Head Coach Mario Cristobal, who enters his sixth season with the Panthers in 2012, is regarded as one of the country's top college football coaches and is the architect of a successful FIU program that has now been to back-to-back bowl games in 2010 and 2011.
FIU football enters the 2012 campaign coming off one of its most successful years in program history in 2011 where the school captured a program-record eight victories during the regular season, along with milestone wins on the road at eventual Co-BIG EAST Champion Louisville and at home against Conference USA power UCF.
FIU began its historic run during the 2010 season, when Cristobal led FIU to its first Sun Belt Conference championship and bowl victory over MAC champion Toledo. For his efforts, he was named the Sun Belt Conference Coach of the Year.
The qualities that define Cristobal are what have driven FIU to consistent success the past two seasons: passion, leadership, relentlessness, focus, integrity, commitment, enthusiasm, intelligence, fearlessness, vision, confidence, competitiveness and ambition.
Named the second head football coach in FIU history on December 19, 2006, Cristobal implemented his philosophy of hard work and dedication, which has paid quick dividends both on the field and in the classroom.
But Cristobal always realizes that success in the fall doesn't end with the final whistle in December. The head coach personally logs thousands of miles each off-season recruiting, attempting to attract top high school and junior college talent to South Florida. That effort apparently worked with consecutive recruiting classes in 2011 and 2012 that were regarded among the best in the Sun Belt Conference.
But Cristobal expects more than just effort on the field. He demands effort in the classroom, as well. After just one year on the job, not only did his Panthers record their highest grade point average in the history of the program, but they also saw 31-percent of the team achieve academic honors earning grade point averages between a 3.0 and 4.0. Those academic achievements have continued to escalate.
Cristobal does not demand anything from his student-athletes that he wouldn't demand of himself. Hours in the weight room are a prerequisite to winning football games at this level and Cristobal "walks the walk" in that regard. In 2009, he was named No. 1 by ESPN The Magazine's Bruce Feldman on the list of college football's Workout Warriors: Coaches Edition.
Cristobal embodies the culture, sophistication and attitude of the City of Miami. Born in the Magic City, Cristobal's roots as a coach, player, recruiter and person are embedded in arguably the nation's most talent-rich area for football. Cristobal spent his prep career at Miami's Christopher Columbus High School, his college days at the University of Miami and a coaching career under mentors with Miami ties. He knows the demands of the South Florida region and FIU are great and he embraces them.
Progress and success are all that Cristobal has known in his time as a player and coach. Cristobal came to FIU after successful coaching tenures at Miami and Rutgers, where he recruited and coached some of the best talent in the country.
Prior to accepting the head coaching job at FIU, Cristobal coached at the University of Miami for three years under former head coach Larry Coker. The Hurricanes compiled a 24-12 record in that time with appearances in the 2004 and 2005 Chick-fil-A Peach Bowls and the 2006 Micron PC Bowl. Cristobal coached Miami's tight ends in the 2004 and '05 seasons, tutoring 2005 Buffalo Bills' third-round pick Kevin Everett, 2006 free agent signee Buck Ortega and 2007 Chicago Bears' first round selection Greg Olsen.
In 2006 Cristobal took over a Miami offensive line that featured four new starters, including a true sophomore at left tackle and a true freshman at right tackle. Despite coaching a unit wrought with inexperience and riddled by injuries throughout the season, the UM offense saw a 39 percent decrease in sacks allowed from 36 to 22, only seven of which Cristobal's line was deemed responsible. Following that season, junior guard Derrick Morse was selected honorable mention All-ACC and true freshman tackle Jason Fox was named to the Rivals.com All-America Second Team.
While coaching at Rutgers from 2001-03 Cristobal helped set the table for one of the biggest success stories in the last 30 years of college football. Cristobal worked under head coach Greg Schiano, coaching the offensive tackles and tight ends for two seasons before shifting his focus solely to the offensive line in 2003.
He was a critical factor in Rutgers' resurgence to competitiveness and helped lay the foundation in recruiting and coaching for a program that went from obscurity to college football's upper echelon in a matter of five years. During Cristobal's tenure at Rutgers, the Scarlet Knights improved from records of 2-9 and 1-11 to a 5-7 mark in 2003, the school's best record since 1998. One of Cristobal's brightest pupils was tight end L.J. Smith, the Philadelphia Eagles' second-round pick in the 2003 NFL Draft and current starter.
It was at Rutgers that Cristobal put the first notches in his belt as a full-time coach and his talent as a coach and recruiter was recognized.
"I knew early in my relationship with Mario that someday he would be a head coach," Schiano said. "FIU landed a great man for the job."
Cristobal began his coaching career in 1998, when he joined the Miami Hurricanes staff as a graduate assistant, working with the Hurricanes for three seasons (1998-2000) under head coach Butch Davis. He helped his alma mater to a 29-8 record, three bowl wins and a pair of BIG EAST Conference championships in that time.
"Mario Cristobal is an exceptional man with a great passion for football and people," Davis said. "He is an excellent recruiter and coach who has been around great football programs and I believe is an excellent choice for FIU. Coach Cristobal will make a huge impact on the program and will be dynamic in South Florida."
Cristobal made it known early that he and his staff would not back away from a prospective student-athlete just because college football's "big boys" were also knocking on the door. That philosophy has rung true each and every season he has been at FIU. The FIU staff has routinely gone head-to-head with several BCS schools and landed several star players to campus.
In The Community
The Miami native spent his first two years as head football coach at FIU doing more than just dedicating his time to his student-athletes on the field. He has made a commitment to making the city he grew up in all that it can be.
Cristobal has made dozens of appearances, speaking to civic groups, professional and youth organizations including the Latin Builders Association, FIU Student Government, the Brian Jenkins Camp, Big Brothers and Big Sisters and the Night of Champions, among others. He will also serve as the keynote speaker at the Baptist Hospital's South Miami Hospital Men's Health Day to promote healthy living to an audience of more than 300.
His message is clear to the young men he coaches and to the community: With everything you do, work to become a better student, a better athlete, a better father, a better son, a better brother, and a better neighbor. Work to become a better part of your community.
That message is part of the reason he was honored as a mentor for the 5000 Role Models of Excellence in November 2007. The project's mission is to intervene in the lives of at-risk boys, in order to provide them with alternatives that will lead them away from a life of crime and violence. Based in Miami-Dade County, the 5000 Role Models program serves 6,792 students in 89 schools, including 23 elementary, 33 middle and 33 senior high schools in Miami-Dade County Public Schools.
His involvement in the community dates back to his playing days, when he was a spokesperson for D.A.R.E. and the University of Miami's "Join A Team, Not A Gang" initiative. He also participated in the fifth Annual FIU Relay For Life last March in support of the American Cancer Society's Relay For Life campaign.
A 1993 graduate of Miami (FL), Cristobal was a four-year letterman and member of the UM football team from 1988-92. He earned All-BIG EAST honors as an offensive tackle during his 1992 senior season. Cristobal signed with the Denver Broncos as an undrafted rookie in 1994 and played for the Amsterdam Admirals in NFL Europe in 1995 and '96 before beginning his coaching career.