Cristobal hits the ground running

Mario Cristobal was introduced Tuesday as the 26th head football coach in the University's storied football program. Photos: Mike Montero/University of Miami
By Robert C. Jones Jr.

Mario Cristobal was introduced Tuesday as the 26th head football coach in the University's storied football program. Photos: Mike Montero/University of Miami

Cristobal hits the ground running

By Robert C. Jones Jr.
At an introductory press conference, Mario Cristobal, Miami’s new head football coach, said the Miami Hurricanes football team will be known for its resiliency, toughness, and physicality.

The passing, catching, and blocking drills had ended, and the student-athletes of the University of Miami Hurricanes football team had already vacated Greentree Practice Field, hitting the locker room to shower and change into civvies. 

But inside the film room of the Hecht Athletic Center, two members of the team, a coach and a player, stayed behind. Graduate assistant coach Mario Cristobal and 6-foot 8-inch offensive lineman Bryant McKinnie analyzed video footage of elite Syracuse pass rusher Dwight Freeney, discussing the techniques McKinnie could use to neutralize him. 

“That was the way coach Cristobal was—always analyzing ways to get an advantage,” McKinnie recalled. “After practice or the day before a big game, he’d always pull me aside, and we’d study the defensive linemen I’d face and talk about fine-tuning my technique to come out on top. He always took that extra hour.” 

Those additional 60 minutes proved beneficial, for McKinnie would play that entire 2000 season without giving up a sack. 

Tuesday, on another practice field on the University’s Coral Gables Campus, McKinnie joined a throng of other former Hurricanes players, invited guests, media, and University leadership and trustees in welcoming Cristobal as the 26th head football coach of the U’s storied football program. 

A native son of Miami and a second-generation Cuban American, Cristobal comes to the University after four years as head coach at the University of Oregon, where he led the Ducks to back-to-back Pac-12 Conference Championships and a Rose Bowl victory while solidifying his reputation as a premier recruiter known for developing players into future NFL stars. 

“This is strong, and this hits as hard as it can hit,” Cristobal said of his Miami return. 

His arrival at the U is being hailed as a homecoming. He played at Christopher Columbus High School, only a 20-minute drive from the University’s Coral Gables Campus. And, as an offensive lineman for the Hurricanes from 1988 to 1992, he helped Miami win a pair of national championships. 

When he served as a graduate assistant at the University from 1998 to 2000, Cristobal helped mold and develop offensive linemen like McKinnie and others into All-Americans. After a brief stint at Rutgers, he returned to Miami as an assistant coach from 2004 to 2006. 

His coaching career would blossom even more. He spent six seasons (2007-2012) as head coach at cross-town Florida International University, taking over a program that was coming off heavy NCAA sanctions and a winless season and leading it to a Sun Belt Conference championship and bowl victory. 

And as an assistant head coach at Alabama in 2015, he helped the Crimson Tide win a national title. 

“While coach Cristobal’s record as a student-athlete and coach speaks for itself, our selection was not one based in nostalgia for a proud past, but rather in a bold vision for our future,” President Julio Frenk said at Tuesday’s press conference, held inside the Carol Soffer Indoor Practice Facility. 

“He has the drive, determination, discipline—and experience—we need at this moment to develop our existing and promising talent, to draw the very best to the U, and to take our football program to the next level,” Frenk said.

With his wife, Jessica, and two sons, Mario Mateo and Rocco, looking on, Cristobal shared his vision for the Miami football program, saying that he wants the squad to be known as relentless competitors, “a team known for its resiliency, its toughness, its physicality.” 

“How do you get there?” he asked. “You practice it. You rep. You do the things people aren’t willing to do again and again and again.”

Noting that South Florida is a hotbed for high school talent, Cristobal said recruiting will be the linchpin of the program. “You always have to elevate the caliber of athletes you have on a roster,” he explained. “There’s a reason the entire country comes here to try to get talent. It’s time to make sure the talent stays home.” 

If anyone can accomplish such lofty goals, it is Cristobal, said Brett Romberg, who played center for the Hurricanes from 1999 to 2002, winning the Rimington Trophy as the best college football player at his position. 

“He brought an accountability factor to the room, to the entire team when he was here,” Romberg said of the time Cristobal was a graduate assistant at Miami. “He was respected, and nobody wanted to mess with Mario. That’s one of the things that’s going to be one of the deciding factors here now. There’s going to be accountability.” 

Cristobal left no stone unturned, noted McKinnie, a two-time All-American at Miami who went on to star in the NFL, winning a Super Bowl and achieving Pro Bowl honors. 

“He taught us that our diets could make us even better,” McKinnie said. “Oatmeal and hardboiled egg whites—that’s what he told us to add to our diets. But we told him, ‘We don’t eat that, coach.’ But he was right. He programmed good nutrition into us, and it helped.” 

Board of Trustees Chair Laurie Silvers said Cristobal’s hiring is “emblematic of our willingness to commit” to making championship-caliber athletics a part of the institution’s future. “The direction in which we are taking athletics requires courage and conviction,” she added. “Our student-athletes have shown both, and we are excited about their future.” 

Cristobal praised the University for its investment in making sure student-athletes have the best chance for success, saying such a commitment was the overriding factor in his decision to come back to the U. 

“I feel more driven than ever,” he said. “I can’t wait to get to work.”