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Cristobal Comes Home

By BJ Bennett
SouthernPigskin.com
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When Mario Cristobal talks about the Hurricanes, he will be discussing the program he both leads and loves.

We're excited about the fact that we have somebody who wants to be here and wants this team to be great, not only just from a coaching standpoint but his love for the school.
~Darrin Smith

There has always been something different about Miami.

It's a place where the late Howard Schnellenberger took over a struggling program in 1979 and promptly declared his plan to win a national championship within five years. It's a place where he only needed four. It's a place where, wearing camo fatigues, college football still sees any and everything you do. It's a place where the smoke never settles. It's a place where four fingers raised is the same as one held high. It's a place where the program's best players don't just play, they, as legends returning to back to where it all started, watch from the sidelines as well. 

It's a place where attitude became an expectation, a place where confidence became swagger. It's a place where a university became the "U".  

Miami, claiming five national championships in a span of less than two decades from the early 1980s through the turn of the century, took the sport by storm. The Hurricanes, winning 29 consecutive games at the start of their dynasty run, then 34 more at the end, overwhelmed opponents with an unmistakable and unapologetic brand. It's a story that still captivates. When Miami pointed your way, it did so with rings on-hand. Ready or not, the Hurricanes were coming.

Simply put, college football was blown away.

The recent hiring of Oregon's Mario Cristobal, a two-time national championship-winning offensive tackle for the Hurricanes, has immediately brought the program full-circle. It's a spotlight the Hurricanes are once again standing in, with their 6'5'' head coach leading the way. A Miami-native who began his coaching career as a graduate assistant in Coral Gables, later coaching tight ends and offensive linemen, Cristobal has a passion for the Hurricanes that is personal.

"First of all, I'll tell you, I'm excited about it," nodded Miami great Darrin Smith, a former two-time All-American linebacker and two-time national champion. "Me and Mario came in together so we are part of the same class, so we're family. It is always good to have a 'Cane in the house running the show. Even more than that, he has accomplished some great things at other programs and I think that's what is going to help him be a better coach at Miami. I'm excited about it."

Remarkably, Cristobal went 44-4 during his playing career at Miami, helping the Hurricanes establish an unparalleled college football legacy that still stands out and stands alone. This is a track record that comes with trophies. Cristobal, starring in trenches during Miami's glory days, was laying the groundwork as a dynasty was constructed. After a 15-year hiatus, for Cristobal, the process of building a consistent winner on South Beach now resumes. Already, there is an energy and momentum around the program that is palpable.   

While Cristobal went an impressive 35-13 at Oregon and was also previously the head coach at Florida International and an assistant at Rutgers, Alabama and with the Ducks, his time at Miami is the tie that binds. Cristobal has already spent over a decade, as a player and coach, with the Hurricanes. There is suddenly a sense of destiny to Miami, with Cristobal making the cross-country chance. Though the Hurricanes will be moving forward with their new head coach, they will do so with a throwback feel.     

The news of Cristobal's return to Miami is resonating through the halls of the Hecht Athletic Center and, powerfully, the halls of history.

"We have a little text line where all the former players, guys from the early 80s to the younger guys in the 2000s...everybody is family and we're communicating with each other all of the time. When we see a guy like Mario, who is one of us, it just excites us," Smith added. "I think this is his dream job and all of those others jobs helped him get to this point. We're excited about the fact that we have somebody who wants to be here and wants this team to be great, not only just from a coaching standpoint but his love for the school."

There is a generational consensus around Cristobal, a conviction in his proven perspective. 

"Absolutely. I can really say that Mario, he was a guy there that solidified, that really knew what Miami was all about," answered former All-American Kenard Lang, when asked if Cristobal, on staff during his playing career, can take the program to the promised land. "Coming back home to where it all began, I know he is happy and ecstatic. I know he is going to have full support from past alumni like myself. He can go back all of the way to like the Mel Brattons, the Alonzo Highsmiths, Tolbert Bains, he can go back to those guys where I know they are going to have support for him and we wish him nothing but sweet success."

Part of the reason the Cristobal hire has stirred so many meaningful emotions is because of the bond that so many former players cherish and continue to share. Miami, the school and the city, is a special place and Cristobal is an extension of it all. His success at Oregon and his time working with Nick Saban at Alabama absolutely come with extra affirmation; that said, Cristobal has long been part of Miami's inimitable history, experience that has a value that is tried, true and timeless. 

When members of the Hurricane fraternity see Cristobal leading the program they respect, they also see what he represents. 

"For me, since I was 14 years old, I loved the University of Miami. I knew where I wanted to be when I was a little kid growing up. To go there, it was just a dream come true. And I think Mario is the same way," Smith added. "He's a local kid, played at a Columbus High, which is actually really close to the University of Miami. I know, for him, it was a dream come true. He followed in the footsteps of his brother, Louis Cristobal, those two guys were there together. I know this guy, his passion for UM."

That familiarity is a strong foundation. It will only add to the interactions between players, past and present, associations which have long made Miami even more exceptional and unique. There is already a swell of support from alumni of all eras. Oftentimes, new coaches have to come in and learn the traditions that come with their new job. Cristobal, conversely, will be teaching them. Not only does he have one of the most notable resumes in the country, he has his reasons as well.    

"It makes it so much easier, especially communication. 'Cuz you know that guy right there, y'all went through two-a-days together. He know how you bleed, you know how he bleed. It's just that bond, that relationship that's the support that we have," Lang shared. "That's why we get along so well, because past guys, past regimes, they all meet together with the young ones and try to show them what it's about."

One of Cristobal's top priorities will undoubtedly be prioritizing recruiting the same high schools he grew up watching and competing against. South Florida is home to the best prep talent in the country, a circuit Cristobal is prominent product of. Countless college programs, including the likes of Alabama, LSU and Ohio State, have developed strong recruiting pipelines in the area. If Miami is going to return to the national stage, the process will likely have local beginnings. As well it should. 

Given his background and prior relationships, Cristobal is poised to make even more of an impact in the region.    

"I think that is the ultimate situation that we have to solve. All of the coaches said the same thing in the past, 'we gotta put a fence around this area' because everybody is here taking our athletes," Smith continued. "A lot of teams have good coaching relationships with the high school coaches down here, but I think that is what is going to make it different for Mario. Being a guy from here, a guy who has always loved Miami, but he has always had those relationships with the coaches down here and I think that is really what is going to help us."

Cristobal will be sharing, not selling, what really makes Miami special: the pride shared between people. It's a pitch that will come straight from his heart. Few programs in college football have the consistent alumni fellowship and support that the Hurricanes do. It's a brotherhood. That, just as it was decades ago, remains the starting part for so much success. Such context, for Miami, has come with championships. The process is one Cristobal knows as well as anyone.

When Cristobal talks about the Hurricanes, he will be discussing the program he both leads and loves.    

"What does the 'U' mean to me? It's my heart, it's my everything," Lang concluded. "If it wasn't for the 'U',  I wouldn't be where I am today. To understand it, you gotta go through it."

Who knows how long it will take for Miami to become a leading national name once again. The potential is in place. For Cristobal, it's about building on the progress that has been made. Already, however, the excitement is back. That matters. Cristobal represents where Miami has been and hopes to be alike. As he tries to bridge the gap, for the Hurricanes, he will do so knowing the way.

With Cristobal returning, there is a movement happening at Miami.

If you don't see or feel it; It's a 'Canes thing, you wouldn't understand.

BJ Bennett - B.J. Bennett is SouthernPigskin.com's founder and publisher. He is the co-host of "Three & Out" with Kevin Thomas and Ben Troupe on the "Southern Pigskin Radio Network". Email: bj@espncoastal.com / Twitter: @BJBennettSports