Mario Cristobal is considered to be one of the most promising young coaches in all of college football
Cristobal, who in December of 2006 took over as the second head football coach in Florida International University history, quickly made a name for himself on the college coaching circuit, showing a sense of drive and passion that helped him put tiny FIU on the national map. But Cristobal, a native of Miami, Florida, didn't take long to prove that was more than just a great spokesman for his program, and more than just a great recruiter.
Indeed, by 2010, he had built FIU--a program with scant resources, a program that must go head-to-head against not only all of those powerhouse Florida programs for in-state talent, but pretty much every other program in the nation, too--into a real winner. The X that season finished 7-6, a campaign that was capped by a stirring 34-32 win over Toledo in the Little Caesar's Pizza Bowl. It was the program's first ever bowl win, and its first bowl appearance, too.
How did Cristobal do it? How did he turn a no-name program into a real force to be reckoned with down in the Sunshine State?
Well, it probably has something to do with the fact that he's from Miami, the most talent rich region in the state. Cristobal attended Miami's Christopher Columbus High School, then stayed at home for college. He enrolled at the University of Miami in 1989, joining a Hurricane program that at the time was at the very height of its power. Cristobal, to his credit, was more than up to the challenge. He was a four-year letterman at Miami, and in 1992 earned first-team All Big East honors at offensive tackle. Maybe more importantly, he was part of two national title teams, helping the 'Canes bring home championships in both 1989 and 1991.
Cristobal enjoyed a brief career in professional football, playing for short stints with the Denver Broncos (1994) and the Amsterdam Admirals of NFL Europe (1995-1996) before giving up playing in favor of coaching.
It seems to have been the correct decision.
Cristobal got his coaching start, fittingly back at Miami, where he worked as a graduate assistant from 1998-2000. In 2001, he caught his first big break, getting hired on by Greg Schiano, another promising young coach who had just been hired to take over the long suffering program at Rutgers. Cristobal served as tight ends and offensive line coach for Schiano, and as a result, played a role in the remarkable turnaround of the Scarlet Knights. He obviously made an impression on Schiano, too, as the Rutgers coach praised Cristobal when he was hired at FIU. Said Schiano, according to the FIU website: "I knew early in my relationship with Mario that someday he would be a head coach."
Turns out Schiano was right, but first, Cristobal had to keep climbing the coaching latter.
In 2004-2005, he returned to Miami, where he served as tight ends coach for the Hurricanes under coach Larry Coker, who is now attempting to build a program from scratch at the University of Texas at San Antonio. In 2006, he coached the offensive line. During this return trip to Miami, he coached several outstanding players, including such NFL draftees as Kevin Everett, Buck Ortega and Greg Olsen.
By 2006, when FIU came calling, Cristobal was more than ready for the challenge. And he proved it, too. After a challenging first season (his team went 1-11), Cristobal engineered a remarkable turnaround, guiding his team to a five-win campaign in 2008--a season that could have been a great deal better, if not for three losses by less than a touchdown. In 2009, the team slumped to 3-9, but then made a huge leap forward in 2010; the Golden Panthers went 7-6 that season, including a 5-3 mark in the Sun Belt Conference. They also won the league for the first time. In 2011, Cristobal again led his team to a successful campaign, as the Panthers finished 8-5, including a loss in the Beef O’ Brady’s Bowl.
At season’s end, Cristobal’s career record stood at 24-38—not quite indicative of his talent.
And apparently, the administrators at Rutgers agreed with that last statement. In the wake of Schiano’s sudden departure to take over as head coach with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Rutgers offered Cristobal the chance to serve as Schiano’s replacement. He turned the Knight down, however, choosing instead to stay home at FIU.