Expectations are high, but head coach Mario Cristobal was born to lead Miami’s football program

Head coach Mario Cristobal walks into Hard Rock Stadium with players on September 3, 2022. Photo credit: Alexandra Carnochan
Head coach Mario Cristobal walks into Hard Rock Stadium with players on September 3, 2022.
Head coach Mario Cristobal walks into Hard Rock Stadium with players on September 3, 2022. Photo credit: Alexandra Carnochan

First-year Hurricanes football head coach Mario Cristobal, who has over 20 years of Division I coaching experience, knows that leading a collegiate football team is no easy feat.

However, it is even more difficult coaching a Power Five program desperate to return to its glory days like the Miami Hurricanes.

Not everybody is built for that kind of pressure, but Cristobal was born to bring the ‘Canes back to greatness. A Miami native and double alumnus of the University, his entire life has been building up to this moment.

As a teenager, he played football for Christopher Columbus High School before attending the University of Miami at the height of its fame, winning two national championships in 1989 and 1991 as an offensive lineman. He began his coaching career at UM in 1998, where he worked as a graduate assistant under Butch Davis and later a tight ends coach under Larry Coker.

Academically, Cristobal received a bachelor’s degree in business administration and a master’s degree at UM. The university has had a great influence on Cristobal’s life and he’s drawing on his experiences in Coral Gables to make Miami a collegiate football powerhouse once again.

“When Miami is performing and rolling at a certain level, there’s nothing like it,” Cristobal said on ESPN in July. “The key to all [Miami’s success] was not about the flashy stuff or proclamations or tweets or t-shirts. It was all about the work.”

“The work done on the Greentree practice field,” Cristobal continued. “I used to be a guy that went out there, that had every opportunity as a kid, before high school and during high school, to watch that work … Those were the ingredients and the formula to Miami being that type of a program.”

Everything came full circle when Cristobal agreed to a 10-year, $80 million head coaching contract with the Hurricanes on Dec. 6 in the wake of a disappointing year that led to former head coach Manny Diaz being fired. The move showed the university was willing to spend big on athletics, a point of heated debate in years prior.

“My family and I are excited to return home to the University of Miami, which has been so instrumental in shaping me as a person, player and coach,” Cristobal said after he was named head coach.

“This program has an unparalleled tradition and an exciting future ahead of it,” Cristobal continued. “I can’t wait to compete for championships and help mold our student-athletes into leaders on and off the field who will make our university, our community and our loyal fan base proud.”

Cristobal had spent the past four years 3,000-plus miles away, where he led the University of Oregon to two Pacific-12 Conference (Pac-12) championships. With his track record, Cristobal’s hiring brought a renewed sense of hope, along with lofty expectations, to Coral Gables, where fans await another national championship.

“He’s been in a big program; he’s been on the big stage,” former Miami head coach Jimmy Johnson, who coached Cristobal his freshman year, said on UM G.O.A.T.S., a YouTube series featuring former Miami football legends. “He knows what it takes.”

This would not be the first time that Cristobal has turned around a football team in Miami, either. In 2007, he became the first Cuban American head coach in Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) history when he was named head coach of Florida International University (FIU), which is less than nine miles from UM.

“Are you ready to build something special or what,” Cristobal said in his introductory press conference. “This is an awesome day. I am ready to play a football game right now.”

When Cristobal arrived, FIU was coming off a winless season. Just three years later, in 2010, he was named Sun Belt Coach of the Year after leading the Panthers to a conference title and bowl-game victory.

However, one of football’s quickest turnarounds didn’t have a storybook ending. Cristobal’s time at FIU ended with his firing after a poor 2012 campaign, but he’s looking to stick the landing with Miami.

Turning around the ‘Canes, though, will be much harder, but it all starts with recruiting. South Florida is a hub for talented football players and when Miami ascended to the national spotlight in the 1980’s, they had a lock on athletes in an area termed ‘the State of Miami’ in the ESPN documentary, “The U”. The region extended from the 305 all the way up to Daytona Beach.

Fortunately for the Hurricanes, Cristobal has been building connections in South Florida all his life.

“Every now and then when I run across the street to get a bite to eat, I run into my little league baseball coach or football coach,” Cristobal said on ESPN in July.

On top of that, he’s also seen as a master recruiter. During his time at the University of Alabama, where he coached under Nick Saban from 2013-2016 and Oregon, he helped assemble top-15 recruiting classes in eight straight years. One of those teams, 2015 Alabama, even won a national championship.

[Cristobal] brings a pedigree; he’s won at the highest level,” Jimmy Johnson said in a YouTube interview with journalist Will Manso on NMD Canes’ channel. “He’s renowned as one of the top recruiters in the entire country and, obviously, he loves the University of Miami. So, he brings a lot of passion and energy.”

Cristobal had already worked recruiting wonders in his short time in Coral Gables. This summer, the Hurricanes landed Miami native and four-star wide receiver, Nathaniel Joseph, as well as five-star offensive tackle Francis Mauigoa, who played high school football at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla.

With Saturday’s win against Bethune-Cookman, the Mario Cristobal era has officially begun. And while there are certain to be hiccups along the way, Miami’s hometown hero is ready to give it his all.