.

“You ever been to Augusta?” Radakovich asked, referring to the Georgia-based site of the Masters. “Augusta is surrounded by strip malls and industrial areas. And then you go down Magnolia Lane and there’s this oasis of Augusta National. There’s a little bit of that here [in Coral Gables].

“Around the campus is U.S. 1, and it’s a busy highway. There’s some neighborhoods around it. But when you come to campus, it’s beautiful. It’s an oasis, but the athletic facilities have really been shoe-horned, is the best way to put it, into the available space.”

Radakovich was persuaded by a reported salary of $2 million per year, one of the highest in the industry, and a chance himself to come home. The 63-year-old got his MBA from UM in 1982 before transitioning, wide-eyed, to become Miami’s 25-year-old athletic business manager in October 1983. That was smack in the middle of that magical first national championship season.

If there is a gene for such a thing imprinted on those who have experienced it, Radakovich and his new coach bond that way, too.

“You are crowned the best at what you do,” Cristobal said. “That’s a game changer for the rest of your life. Whether you achieve it every year or not, you know you can do it. It becomes your way of life.”

Radakovich’s arrival lent credibility to that side of the makeover. Beginning his 18th year at an ACC school, he is known for raising money and building facilities. Those are the primary underpinnings planned for Cristobal to lead the return to glory.

Build it — especially expanding the current 70-yard indoor facility to 100 yards — and they will come.

“Mario’s basis and his foundation is the line of scrimmage,” Radakovich said. “… That gives you a chance to win. You’ll find the skill players.”

The question floating on the nearby waves and breezily wafting through the palm trees: Why now?

A collective nerve may have been struck in September when ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit questioned Miami’s commitment to football.

Whatever the case, something changed here, something more than wishing for the old days. Throw in Cristobal’s reported 10-year, $80 million contract and Miami is making an unprecedented commitment to play with the big boys.

A lot of those big boys have infiltrated South Florida over the past two decades after Howard Schnellenberger claimed to erect a recruiting fence around what he called “The State of Miami”.

Miami’s donors, boosters and administration may just be getting started. Ruiz wants to build a new stadium on, or near, campus. While that may be a longshot, it matters that voices like Ruiz’s have traction in Miami’s retrenching.

“I just relate to him,” Ruiz said of Cristobal. “He’s got an identical personality to me: no-nonsense. It’s always business, super competitive. He wants to get all the pieces in the right place. … He knows his business better than anyone else. I think this is all the stars aligning.”

On a recent morning in his office, Cristobal spoke about the forces that brought him home.

He grew up in South Florida, a second-generation Cuban-American. Mario and his brother, Lou, played side-by-side on the offensive line for Jimmy Johnson and Dennis Erickson. Parents Luis and Clara carved out a proud existence in the area.

Adding to the weight of the decision was Cristobal having recently been commuting from Oregon to South Florida to be with his ailing mother, who has been hospitalized for almost three months.

“It was the hardest decision of my life because I felt we were establishing that kind of culture out there [at Oregon] — applying the Alabama blueprint, the Nick Saban blueprint,” Cristobal said. “The tipping point was the fact that I played here. That will always mean more.”

The decision was agonizing because his sons, ages 10 and 12, had grown up playing catch with Derrick Henry and Calvin Ridley at Alabama. (Cristobal was a Bama assistant from 2013-16, recruiting some of the biggest names in the game.)  At Oregon, Cristobal had just bought a house where it was a 1.4 mile drive to the office and 3 miles to take the boys to school. Their heroes at Oregon were the likes of quarterback Justin Herbert and offensive lineman Penei Sewell.

“My boys,” he said, “were shook.”

The recent investment by Miami and its donors, sources say, matches or surpasses SEC programs. That’s what this has to be about since the Strength Everywhere Conference has lapped just about everyone in the sport.

“Watching Miami from afar, I felt like over the last several years it was being postured [in recruiting] more of a vacation destination — like, palm trees,” Cristobal said. “That’s not Miami football. Miami football is grit, physicality and speed, playing with an edge.”

Cristobal left behind at Oregon a Rose Bowl win, two Pac-12 titles and three of the best recruiting classes in program history. Subsequent NFL Draft classes should be populated with top-10 picks he recruited.

Schnellenberger’s “State of Miami” may never exist again. Cristobal reminds that the quarterback from that 2001 team was from California (Ken Dorsey). The center was from Canada (Brett Romberg). The All-American tight end was from Oklahoma (Jeremy Shockey). The star offensive tackle was from New Jersey (Bryant McKinnie).

Miami just needs players — from anywhere. There are five assistants still left to hire. The defensive coordinator spot was filled this week with a veteran star, Kevin Steele.

Cristobal keeps coming back to that blood, that edge, that defines him. Emotion is not going to be a problem for Cristobal’s Canes. The man never stops recruiting.

His first Miami class is ranked No. 15 in the 247Sports Composite, third in the ACC. One service had the Canes at No. 8 in average recruit ranking.  

A conversation was interrupted last month when a recruit texted Cristobal with what looked like a commitment.

“He sent me fireworks,” the coach said. “That’s a good sign.”

Back in the days when Cristobal was playing on national championship teams in 1989 and 1991, there wasn’t such instant gratification. There still had to be an official declaration from the polls of the national champion after the game were played.

“We beat Nebraska [in the 1992 Orange Bowl] and everybody is in a festive mood, party mode,” Cristobal said. “I just wanted to grab my two cheeseburgers and my set of fries and go upstairs and sit in front of the TV until it was official. … They finally declared it, and I’m pretty sure I passed out with half a cheeseburger in my mouth. I woke up fully clothed.”

Before that first GA job, Cristobal worked 1.5 miles from the Miami campus at that public relations firm. In his idle time, Cristobal would fax then-tight ends coach Rob Chudzinski offensive line protections.

Chudzinski thought his former teammate’s passion was such that he should apply for the GA job.  

“I said no,” Cristobal remembered. “I’ve seen GAs. GAs get coffee. GAs go get laundry. GAs are on fart patrol. That’s not my thing.”

Davis eventually sat down the reluctant applicant and told him there would be no family birthdays, no weddings, no parties, no holidays. Of course, Cristobal was hooked.

He had to take a side job to make ends meet. Former strength coach Tommy Moffitt slipped him expired supplements (oatmeal, shakes) to supplement the GA’s meals.

“That,” Cristobal said, “was like Christmas.”

In that office decorated by pictures of Miami’s former national championship coaches, the new coach reflects in a quiet moment on the ultimate reason why he is here.

“Having worn the uniform, it is the right move. It is a powerful move,” Cristobal said. “It is a passionate, emotional move. And it is bittersweet.”

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