The process of bringing Mario Cristobal home to Miami has put college football on notice. The Hurricanes -- at the athletic department, university and local community levels -- are ready to make investments like never before to chase big-time success. Miami, of course, knows what that success at the highest level looks like, having won national championships across three different decades with four different coaches.
But it hasn't tasted that glory in 20 years.
Now that Cristobal is in place and already working to secure pieces of the program's future on the recruiting trail, it's time to wonder: what exactly does big-time success look like for Miami in the modern era?
It's unfair to Cristobal if Miami hopes he can magically transport the program back to the success of his playing days -- he won two national titles under Jimmy Johnson and Dennis Erickson as an offensive lineman between 1989 -1992 -- because no program other than Alabama is rolling off national championships every other year. Perhaps the expectations are a little more realistic, and it's hoping to see Cristobal lead the kind of rebuild seen under Butch Davis -- whom Cristobal worked under as a graduate assistant from 1998- 2000 -- and, eventually, the success of Larry Coker - Cristobal's boss from 2004-06.
Depending on your age, Miami being a college football power can have different meanings and context. But save for Howard Schnellenberger's initial elevation of the program in the 1980s, Cristobal has been there, or around, for nearly every one of the Hurricanes' golden years. What "back" means for Miami has always been a moving target, a constant juggle between optimistic goals and realistic expectations.
But with the investment required to buy out Manny Diaz and bring in Cristobal -- the former Oregon coach is signing a reported 10-year, $80 million contract -- there is an "all in" signal from Miami that doesn't allow for debate about expectations. Making this kind of move shows Miami expects to compete for championships and Cristobal is expected to be the coach who leads the way.
To Cristobal's credit, he knows this isn't going to be something that happens overnight. The hard work and "painful steps," as he calls them, that will be required to reach the heights of championship contention tapped into the familiar vision of dominance that includes an intimidation factor for the rest of college football.
"When the University of Miami is rolling -- and it takes a lot of work to get it there; we have a lot of work we have to do, some painful steps we cannot skip -- but when it's rolling, it's unique," Cristobal said Tuesday at his introductory press conference. "It's unlike anything else, from the university itself, the team, the brotherhood, the alumni, the city, the community, it's different. And I think everybody knows that. Hopefully, it's scary for others."
At the moment, he's toeing a fine line between embracing the raised expectations and reminding players and fans that it's going to be a process. Any kind of sustainable success at Miami can't be microwaved, and there will be challenges as the program ventures into new territories on the expected rise up college football mountain. But it won't only be new territory for the modern Miami program, but also new territory for its new coach.
Each of Cristobal's three full seasons at Oregon should be considered successful. The Ducks won nine games in 2018, 12 games in 2019 and 10 under his leadership in 2021. Pac-12 titles in 2019 and 2020 provide a nice set of trophies, and a top-five finish after winning the Rose Bowl two years ago changed the conversation around Cristobal and his standing among his peers. His reputation as a dogged recruiter paid off with some of Oregon's highest-rated prospects ever in the recruiting service era. Those recruiting trail wins are a big part of why Miami is willing to invest so much in his vision.
For all the recruiting wins, though, Cristobal has yet to make the College Football Playoff and contend for a national championship. Considering not only his contract, but investments in assistant coaches and support staff that will reportedly be among the highest in the ACC, it is fair to assume that matching his success at Oregon would simply result in a passing grade in a future evaluation. The expectations are not only that Miami will improve with each painful step in the path to championship contention, but that Cristobal will be right there with the program taking his next steps as a head coach and reaching heights he has yet to reach as well.
Immediately, the expectation is that Miami should be a contender in the ACC and at least begin to close the gap with Clemson. The Hurricanes got a taste of playoff contention in 2017, only to fall short at the end of the season and lose to the Tigers by five touchdowns in the ACC Championship Game. Making the ACC title game but falling short, like so many Coastal Division champions did from 2015-19, is not going to match the expectation for success under Cristobal in the modern era, and conquering Clemson will be one of those so-called painful steps. Exactly how Miami should grade Cristobal against the other top programs in the country is probably a conversation best had once he wins the ACC and/or makes the playoff.
So as Miami is redefining what success looks like in the modern era of college football, one of its own will be paving the path. Together they'll move forward, chasing new heights together as both coach and program chase the ever moving target that is bringing The U "back."