D'Angelo: Mario Cristobal returns to Miami Hurricanes: 'He's one of us ... he's going to be a difference maker'

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CORAL GABLES — This almost never happened.

Mario Cristobal was one "yes, sir" away from never roaming the sidelines as a head football coach. Never crisscrossing the country with his play sheet in hand. Never spending endless hours in the homes of hundreds of high school recruits.

Never culminating that journey by being named head football coach for his alma mater and hometown team, the University of Miami.

That's because Cristobal at one time felt a duty to protect the President of the United States.

And then football came calling.

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Cristobal's bags were packed in the late 1990s when after nearly two years of being vetted, taking exams and passing polygraphs, he was ready to join the United States Secret Service.

Mario Cristobal speaks on Dec. 7 in Coral Gables after being introduced as the Miami Hurricanes new football coach.
Mario Cristobal speaks on Dec. 7 in Coral Gables after being introduced as the Miami Hurricanes new football coach.

All he had to do was follow the agent who had come to the Cristobal's home in Miami out the door. Then ...

"All his bags were packed and he said, 'You know, I can't go,' " said Carlos Huerta, one of Cristobal's closest friends who was also a teammate at Columbus High and UM.

"The agent's like, 'What do you mean, did you forget something?' He said, 'No, I can't do it. I'm not going.' "

Cristobal, 51, had started his job as a graduate assistant at Miami. And being a part of Butch Davis' staff and feeling that surge of competition again after his time in a Hurricanes uniform ... the exhilaration was too much to ignore.

This is where he belonged.

"The agent had to leave with his head between his legs," Huerta said. "Who turns down the U.S. Secret Service after all of that? And after all the effort?"

Mario Cristobal with his wife Jessica and sons Mario Mateo and Rocco on the day he was introduced as the Miami Hurricanes head football coach. Photo University of Miami
Mario Cristobal with his wife Jessica and sons Mario Mateo and Rocco on the day he was introduced as the Miami Hurricanes head football coach. Photo University of Miami

Miami has always been in his heart

Mario Cristobal is home. He is back in the place in which he was born, raised, attended high school and college, met his wife and was married. The place in which he first became a head coach, at Florida International University in 2007.

But now, he's back leading the program to which he gave five years of his life as a student and star offensive tackle and was a part of two national championships.

"When you have the opportunity to play at a place and then come back and coach there ... what's more powerful than that?" Cristobal said, his voice cracking.

"When it finally came, this was just ..." he paused, overcome by emotion. "It's just something else."

Cristobal's journey started in Miami off Coral Way and minutes from where his office now sits. This is where Luis and Clara Cristobal raised their two sons, Lou and Mario. Luis and Clara are Cuban immigrants who, like so many, settled in South Florida and then sacrificed for a better life for their children.

Luis was a political prisoner during the Castro regime before fleeing the country in 1961 and meeting his future wife in South Florida. He owned a car battery and electric business in Hialeah, where his sons worked each summer, mostly collecting scrap metal. Luis died in 1996.

Clara, 81, worked for many years at Kendall Toyota before retiring two years ago. She has been ill and recently was hospitalized.

"They worked their butts off," said Lou, 53, who also played offensive line at UM. "My mom worked her whole life. Tough ... one tough lady. My dad, tough as heck."

That trait certainly was passed down. Both brothers had NFL tryouts, Mario playing a couple of years in Europe. Lou is in his 30th year in the Miami-Dade Police Department, serving as a supervisor of a proactive crime suppression team that investigates street crimes. Mario started his coaching journey following his football playing career in 1998.

Now, the baby of family has come full circle.

"It's surreal," said Jessica Cristobal, Mario's wife. "Miami has always been in his heart because he played here and he grew up here. This was just a dream come true.

"And to come back home and be closer to family, it was so important."

Mario Cristobal kisses his wife, Jessica, after being introduced as the Hurricanes new coach on Dec. 7.
Mario Cristobal kisses his wife, Jessica, after being introduced as the Hurricanes new coach on Dec. 7.


Mario runs on Cuban coffee

Mario walked over to his family after concluding his introductory press conference. He handed his boys - Mario Mateo, 11, and Rocco, 10 - an undersized orange Hurricanes football jersey presented to him by university president Julio Frenk, and then gave Jessica a big kiss.

"I'm glad my kids get to see this," Mario said of the celebration. "They were born here but we lived in Alabama and we lived out in Oregon. They are overwhelmed right now with ... 'hey, people kind of like you a little bit.' "

A bit? This was a hero's welcome home. The Hurricanes indoor football facility was filled with administrators, staff, coaches and supporters. And among those, former Miami players who believe Mario is the solution to fixing a nearly two-decade stretch of mediocrity at a program that at one time was an elite brand.

Quarterback Gino Torretta and Mario were part of the freshman class of 1988. Both redshirted and stayed for five years. Mario, a tackle, helped protect Torretta - just like at one point in his life he envisioned himself protecting the president.

"This is probably a long time coming," said Torretta, the 1992 Heisman Trophy winner. "I thought they should have interviewed him in some prior situations that they didn't. Nobody is going to outwork him. When you have a chance to work and coach for your alma mater, that even gives you a little bit of extra incentive."

Mario exudes energy. His routine for much of the year includes rising at 5 a.m., and starting his day with a shot (or two or three) of Bustelo or Pilon. Cristobal is fueled by Cuban coffee. It is so much a part of his day that when he coached at FIU he would deliver it to his staff during meetings. His mom would send packages of Cuban coffee to him when he was at Oregon.

Perhaps it's the secret that has helped turn Mario into one of the more maniacal, accomplished recruiters in the country.

And that ability, from coaching to recruiting, was honed every step of the journey. From being recruited by Jimmy Johnson, playing for Dennis Erickson, coaching under Davis and Larry Coker at Miami, Greg Schiano at Rutgers and Nick Saban at Alabama, Mario has learned from some highly successful mentors.

"He understood the game itself and that told me he would be a good coach," Erickson said. "He was very smart, very physical and he was a leader in that offensive front.

"He's one of us and he knows how to get it done. To me he's going to be a difference maker."

At FIU, Cristobal showed he could pump life into a program. The Panthers were 0-12 the year before he arrived - and became the first Cuban-American head coach in Division I-A - and soon they were playing in back-to-back bowl games. That continued at Oregon where, after taking over following his year as Willie Taggart's co-offensive coordinator, his teams averaged more than 10 wins per year in his three full seasons (the Ducks were 4-3 in COVID shortened 2020).

Dolphins safety Jevon Holland played three years for Cristobal at Oregon.

"I was a young player when I had a leadership role put on my shoulders," Holland said. "He encouraged me throughout my career to step into that role, wear it with pride but also be one of the guys that younger guys can look to as somebody who gets there early, leaves late and does that extra ... so I can help my team win in any situation possible."

Holland was part of Cristobal's first recruiting class as head coach at Oregon, which was the first of four consecutive classes ranked in the top 15 nationally. Huerta calls Cristobal a "recruiting machine," and say when Mario is in his recruiting mode it's "irritating" being around him.

"Every available moment that is what he is doing," said Huerta, who was in the Cristobals' wedding party and now lives in Lake Tahoe.

Erickson lives in Idaho and spent nearly all of his coaching career in the West, with the exception of six seasons in Miami, and most of that in the Northwest. He saw what Cristobal did at Oregon.

"When he was at Oregon, he got some really good players from down there," Erickson said. "If you're in Oregon, and you get players from Florida, I can't imagine what he's going to do at Miami."

Miami's new football coach, Mario Cristobal, right, is embraced by Miami men's basketball coach Jim Larranaga after being introduced at a news conference Dec. 7 in Coral Gables.
Miami's new football coach, Mario Cristobal, right, is embraced by Miami men's basketball coach Jim Larranaga after being introduced at a news conference Dec. 7 in Coral Gables.


Crazy proud of his baby brother

Some, like Huerta, never believed Mario would leave Oregon and the program's unlimited resources and state-of-the-art facilities, possible because of Nike co-founder Phil Knight, perhaps the most high-profile college booster in the country.

"I was like, 'why would you leave this place?' " Huerta said. "You got the best facilities in the country. The program is really rolling. The backing he had from Phil Knight."

Jessica, who met Mario when Mario was as an assistant on Coker's staff (2004-06), knew her husband was conflicted. Even with the lure of returning home.

"It was very tough," she said. "He's a man of loyalty. He forged some really valuable relationships. He didn't want to betray anyone.

"This was just an opportunity he couldn't pass. There were so many components to making this happen. His family is a huge part of it. This is about being home. Family is really important to us."

Mario and Jessica missed so many things about Miami. Restaurants like Prime 112 and Joe's Stone Crab - Jessica had stone crabs from Joe's flown into Eugene for Mario's birthday in September - the beaches, the concerts, Miami's sports scene.

Jessica describes herself as an Army Brat. She was born in Germany, attended high school in Panama and Atlanta, graduated from Georgia State and worked for several years as publisher for two South Florida magazines. She represented Florida in the 1994 Miss World America pageant.

She recently saw Miami described this way:

Miami is not America. Miami is not Florida. Miami is Miami.

"That's so true because it's such a melting pot of just amazing cultures and vibrancy and life and the weather's beautiful," she said. "There's so many things to do. It's a special place."

And for Mario, it's a special place with special memories ... like working for his dad, and even the fights with his brother over their favorite teams (for Lou it's the Dolphins, for Mario the Steelers) or whether a foul should have been called in a pick-up basketball game or when someone hit the reset button in a video game.

"We fought over everything," Lou said. "The rides to Columbus High School. The busting back and forth. The breaking chops. It was just due to the competitive nature for both of us. And he never lost that edge."

Now, an entire community, city and fan base is trusting that "edge" will bring back the Miami Hurricanes.

"As a brother, I'm crazy proud," Lou said. "But as an ex-player I'm super jacked. It's like, 'Wow! This really happened? Holy moly.'"

This article originally appeared on Palm Beach Post: Mario Cristobal expected to make Miami Hurricanes relevant again