Senior College Football Columnist

Cristobal turns Florida International around, and himself into a coaching commodity

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Cristobal's fledgling program is arguably ahead of Boise State at the same stage. (US Presswire)  
Cristobal's fledgling program is arguably ahead of Boise State at the same stage. (US Presswire)  

MIAMI -- Here at The Other End the smiles are more sincere, the work a lot harder and the satisfaction, well ... step inside Mario Cristobal's office for a moment.

"It's a hell of a book one day," Florida International's 41-year-old coach begins.

And with that Cristobal is off with harrowing memories of what it used to be like at FIU. Six years ago he arrived to find a toddler of a program needing one heck of a diaper change. Cristobal, of sound mind and body apparently, took over a program that was about to go on probation. By the coaches' count, the program lost 17 ineligible players, and sported an APR less than 900 (the new NCAA minimum is 930). Oh yeah, and it was coming off an 0-12 season.

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"It's kind of frightening the first meeting we ever had, I was the biggest guy in the room at 250 pounds," Cristobal continued. "That's not good. I was like, 'When is the varsity coming in?' We didn't get a weight room until going into our fourth year."

Before that, the workout facilities consisted of four benches inside roped off racquetball courts. Somewhere in a corner was an infomercial -- a Bowflex minus Chuck Norris.

Here at The Other End of major-college football is a rising program with a rising coach. The school exists in the shadow of big brother (Miami), playing in what is traditionally the lowest-rated FBS conference. The only link, in most people's minds, is that unfortunate 2006 brawl.

That doesn't make Cristobal, the Panthers and the Sun Belt any less worthy. It might make them the next Boise State. That's the standard, isn't it, for every wannabe trying to make do with a 20,000-seat stadium in a "What's That? conference" with big boys monopolizing the sport?

The case can be made: We are witnessing FIU's breakthrough before our eyes. The program is arguably ahead of the standard set by Boise State at a comparable stage. This season will mark Year 7 in FBS for the Panthers. In 2012, FIU has a chance to go to its third consecutive bowl.

Forget Boise for a moment, the comparison here will always be with the U. Cristobal grew up here, played offensive line and won national championships for the Hurricanes. The tall, striking coach oozes hotness as FBS' first Cuban-American coach. Cristobal has had more than one chance to leave, but is sticking around, at least for a bit longer.

"I lived near here forever [growing up], but I never took a drive around campus. My God, it's a beautiful place," Cristobal said.

That was before reality hit for a virtuous 35-year-old Miami assistant who was offered a job across town.

"Our first practice at the Orange Bowl, the buses didn't show," he said. "We had to get a bunch of station wagons."

Since then, FIU has won the conference (2010) and played in the first two bowl games in its 10-year history. Optimism and consternation are one. Cristobal is the next breakout coach from a conference where the inhabitants sometimes can't wait to exit The Other End.

If the Sun Belt is one thing, it is transitional. You adapt or die. And, frankly, there are a lot of slow deaths in this conference, which held its preseason media day Monday in New Orleans. But for those who adapt and use the league as a springboard, the Sun Belt experience works nicely. Hugh Freeze is at Ole Miss because of a 10-win season at Arkansas State. North Texas' Dan McCarney became a head coach again in 2011, five years after leaving Iowa State.

There just aren't enough of those stories. Four of the league's 10 coaches have been on the job less than two seasons. Two others are entering their third seasons. Eight of the conference's coaches have losing overall records since coming to the Sun Belt or have never coached an FBS game.

The conference's place at The Other End forces it to play those dreaded guarantee games just to make budget. The games guarantee two things -- a big paycheck and that the visiting team will likely be sent home bruised, beaten and bloody. Hopefully with enough energy left to compete in their league.

Another guarantee: Cristobal really is the next breakout coach from the Sun Belt, one way or another. If he doesn't leave after the upcoming season, FIU has already said it will. The school is moving to Conference USA in 2013.

Meanwhile, Cristobal remains one of the great mysteries of this offseason. Both Pittsburgh and Rutgers came after him hard to fill their vacancies. It seemed like a no-brainer to move up the food chain for major money.

Cristobal becomes reserved for the first time in the almost hour-long conversation explaining why he stayed -- for now.

"We've got a good thing going on here," he says, "Obviously, I'm very flattered."

If Cristobal didn't figure it out himself, he was likely counseled by close friends. He could do better by staying here and waiting. He worked under former Rutgers coach Greg Schiano for three seasons. Schiano performed near miracles in 11 seasons, finishing a cumulative one game above .500 in Piscataway.

There are similar amazing acts being performed here. And who knows what jobs are going to be open next season for a coach who is 14 games below .500 in his career? Arkansas? Tennessee? Maryland? Boston College? The ultimate play for Cristobal might be to wait for his alma mater to open up. While Al Golden is safe at Miami, NCAA sanctions hang over the program like a sack of ... spit.

What those programs will be getting:

 A rock solid coach who dug out of the FIU probation much like Butch Davis did at Miami. One big difference: Davis was at an established powerhouse.

 A recruiter who was able to get returner/receiver T.Y. Hilton, who delivered what little national notoriety the program has achieved. Sometimes change happens in strange ways. Hilton became FIU's first star when he laid a couple of hats out on a bed during the recruiting process.

"[His] baby kept crawling to the FIU hat," Cristobal said.

"He legitimately told me on Signing Day, 'The first time I touch the ball, I'm taking it to the house,' the coach added. "The first game against Kansas, he takes the punt and goes 74 yards."

 An ability to play up. Wins over Louisville and Central Florida last season pushed the Panthers to an eight-win season for the first time and a second consecutive bowl.

 A visionary. Cristobal has the Miami landscape wired. He also played high school ball in the stadium that is now the quaint, clean, on-campus Alfonso Field.

Guess who was the first school to offer Heisman finalist Tyrann Mathieu? FIU has made the claim. At one time, "it was us and Miami [Ohio] were the only offers he had," said recruiting coordinator Dennis Smith.

"Now people associate FIU with things we've done," he added. "The only thing we always sell is Miami."

The city, the weather, the diversity, the U. There are a lot of folks who don't know FIU from FAU, but they know five national championships. That's what Cristobal has to be selling -- even if it is indirectly -- as much as anything.

There is a bit of a Miami mafia at the school. AD Pete Garcia graduated from Miami in 1984 and is the 'Canes' former recruiting coordinator. Secondary coach Jeff Popovich (a former walk-on at Miami) and Smith (football operations, in addition to recruiting coordinator) were Hurricanes.

And, of course, Cristobal, the Miami native with a national championship legacy. He can't wait to remind you that FIU's enrollment is exploding -- 48,000 now and projected to be 62,000 in a couple of years, making it one of the largest schools in the country.

"Second only to Ohio State," Cristobal calculates.

The coach already has a reputation for turning chicken bleep into chicken cordon bleu. Freakish defensive end Tourek Williams runs a sub-4.7 40 at 6-foot-4, 260 pounds. The offensive line -- Cristobal's baby -- returns four starters. The coach says the staff already has evaluated 5,128 prospects for the 2013 recruiting class. At The Other End, winning 15 games the past two seasons is a helluva feat in a league where you're in danger of going 0-4 in the non-conference in any given year. The 15-7 run since October 2010 is the best in school history. Modest, yes, but it beats returning from September in a body bag.

"The first time I was introduced to that term [guarantee game] was when I arrived here," Cristobal said. "Alabama was the most physical team we ever saw."

That was in 2009. Deep into the third quarter, FIU trailed by only six at Bryant-Denny. Alabama eventually won 40-14. The next season, the Panthers led by seven in the fourth quarter at Texas A&M, losing 27-20. That same season, FIU trailed by six with 12 minutes left at Pittsburgh. Florida International lost by 27.

When FIU went to Penn State in 2007, coaches had to ask each other if Beaver Stadium's field had a massive crown. When Nittany Lions stood in the middle of the field Penn State "seemed about a foot and a half taller and four feet wider than we were."

"The hardest thing along the way was getting the guys to understand, unfortunately there are painful steps that cannot be skipped," Cristobal said. "It's not a victory, it's not consolation, it's a legitimate battle going on. It's not going on by accident."

At that moment, a local prospect wanders into the football complex with his parents for a visit. The interview must be interrupted. When Cristobal returns, he is gushing. Did you see the kid's Facebook page? He's a hunter. Wild boar. Good vibe.

"Those are the kind of kids we built this program on," Cristobal said. "So many schools drove right by that kid's school and they don't make the stop."

After the Hilton, Williams and the others, the coach wonders if this is the one that turns those guarantee games into guaranteed wins.

"Can he do it? Can he take hard coaching?" Cristobal says, almost to himself.

Can the coach himself stick around long enough to answer those questions? Another example that life in the Sun Belt at The Other End is always transitional.


Anyone in need of a credential from all the BCS title games? Dennis Dodd has them. In three decades in the business, he's covered everything from the Olympics to Stanley Cup to conference realignment. Just get him on campus in a press box in the fall. His heart lies with college football.
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