FIU coach Cristobal proves doubters wrong

FIU coach Mario Cristobal is not deaf, nor is he blind. He heard the snickers, read all the negative comments, took calls from supposed friends who urged him not to take the FIU coaching job back in 2007.

He could never win there, they said.

FIU would never emerge from the large shadow cast by his alma mater down the road, they said.

The facilities made it a second-rate place to coach, they laughed.

Well, look who is a conference champion now.

“It was this never and that never,” Cristobal said in a phone interview. “You probably shouldn’t be involved in the coaching industry if those things affect you. They shouldn’t be relevant in what you choose to do. If you have the privilege to pursue your passion in your hometown, none of that should stop you.

“All those people who say it’s impossible -- it became the inevitable, with a lot of blood, sweat and tears and a tough road along the way. I have to believe it played a huge role in making us tough enough to endure and get this thing going.”

To make matters worse, FIU was docked 30 scholarships because of NCAA violations that happened before Cristobal got there. But Cristobal never felt sorry for himself or sorry for the program. He rolled up his sleeves and went to work in less than ideal conditions.

Getting a field house was a priority. That meant getting an actual first-class weight room, a locker room that had more than five shower heads to share, meeting spaces that were not classrooms. It meant getting to work and convincing the talented kids in the South Florida area they could build something special at FIU, rather than be a part of something already established somewhere else.

It meant keeping his players motivated despite the constant losing. Cristobal won nine games combined in his first three seasons. This year, the Panthers were picked to finish near the bottom of the Sun Belt once again.

But from the start of the season, you could tell something special was happening. FIU nearly upset Rutgers and Texas A&M, played Pittsburgh and Maryland tough. The Panthers just could not close out in the fourth quarter.

Those heartbreaking defeats served a valuable lesson, however. Last week, with the Sun Belt title on the line, FIU remembered the mistakes of the past and closed out a game. Trailing Arkansas State 24-23 late in the fourth quarter, Wes Carroll hit T.Y. Hilton for a 42-yard touchdown pass with 1:42 remaining to pull out a come-from-behind win.

“Best coaching feeling I’ve ever had,” Cristobal said.

“It is awesome to be a part of a program-changing season,” said Carroll, a transfer from Mississippi State. “Not many people get that opportunity. We’re only in our ninth season, and to be able to already win a conference championship and go to a bowl game is an amazing thing to be a part of. When you look back 20 years later wherever FIU is, it will be great to be able to say that. Nobody can ever take that away from us.”

FIU can certainly say it is the toast of the town, considering what is happening down the road at the University of Miami. Cristobal starred there and got his first coaching job there as a graduate assistant under Butch Davis. While the Hurricanes are still in search of their first ACC title, FIU is Sun Belt champ for the first time.

Now the Panthers (6-5, 6-1) have a chance to go for the first winning record in school history when they host Middle Tennessee (5-6, 4-3) on Saturday. Cristobal banished any talk about championships the day after the Arkansas State win, and understands the Blue Raiders are coming into Miami in search of a win to become bowl eligible.

But an interesting shift is about to take place. A program so used to losing now has to find out how to get used to winning.

“Things are changing around here and we’re getting put on the map,” Carroll said. “That’s where we want to stay. But with that comes a big responsibility. The good teams can deal with adversity, but the championship teams are the ones that know how to deal with success.”