The scene was all too familiar for long-suffering University of Miami football fans: Former Hurricanes center and resident emcee Don Bailey, wearing a “U” lapel pin, introduced with great enthusiasm the fourth new coach in the past 10 years to a crowd of buzzing school officials, coaches, athletes, alumni and media members.
Miami native Mario Cristobal, the latest coach promising to lead the Canes back to greatness, accepted a Hurricanes jersey, threw his hands up in the “U”, and shared his vision as his family members beamed with pride.
Among those watching the presentation at the indoor practice facility Tuesday morning were UM lifers — trainer Vinny Scavo, radio announcer Joe Zagacki, Coral Gables police chief Ed Hudak, Board of Trustees member Ron Stone and vice president of student affairs Pat Whitely.
They were around (as was I) for news conferences when Al Golden, Mark Richt and Manny Diaz took over the program with big plans and much optimism.
This one felt different.
You always hear about Cristobal’s magnetism and boundless energy, but you can really feel it when you are in a room with him, even a room as cavernous as a 90,000 square-foot football practice facility. Cristobal has a commanding presence and by the end of his talk, which included a funny snippet in Spanish, every person in that room was probably ready to throw on shoulder pads and run tackling drills for him.
Time will tell how many Atlantic Coast Conference and national football titles Cristobal will deliver to the University of Miami. It’s not an easy job. But one thing cannot be disputed: The dynamic former Hurricanes offensive lineman, who was a proven winner at Oregon, has already delivered something UM fans have been craving for many years — relevancy.
Other than a brief rise to No. 2 in the rankings and the turnover chain craze in 2017, Miami football has been largely ignored outside of South Florida.
Cristobal has the Canes in the national conversation again and trending on Twitter, for better or worse. Everyone has an opinion about how UM handled the pursuit of Cristobal, and some are not very complimentary.
Let’s be honest. It was unconventional. It was dramatic. It was a bit messy. There was no athletic director involved. There were no courtesy calls to the University of Oregon. Diaz, who gave his heart and soul to the program the past three years, was left twisting in the wind while boosters and his employer chased Cristobal across the country. Every detail of the courtship played out in the media.
It was, quite frankly, very Miami.
It was also the sign of a new era for the Hurricanes athletic department. There is a new group of big-money movers and shakers, led by brothers Jose and Jorge Mas, who not only have private jets but are making unprecedented financial commitments.
Also, UHealth earned $300 million in 2019, which allowed the school to invest more in academics and athletics. Word is up to $30 million will go to the athletic department with the expectation that Cristobal’s hire will increase attendance and donations.
Cristobal’s contract is for $80 million over 10 years, double what Richt got five years ago. Clemson athletic director Dan Radakovich, who is in negotiations with UM for the vacant AD job, stands to nearly triple his salary to $3 million annually. This kind of investment (crazy as it might seem to old-timers) puts UM on an even playing field with other elite programs.
Jose Mas is on the UM Board of Trustees. Auto magnate Manny Kadre, vice chair of the Board of Trustees, is also involved. The other two key players are UM president Julio Frenk’s advisors — chief of staff Rudy Fernandez and UHealth CEO Joe Echevarria.
The Mas family knows Cristobal well from their Miami Columbus High ties.
“If you went to Columbus and you were born in Miami, chances are you’re dialed in with 72 percent of the population,” Cristobal joked.
Booster John H. Ruiz, while not directly involved in the selection of Cristobal, said Tuesday he is ready to offer “substantial support” and determined to get a stadium built near campus. Among major football programs, only UConn plays home games farther away from its campus than UM (20 miles to Hard Rock Stadium).
Sidenote: Ruiz’s initial plan of building a stadium on the Coral Gables High grounds won’t fly. Gables residents need permits to paint their houses. Gables High is a historic building in a historic neighborhood. It is not the place for a 50,000-seat stadium. Also, a nearby stadium doesn’t guarantee sellouts. Winning and culture do that.
For decades, we heard that an on-campus UM basketball arena would draw sellouts. UM has a beautiful facility, the Watsco Center, and the Canes struggle to fill it.
UM men’s basketball coach Jim Larranaga and women’s coach Katie Meier sat side-by-side for Cristobal’s presentation. They were both impressed.
“Mario just hit a grand slam,” Larranaga said. “The way he presents himself, his philosophy, the culture he wants to build, relationships he already has with the community and the university. This is a great hire. The guys who were able to lure him away from a great situation at Oregon where he was winning, Rudy, Joe , Jose, Manny all those guys deserve a lot of credit for figuring out how to get a guy of Mario’s caliber to join us.”
Larranaga believes Cristobal’s hire will have a huge influence over all the other UM teams.
“Winning begets winning,” he said. “Having a football program competing for ACC and national championships would help the basketball programs. When we go recruiting, all the guys’ fathers have been huge UM football fans, and that often opens a door for us to get in there and sell our program.”
There is fear among some in the UM family that boosters will have too much power over the Board of Trustees and that one rogue overzealous booster could get the Hurricanes program in trouble, like Nevin Shapiro did.
This is not a UM problem. It is a college athletics problem. Every elite program has influential boosters. Oregon has Nike founder Phil Knight. In this new age of Name, Image and Likeness financial opportunities for athletes and exploding transfer portals, all the rules have changed. Which is why Radakovich would be a great hire, a guy with an impeccable record.
Cristobal and Radakovich would be a great pair. Both got their start at UM, and if all goes to plan, both could end their careers here, too.
“Sky’s the limit,” Cristobal said. “It’s been done before with a lot less. Now it’s an opportunity to take it to a new level with a lot more. Let’s get this thing right.”