It was a little over five years ago that Mario Cristobal was named head coach at Florida International. At the time, the school had only been a football program for five years. The program started in 2002. By 2005, the school became an official I-A program.
Former Miami Dolphin Don Strock served as the first coach for the Panthers. Strock coached the team for its first five seasons, but only went 15-41 in five seasons, including a 0-12 record in 2006. More notably, towards the end of the 2006 season, there was a bench-clearing brawl in the Miami game that year. A total of 31 players from both schools—18 from Florida International and 13 from Miami—were suspended for the next game.
Even though the program started from scratch in 2002—the year Larry Fitzgerald came to Pitt—FIU decided to go a different direction. Not only did they bring in a new head football coach, but the school hired a new athletic director in Pete Garcia. As his first order of business, Garcia tabbed Mario Cristobal as head football coach on December 19, 2006. The program was still somewhat in its infancy, and had two seasons of Division I-A football under its belt. It didn't seem to be in any dire straits. At the same time, there was a desire from somewhere to build a solid foundation. Garcia found that with Cristobal.
A 1993 Miami grad, the young program lended itself some instant credibility in hiring someone recruited to "The U" in Jimmy Johnson's last full recruiting class. After a brief stint in the NFL after an all-conference career at left tackle (1992), Cristobal embarked on a coaching career that began in Miami in 2000. Greg Schiano was the defensive coordinator for the Hurricanes from 1999-2000. When Schiano got the Rutgers job in 2001, he took Cristobal with him. Cristobal spent the next three years as the Scarlet Knights' tight ends and offensive line coach. He returned to his alma mater for three years from 2004-2006, when Florida International—a school that was around for just four seasons, was still new to Division-I football, but a school that had its image tarnished by the 2006 brawl with Miami. In a state where the school had to compete with Miami, Florida State, Florida, Central Florida, South Florida and Florida Atlantic for recruits—the school had to aim high in all its objectives, just to compete. Florida International came to Pittsburgh in 2010, and was probably more noted for allowing 277 yards to Pitt running back Ray Graham. Asked in the press conference that week about whether or not he knew Mario Cristobal, then Pitt head coach Dave Wannstedt issued the following:
"He was a freshman, and we redshirted him when he came in (at Miami)," Wannstedt said on September 22, 2010. "Obviously I knew who he was, but I did not have direct dealings with him. Tony Wise actually coached him. I know that he was one of those recruits that was around the program all the time, right there in our back yard, I believe from Columbus High School right there. He committed to us early. He was the type of player that had the right attitude to continue on with the tradition. He's done a good job there. If you look at their players, they've created a unique program."
Pretty accurate description from the former Pitt head coach, and keep in mind this was the week heading into a game.
Cristobal took over a team that went 0-12 the year before, and again—a team with just four years of experience as a program. In his first year of 2007, the Panthers went 1-11.
Interestingly, the first game of the Cristobal era was at Penn State—a 59-0 loss to the Nittany Lions. He closed his first season, however, with a 38-19 win over North Texas at the Orange Bowl. North Texas was in its first year under Pitt quarterbacks coach Todd Dodge. A bigger not in history, is the fact that game was the final football game played at the Orange Bowl. It also marked Pitt's 13-9 win at West Virginia in its respective regular season finale. That one-win season in 2007, led to a five-win season in 2008. The Panthers opened with a non-conference slate of Kansas, Iowa, South Florida and Toledo before embarking on its Sun Belt schedule. The Panthers defeated Toledo 35-16 in Toledo, before winning 4-4 in conference play, to finish 5-7. The win over Toledo marked the school's first-ever win over a non-conference opponent.
The program took a step back, going 3-9 in 2009, but Cristobal was putting together a pretty tough non-conference schedule for his program. The Panthers opened at Alabama—a 40-10 loss to the Crimson Tide. They also had games at Rutgers, a return game with Toledo, and a road trip to Florida in November that resulted in a 62-3 loss. Things were about to change in 2010, and the tough non-conference schedule was a big factor.
In just his fourth season at the helm, Cristobal guided the Panthers to their first winning season in school history. The Panthers finished 7-6 in 2010, including a 34-32 win over Toledo in the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl. The school also placed five first-teamers on the Sun Belt all-conference list, including T.Y. Hilton. Based on his career numbers, and the explosiveness he's had in his career, Hilton may be regarded as the first FIU ‘great.' Hilton finished with no fewer than 41 catches in a season. Entering tonight's Beef O'Brady's Bowl with Marshalll, Hilton has 215 catches for 3,443 yards and 24 touchdowns.
According to David Neal, who covers the team for the Miami Herald, Hilton is the best evidence of the type of player Cristobal likes to recruit. Hilton was an unknown coming out of high school, but went on to a very productive career in college. And don't pin the ‘well, he's only a Sun Belt player' label on him. Hilton caught 7 passes for 201 yards, including touchdown receptions of 74 and 83 in a win at Big East rival Louisville this year. Neal says that Cristobal likes speed, but knows how to go after other facets as well.
"FIU recruits speed well because that's what predominates in South Florida," Neal said. "I think (Cristobal) will shift gears deftly if need be."
That led the Panthers to an 8-5 record this past season, with a second consecutive bowl trip to the Beef O'Brady's Bowl. Cristobal was also able to lure a former Mississippi State quarterback in Wesley Carroll, who was a member of the SEC all-freshman team in 2008. Carroll, who attended perennial power St. Thomas Aquinas in Florida, threw for over 2,200 yards this past season, with 14 touchdown passes and just four interceptions.
Sure, Cristobal didn't recruit Carroll to FIU out of high school, and as an offensive lineman in college—what could he possibly know about the quarterback position. Carroll's play this past season is an example of Cristobal's ability to find the right guy to get his quarterback as efficient as possible. For Carroll to throw just four interceptions in over 300 passing attempts is remarkable no matter what conference he's in. "Cristobal combines a good depth of football knowledge on both sides of the ball with a fiery charisma that serves him well in recruiting," Neal added.
With this current state of the Pitt job, the program has a lot going for it—mainly 19 recruits just waiting for a coach to be in place, with more commits on the horizon. There's the facilities and the program's history. What the program offers a head coach is an opportunity, similar to the one Cristobal took at FIU in 2006. This was a program that was coming off a winless season in 2005, an embarrassing brawl with Miami that led to being a national story, and still a football program in its infancy. Cristobal turned all that into back-to-back winning seasons and bowl berths, the first of any for his program.
The expectations will be much higher at Pitt, but what makes Cristobal a good candidate is his experience with building something from the bottom, with very little of anything to start with.