MARIO CRISTOBAL TO MIAMI HURRICANES FAITHFUL; “ARE YOU NOT ENTERTAINED?”

There’s an old adage in journalism about a focus on being right, opposed to the empty calories that come from being first and risking getting it wrong.

Unfortunately, old school sportswriting processes don’t exist when everyone has a voice, platform and take via social media—the constant race to break news, or to offer scathing critique with limited information—with emotion besting logic and common sense.

If someone isn’t giving their hot take on Twitter within minutes of reading a rumor on a message board—don’t even bother playing the game or attempting to enter the chat, as you’re too late.

Before this rant goes all “old man yells at cloud”, let’s cut to the chase and make sense of the past almost-three months in Hurricanes history.

Former Oregon head coach Mario Cristobal lost the Pac-12 title game on Friday December 4th and by Monday morning he was announced as the University of Miami’s 26th top dog—returning to his alma mater after a strong run with the Ducks, and four career-building years in Tuscaloosa, where he drafted his blueprint on how to build a juggernaut while studying every move Nick Saban made.

That in itself should’ve been the only storyline and national focus.

Instead, a hot mess of Miami supporters frustrated with the timeline—while critics, attention-starved talking heads and garden-variety haters piled-on UM in regards to process, or leaving it’s current head coach out to dry for 48 hours—as if he didn’t pull his own shady moves two years prior.

The story wasn’t about Cristobal’s homecoming; instead a focus on how he left Oregon, or how Miami worked under the radar to land the architect for a return to glory. If the same storyline surrounded any program outside of the University of Miami, the narrative would’ve been everything and it’d have been the feel-good story going into the off-season.

For any out-of-the-know, Cristobal is a Miami native who played for local Christopher Columbus High and stayed home to play for the hometown Hurricanes–where he won two national championships under Jimmy Johnson and Dennis Erickson—before joining the program as a grad assistant under Butch Davis, which he parlayed into an invite to resume-build by join Greg Schiano at Rutgers, when the former defensive coordinator was named head coach in 2001.

Three successful years in Piscataway sent Cristobal back to UM for a three-year run coaching tight ends and offensive line—before nearby Florida International gave him his first shot as a head coach, cutting his teeth with the Golden Panthers for six seasons.

Cristobal took the underfunded, poorly-run program to its first bowl game—and first post-season win—before the experiment prematurely crapped out and he was off to Alabama to learn from the best in the biz, which paved his way to Oregon and a spot with the Willie Taggart-led Ducks—where he was promoted to head coach when Taggart bailed for Florida State.

Cristobal looked in for the long-haul with Oregon—a 35-12 run over four seasons with the Ducks, highlighted by a 12-2 season and Rose Bowl win in 2019—as well as three division titles and two Pac-12 championships.

It’s this point of the story where Miami most take pause, as Cristobal-to-the-Canes couldn’t have been more far-fetched as 2021 came to a close. The on-the-rise head coach was building something special in Eugene—all the money, all the resources and his own Nike contract from Phil Knight to help sweeten the pot. Life was good for Cristobal and arguable a 99% chance he would settle in for a lengthy run with a Pac-12 contender.

All that to say, one-in-a-million shots are discussed for a reason—because sometimes the 1% wins out and the improbable actually happens when stars align perfectly.

While all was well in the Pacific Northwest, a story was brewing downs south as Miami continued its lengthy run of underachieving under Manny Diaz—the Canes’ fifth head coach in 14 seasons—seismic shifts fast-taking place with new, big-money, billionaire boosters coming out of the works and hellbent on bringing Cristobal home to build a winner. (Not to mention, influential 305-bred moguls like John Ruiz and family on a mission to get ‘The U’ it’s own near-campus stadium at Tropical Park, or elsewhere.)

If not for Diaz’s early face-plant this past season—digging a year-three hole impossible to crawl out of—the final six weeks of 2021 don’t play out in miraculous fashion for ‘The U’—and even now, its still somewhat impossible to fathom just what the f**k happened to reverse this brutally-bad course Miami had been on; UM crying poor for decades, not making a financial commitment to building a winner and settling for low-rent, knee-jerk, safe hires for years.

Cristobal-caliber coaches were forever out of reach for ‘The U’—until one day they weren’t; a fact that when combined with daily noise on social media, via a fan base that’s been as off-track as this program itself the past two decades—it helps make sense of the chaos witnessed the past 76 days since a program-defining changing of the guard that still doesn’t feel real.

These new ways, big moves and monstrous off-season victories have even proven too much for some to grasp—tripped up every step of the way, with no ability to let things play out before coming in hot.

Kevin Steele was hired as Miami’s defensive coordinator just over two weeks ago—February 3rd and one day after National Signing Day, where Cristobal worked his magic over a seven-week span to turn Diaz’s disastrous 60th-ranked class into the 15th-best in the nation—an all-killer, no-filler haul of 14 players, with a few late-in-the-process surprises.

In vintage Miami fan fashion, the narrative remained focused on those who got away—some blaming a lack of a defensive coordinator when highly-coveted defensive end Shemar Stewart stuck with Texas A&M, instead of focusing on the fat NIL bags Jimbo Fisher and staff dropped, en route to what on-paper is the most-talented recruiting haul of all-time—packed with seven 5-Star ballers, including Stewart.

The second half of December and all of January was nothing but a bitch-fest regarding the timing surrounding assistant hires; digs at Cristobal “striking out”, dragging his feet or being in over his head—while any who praised his thoroughness or process was immediately mocked as the Miami Miserables relied on old muscle memory—expecting things to go south or quickly blow up, as has been the case since 2005.

In a matter of weeks, Cristobal took Diaz’s 60th-ranked class and finished with a punch-packing No. 15 group.

FOCUS ON THOSE ONBOARDED; NOT WHO GOT AWAY

In mid-January, defensive backs coach Travaris Robinson was poached by Alabama—many unable to grasp that when Saban calls, smart coaches answer, take the promotion and haul-ass to Tuscaloosa to further their careers—just as Cristobal did post-FIU, after temporarily agreeing to join Al Golden and staff in 2013—sticking around a matter of days before he was called-up to Bama’s big leagues.

At the same time, there were also leaks that Arkansas offensive coordinator Kendal Briles supposedly turned down Cristobal in the Canes—when in reality, it appeared to be a textbook negotiating move to shake down the Razorbacks for more cash. (According to Miami, no offer was ever made—and per Cristobal’s hiring history, offers aren’t extended to assistants not legitimately committed to getting on board.)

Cristobal was attacked for “losing” Robinson—fans in sky-is-falling mode again. The ace recruiter and former secondary coach who called Miami his “dream job”—it was now and indictment on Miami’s new leader for “T-Rob” wanting to beef up his resume by working for the best-run program in the sport.

The perceived “hits” continued days two weeks later when co-offensive coordinator Bryan McClendon—who followed Cristobal from Eugene to Coral Gables—got a shot to return to his alma mater and trekked north to Georgia to work under Kirby Smart and the defending national champs. The topic resulted in an all-over-the-place, 72-page thread on CanesInSight—one that went as far as attacking McClendon’s wife’s looks as why she didn’t feel comfortable in Miami—prompting his barely-got-to-know-you stint at UM.

Not for nothing, but Charlie Kelly and his “Pepe Silvia” evidence wall on a fan-favorite episode of It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia comes across more logical than some of these current message board threads and Twitter Spaces rants.

Robinson and McClendon jumping ship, no assistants hired by NSD—too many refusing to let things play out; chastising Cristobal and prematurely playing that here-we-go-again card—negativity was quickly replacing all new goodwill surrounding the program, and for what? These self-imposed timelines by overly-aggressive fans who want to make up 15 years of incompetence in 15 minutes?

Whatever self-imposed dark skies fans chose to hover under for two months—clouds finally parted after the Steele hire and February has gone gangbusters ever since for Cristobal and his Canes.

Three days after landing a veteran defensive coordinator, Cristobal poached Michigan offensive coordinator Josh Gattis—the 2021 Frank Broyles Award Winner also a masterful recruiter who runs a balanced offensive attack and is a massive addition to the staff.

Next up, the Robinson void was filled—and improved upon—when Cristobal poached Georgia’s defensive backs coach Jahmile Addae from Smart’s staff. Addae was ranked by 247Sports as the nation’s No. 2 recruiter for the Class of 2022—the Dawgs No. 1 in scoring defense, No. 1 in red zone defense and No. 2 in total defense during their 2021 title run.

No McClendon? No problem, as Cristobal reeled in Appalachian State offensive coordinator Frank Ponce in a quarterback coach and passing game coordinator role. Ponce is another ace recruiter and was a successful head coach at Miami Senior High, where he also played—these deep local ties set to pay dividends with local high school coaches on the recruiting trail.

For good measure, to add a little more beef to the defensive side of the ball regarding experienced position coaches, it was announced Friday night that Cristobal is adding Charlie Strong to his staff as linebackers coach.

The former longtime Florida defensive coordinator—and top-flight recruiter—parlayed that success into a four-year stint as Louisville’s head coach, before getting hired away by Texas and then a run at South Florida in the same role. One year as an Alabama assistant lead to a one-year role with the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2021—and now he’s on board with Cristobal’s Canes.

Another sneaky little pull during this February to remember—former Michigan State staffer Andrew Rodgers took his talents to Coral Gables two weeks back. One big storyline from 2021; how the Spartans and Mel Tucker dominated the Transfer Portal with two dozen new players—including former Wake Forest running back Kenneth Walker Jr.—it was Rodgers who creates lists and compiled the info for Tucker regarding these transfers.

Add these key pieces to staff that already saw Joe Salave’a (defensive line), Alex Mirabal (offensive line), Aaron Feld (strength and conditioning) and Jeff Eaton (assistant strength coach) following Cristobal from Eugene to Coral Gables—this might’ve just become the best top-to-bottom coaching staff in the ACC in a matter of weeks.

Translation; Cristobal and Miami are going to go ham on the Portal in the coming month, in a way that should even supersede Diaz’s impressive three-year off-season run.

Highsmith in a much-talked about GM-type role; the final piece to the infrastructure puzzle Cristobal is building.

Lastly, for context- and narrative-sake—chatter surrounding Alonzo Highsmith returning to Miami in the oft-talked about GM role many wanted him in a year ago—balls seem to be in motion. Manny Navarro of The Atlantic–and former Miami Herald UM beat writer—guested on the a recent “Wide Right” podcast and worked in the Highsmith tidbit (around the 53:35 mark) when discussing if Ed Reed will continue in his Chief of Staff role under Cristobal.

All of this recent movement playing to the hyperbolic title of this piece—the Maximus Decimus Meridius quote from Gladiator—after the former Roman general makes mincemeat of a few well-armed opponents. Cristobal remains fueled—by his Cafecito scuba tank and desire to build a winner—to hear, or give a collective shit about any critique or outside noise.

Not delivering on superfans’ timetables? No one gives a shit. Questioning the resume of guys he thoroughly interviewed through a rigorous process? That’s why Cristobal pockets a reported $8,000,000 annually and has a monster budget to bring on who he deems the ideal fit—while critics furiously peck away online, getting Doritos dust all over their keyboards.

FROM PRETENDERS TO CONTENDER-ISH OVERNIGHT

Incredible to think that three short months ago Miami was shuffling out of Doak Campbell Stadium as losers, dropping a must-win game to a joke of a Florida State program that had won six football games dating back to October 2020—upset at home by Jacksonville State two months prior, and sitting at 3-5 when the Hurricanes rolled in.

Fans were at their wits end with Diaz—the 1-2 start to open his third season at the helm; demolished by Alabama (mocked for celebrating with silly jewelry while getting manhandled) and outlasted by Michigan State (outscored 21-3 in fourth quarter after holding up “four fingers”)—while almost upset by Appalachian State in-between the two (a late field goal to escape victorious).

The chase for a Coastal Division title was even all but out the window by mid-October—sitting at 0-2 in conference after gut-wrenching, slow-start, last-second losses to Virginia and North Carolina.

The unexpected emergence of Tyler Van Dyke and a Heisman-like performance from the new quarterback helped Miami go 5-1 from that point on—but it also masked a dismal defensive performance as Diaz’s unit underperformed, regressing as the year rolled on.

There was zero hope going into 2022 had this madness continued; Diaz set to lose offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee—by way of Van Dyke’s emergence and SMU wanting their former play caller to return in a head coaching role—while Diaz stubbornly stuck to his self-imposed dual role of program CEO and maligned defensive shot-caller.

Recruiting was a disaster and a 7-5 run killed any improvement narrative had Diaz returned for year four—but everything changing when a few rogue Miami boosters went big game fishing and set out to  in Cristobal.

The act itself nothing more than a pipe dream and ultimate long shot before pressure ramped up by way of the slow start to a new season—resulting in a few difference-makers building off the shots fired by ESPN College GameDay’s Kirk Herbstreitwho took UM to task on the September 25th broadcast.

University of Miami football had legitimately been irrelevant since the 2005 Peach Bowl—when No. 9 LSU waxed No. 8 UM, 40-3 on New Year’s Eve—and it’s been a rinse-wash-repeat disaster ever since.

Larry Coker gutting his staff for a lame-duck 2006 season before getting canned—leading to the low-rent hire of defense coordinator Randy Shannon, who was never ready for prime time—going 28-22 over four seasons. Meanwhile, Golden was an empty-suit and nowhere near the up-and-comer he was tabbed as coming out of Temple—going 32-25 before canned in the middle of his fifth season, on the heels of a 58-0 ass-kicking Clemson laid on Miami at home in 2015.

Mark Richt was the right guy at the wrong time; the Canes needing the 2006 version of the former Georgia Bulldogs head coach—not the 2016 guy leaning towards retirement with too many miles on the odometer after a 15-year run in the SEC—temporarily reignited when his alma mater called.

As for Diaz, that show was over before it started—former athletic director Blake James with a career-defining gaffe—paying Temple a reported $4,000,000 to bring his defensive coordinator home as head coach, 12 days after he’d agreed to taking over the Owls program and signed less than a day after Richt stepped down.

Due diligence and any legit interview and hiring process, be damned—which thankfully helped lead to James’ departure and the off-season hiring of Clemson’s Dan Radakovich—who Miami has since made the highest-paid athletic director nationwide.

Those who followed this program for decades—defeated is an understatement. The OG’s saw the top of the mountain in the 80’s and early 90’s, suffered through the probation era, saw Davis rebuild this program against all odds—only to capture that fifth national title in 2001, with Miami set up to dominate for years to come.

Instead, Davis’ extension was mismanaged and he bailed for the NFL payday—leaving the wheels to fall completely off in matter of years. Still, hope remained as no true college football power emerged—until Saban turned things around at Alabama and captured his first championship with the Crimson Tide in 2009.

At that moment, Miami was stuck hoping it could fail upwards—relying on past glory, and hoping it could keep enough local talent home to compete—which didn’t happen as the likes of Alabama, Georgia and the others started throwing millions of dollars at recruiting budgets, in effort to lure South Florida’s best out of state.

Wheels fell off New Year’s Eve 2005 in Atlanta and have never been put back on—until now—as Cristobal will change everything.

NO MORE FOOL’S GOLD; ‘THE U’ WITH REAL DEAL

Each new hire brought a modicum of home to Miami faithful—if Shannon could just lock down local talent, if Golden could create something out of nothing like he appeared to do at Temple, if the proven and experienced Richt could do with the Canes what he did earlier in his career with the Bulldogs—or if Diaz could find that 2017 defensive energy, coupled with bringing a prehistoric offense into the modern era.

All those “if” moments never panning out—while the Hurricanes put together a pathetic 118-85 run, starting that gut-wrenching night in Atlanta on December 31st, 2005.

Hope is what keeps college football fans coming back for more—albeit expectations vary on the respective program one pulls for. Some hope it’s the year they can simply beat a rival, others hope to win a division and to get a crack at a conference title—while the elite aim for conference championships, College Football Playoffs berths and playing for national championships.

Miami used to be a title-or-bust program back in the day; where a 10-2 run in 199o—capped with a 46-3 beatdown of No. 3 Texas in the Cotton Bowl and No. 3 rank in the final polls—was seen as a “down” season; an opening-season loss at No. 16 BYU getting the Canes off to a bad start, with title dreams ending in South Bend late October went falling to the sixth-ranked Irish.

To go from that, to only winning the Coastal Division one time since joining the ACC in 2004—boat-raced out of the stadium by Clemson, 38-3 in Miami’s lone ACC Championship Game appearance? The logical Cane learned to make peace with history, to appreciate the glory days and to hope for a resurgence—but to expect the worst, as 7-6 seasons were the new norm and 9-4 seasons were the new benchmark for a step-foward season.

All of this is what makes the Cristobal hire so hard to wrap one’s head and heart around less than three months in. These kinds of big-money moves happen at other programs—not at the University of Miami—highlighted in an October 2019 deep dive we did at ItsAUThing.com regarding the University of Georgia’s $200,000,000 investment in their program; the “Do More” campaign designed to help them make up what little ground their was between the Bulldogs and the University of Alabama Crimson Tide.

Two years later, the investment paid off and Georgia took home its first national championship since 1980. Could Miami legit be on a similar trajectory with Cristobal and the financial commitment the university is now making in its efforts to again become a contender?

LEARN TO BE A WINNER AGAIN; PROGRAM & FANS

Cocky as Miami fans come across, 16 seasons of being a pretender took a toll—that loser’s muscle memory real—which causes many of the negative reactions to any perceived setback; the time it took to assemble a staff, an assistant bailing for a bigger program or a 5-Star the Canes started chasing late in the process going elsewhere.

It’s almost as if many supporters of ‘The U’ don’t know what to do with any level of prosperity—while unable to “trust the process” of a real head coach, as so many previous frauds spouted the phrase and never delivered.

The tide as finally turned for Miami and before going into spring football, some Portal robbing and some spirited fall practices that set the stage for Cristobal’s inaugural season at his alma mater—a quick reset and acknowledgement of all that’s taking place.

Diaz is gone, Cristobal is home—and while the process of assistant-hiring didn’t fit the self-imposed timeline of many—the gangster, Saban-like moves of Miami’s native son are all that matter right now.

Months back, this program was on track for a Ponce to replace a Lashlee as offensive coordinator, while fans could only hope Diaz focused on his CEO role and brought someone like Strong run his defense. Instead, it’s Cristobal in charge, a head-coach-caliber offensive coordinator like Gattis in the driver’s seat, a salty veteran like Steele running the defense—and ballers like Ponce and Strong both stepping into coordinator-like roles, simply to be a part of something special that is brewing.

If that doesn’t get the orange and green juices flowing, check your pulse to make sure you’re alive.

Everything has changed overnight in Coral Gables—which is part of the reason it’s so hard for some to digest all that is taking place. That being the case, it’s time to exhale, sit back and enjoy the ride—because for the first time in a long time, there is a process that be trusted and a total pro in the driver’s seat—confidently on the move and chasing that sixth ring.


Chris Bello has been covering University of Miami athletics since the mid-nineties. Getting his start with CanesTime, he eventually launched allCanesBlog—which led to a featured columnist stint with
BleacherReport. He’s since rolled out the unfiltered, ItsAUThing.com where he’ll use his spare time to put decades of U-related knowledge to use for those who care to read. When he’s not writing about ‘The U’, Bello is a storyteller for some exciting brands and individuals—as well as a guitarist and songwriter for his band Company Jones, who just released their debut album “The Glow”. Hit him on Twitter for all things U-related @ItsAUThingBLOG.

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