NCF Nation: Mario Cristobal

Shawn Elliott staying at South Carolina

February, 15, 2013
South Carolina has managed to hold onto one of its most valuable assistant coaches.

Offensive line coach and co-offensive coordinator Shawn Elliott informed South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier on Friday that he would be staying in Columbia after interviewing with Nick Saban for the Alabama offensive line job.

Elliott, who'll be entering his fourth season at South Carolina, has been a big part of the Gamecocks' success. He's provided stability for South Carolina's offensive line and also brought the zone read package with him from Appalachian State that the Gamecocks have used so much of the past three seasons.

Being able to keep Elliott says something about where South Carolina's program is right now. He's obviously a commodity, and his name has come up a couple of different times the last two years in job searches.

But he's a Camden, S.C., native and grew up attending South Carolina games at Williams-Brice Stadium with his father, who was a South Carolina state highway patrolman.

Elliott obviously feels at home at South Carolina even when a powerhouse like Alabama comes calling.

Here's something else to consider: If you're looking for legitimate candidates to replace Spurrier when the Head Ball Coach does decide to step aside, Elliott would (and should) be in that conversation.

He's a superb coach and an excellent fit at South Carolina.

With Elliott out of the picture at Alabama, Miami associate head coach/tight ends coach Mario Cristobal is the latest candidate to reportedly interview for the Crimson Tide's offensive line job. Cristobal was the head coach at Florida International for six seasons before being fired following this past season.

Two other names connected to Alabama's search for an offensive line coach were former Fresno State head coach Pat Hill and UCF assistant head coach/offensive line coach Brent Key.
You know the old football cliche -- if you play more than one quarterback, that means you have no quarterbacks.

What if your team has a head coach, with a former head coach added into the assistant staff mix? This season in the ACC, we get to find out whether the same cliche applies.

Two former head coaches have landed jobs in the league -- NC State head man Tom O'Brien is now at Virginia as tights ends/associate head coach; and former FIU head coach Mario Cristobal is at Miami, also as tight ends/associate head coach. Both were fired after the 2012 season ended. Georgia Tech also has hired a former head coach in Ted Roof, now in charge of the Jackets' defense.

These hires have put the ACC in a rather unique situation. Of the 14 head coaches who were fired or resigned in the 2012 season, six have landed other jobs. Five of them are now assistants -- two are in the ACC; two are in the SEC (Joker Phillips at Florida and Ellis Johnson at Auburn); and one is in the Big Ten (Bill Cubit at Illinois).

While it's certainly not unusual for fired head coaches to find assistant coaching jobs elsewhere, it seems rare to find three former head coaches taking jobs in one league within a month. There are various reasons for their decisions, but one interesting connection. Each worked previously at the school they have joined.

O'Brien worked at UVa for 15 years under former coach George Welsh. He hired London at Boston College. And he just spent six years as a head coach in the ACC. O'Brien was not ready to give up coaching just yet, and all those connections made sense. So he took London up on his offer.

Cristobal played at Miami, and was an assistant at Miami before getting his shot at FIU. Staying in the area made perfect sense.

Roof, meanwhile, is from Georgia, played at Georgia Tech and previously served as Jackets' defensive coordinator under George O'Leary. He also was the head coach at Duke from 2004-07. Of the three, he is the only one who did not take his team to a bowl game as a head coach.

Their experience is undeniable. But there is also one natural question that already has been raised. Will there be too many chefs trying to bake a souffle? Both O'Brien and Cristobal addressed how they will handle their new found roles as men taking orders as opposed to giving orders during their respective introductory press conferences.

"I should be the best assistant here because I know what (London) goes through, the day-to-day grind it takes to be a head coach," O’Brien told local reporters in Charlottesville. "If I can take some of that off of him and make us all better coaches, that’s what I want to do."

Said Cristobal: "I was the same person as an assistant coach, as a head coach. I don’t think that changes,” he said. “I think you are what you are when you wake up in the morning and when you go to bed at night. I don’t think it changes. If it does you were probably raised the wrong way.

"I’m ready to accept and excel at each and every role I’m assigned to so that we can do whatever possible to make sure we flat out win at everything we do — football, classroom, community, everything."

Want a head coach? Look to Miami

January, 14, 2013
The Miami football teams of the early 2000s churned out NFL prospects left and right, producing 20 first-round picks between 2001-04.

Do you know what else Miami produced in the early part of that decade? Head coaches. The Miami coaching staffs of 2000 and 2001 -- staffs that had a huge role in the recruitment and development of those pro prospects -- have produced both NFL and college head coaches.

Not just one or two, either.

With the Cleveland Browns' recent hire of Rob Chudzinski, the 1999-2000 staff under Butch Davis produced six head coaches -- three of them now in the NFL.
  • Rob Chudzinski, tight ends coach. Interestingly enough, his former boss (Davis) left Miami after the 2000 season to coach Cleveland.
  • Greg Schiano, defensive coordinator. Left for Rutgers after 2000 season and now Tampa Bay Bucs head coach.
  • Larry Coker, offensive coordinator. Succeeded Davis after the 2000 season, now head coach at UT-San Antonio.
  • Chuck Pagano, defensive backs. Now coaching Indianapolis Colts, and became an inspiration for his battle with leukemia.
  • Curtis Johnson, receivers coach. Entering his second year as Tulane head coach.
  • Mario Cristobal, graduate assistant. Spent six years as FIU head coach before rejoining Miami staff last week.

As for the 2001 staff, which helped Miami win the national championship and produced arguably the greatest team in college football history:
  • Mark Stoops, defensive backs. Replaced Pagano and is now head coach at Kentucky.
  • Randy Shannon, defensive coordinator. Succeeded Coker and served as Miami coach from 2007-10.
  • Chudzinski and Johnson. Both remained on staff.

Lots of folks mention the Nick Saban coaching tree, but when you look at the staff Davis assembled, the group he had around him in the late 1990s and 2000 is pretty impressive.

We can sit here and debate Davis and his abilities as a head coach, and go back and forth on his role in what went down at North Carolina. But it's hard to ignore the fact he has a pretty good eye for talent -- both among players and coaches.
Mario Cristobal's dismissal from Florida International was stunning, but his arrival at Miami is the complete opposite: a total no-brainer.

It is not too often the perfect fit falls into a coach's lap. That is exactly what happened to Al Golden, who had the common sense to realize he had to snap Cristobal up before anybody else could take him away. Cristobal's title (associate head coach/tight ends) means little, quite honestly.

His value lies in two critical areas: recruiting and coaching experience. It helps, of course, that Cristobal is from Miami, played at Miami and has roots so embedded in Miami, he hesitated when head coaching opportunities at Pitt and Rutgers came his way a little over a year ago.

So Cristobal's FIU team struggled under heightened expectations in 2012, going 3-9 -- and a season that ultimately (and surprisingly) cost him his job. That does nothing to diminish the tireless work he put in turning around a program that had facilities worse than many high schools when he took the head coaching job in 2006. Not to mention crushing sanctions as a result of infractions before his arrival.

FIU reached heights it had never seen before, and may not see again for a long while. The Panthers reached those heights with kids recruited from the South Florida area -- kids that may have been overlooked by Miami or Florida or Florida State. Kids that perhaps were recruited by those schools but wanted an opportunity to play right away or just wanted to play for Cristobal, period.

His recruiting ties to the area run longer than Golden's, longer than anybody on the current staff save for Art Kehoe. Cristobal is seen as a young, rising star in the business and a move like this works for Miami and it works for him. How long will it last? Well, you can ask that of any coach in America. There is no doubt Cristobal would love another head coaching job. Working at Miami again should only enhance his reputation, and help Miami.

Cristobal knows how to recruit, and he knows how to coach and he knows how to win. That, in the end, will help Miami win. No matter how long he stays.

Mario Cristobal issues statement

January, 31, 2012
Given the news of the past 24 hours, it only seemed prudent for FIU coach Mario Cristobal to reaffirm his commitment to the Panthers.

Cristobal was tied to the Rutgers job on Monday and reportedly had begun contract negotiations to replace coach Greg Schiano. But ultimately he decided to stay with the program he has rebuilt himself, a program that won a Sun Belt title and been to back-to-back bowl games for the first time under his watch.

“It is a tremendous privilege to be the head coach at FIU," Cristobal said in a statement released Tuesday. "We have a great thing going here and I am excited about the future of the program. Over the past five seasons we have been building something special. Our success has gone beyond the field, as our student-athletes have also excelled academically on their way to earning a very valuable diploma. I am also proud of our team’s continued involvement in the community. My goal is to see this program continue to develop and grow into a major football power. I want our fans to know that I am dedicated to this goal.”

It was the second time in the past few months that Cristobal has been a leading candidate for another job. After Todd Graham left Pitt for Arizona State, Cristobal was a top choice for the Panthers.

“We are extremely pleased that Mario Cristobal has chosen to remain the head coach at FIU," said Pete Garcia, FIU executive director of sports and entertainment. "What Mario has accomplished over the past five seasons is exceptional. It has always been my goal to have the very best coaches here at FIU. Mario continues to shine as one of the brightest young coaches in the nation. Our football team continues to gain momentum on the national scene as a result of Coach Cristobal’s tireless work ethic and passion for this athletic department and university. With the support of our chairman of the board, board of trustees, president and the entire university, we will continue to build the athletic department and all of FIU to the highest levels attainable in higher education.”

3-point stance: FIU's stand-up coach

January, 31, 2012
1. If the timing had been different, Mario Cristobal might have decided to leave Florida International, where he has been head coach for five seasons, and return to Rutgers. Cristobal had reasons to stay. He’s a south Florida guy. A team that went 0-12 in 2006, the year before he arrived, has gone to bowls the past two season. But in an age when coaches leave without saying goodbye, Cristobal didn’t abandon his team or the recruits that have agreed to sign with FIU on Wednesday. That makes him a stand-up guy.

2. Texas has gone 13-12 over the past two seasons, and persistent rumors regarding coach Mack Brown made athletic director DeLoss Dodds recommend a contract extension through the end of the decade to the university regents. Dodds all but rolled his eyes when he announced it, decrying the state of recruiting today. Maybe it’s a coincidence that Plano West defensive end Bryce Cottrell and Van (Texas) linebacker Dalton Santos switched from Oregon and Tennessee, respectively, to sign with Texas. Maybe not.

3. USC, on the heels of its 10-2 finish, is ranked 16th in the latest ESPN recruiting rankings. The Trojans might be higher were it not for the fact that they have only 14 commitments. That’s because USC is in the first of three years in which the school may sign only 15 players. As good as the Trojans were last fall, and as high as they have soared in the early rankings for next season, the NCAA-imposed recruiting penalty is going to take a toll. After struggling in 2010, the success of 2011 may be the eye of the storm.

Reports: Cristobal staying at FIU

January, 30, 2012
The search for the new Rutgers coach continues.

Multiple outlets have reported that Mario Cristobal will stay at FIU. Earlier in the day, it was reported that Cristobal was in negotiations to replace Greg Schiano at Rutgers.

Interim head coach Kyle Flood interviewed this week and remains a viable candidate for the Scarlet Knights.
Rutgers is in talks with FIU coach Mario Cristobal to become its next coach, ESPN's Joe Schad confirmed Monday.

The New Jersey Press Media and Newark Star-Ledger also reported that Cristobal will replace Greg Schiano, who resigned to take over the Tampa Bay Bucs job last week.

Cristobal's name came up immediately when Schiano left. He is a young up-and-coming coach who previously worked at Rutgers under Schiano. Just like Schiano, he did a masterful job building FIU, taking the young FBS program to back-to-back bowl games for the first time in its history.

Who's next for Rutgers?

January, 27, 2012
Rutgers athletic director Tim Pernetti says he already has a short list of candidates to become the next head coach of the Scarlet Knights.

So what exactly is he looking for?

“I think there are a lot of criteria," he said Thursday. "No. 1, we want the right kind of person. Understanding and being able to have your arms around the culture of the tri-state area I think is critical to being successful at Rutgers. So much of it has been built around being able to recruit on a somewhat regional level, that I think not only having a great understanding, but having really deep and strong relationships in the tri-state area. I think those are two very critical factors in this whole thing.”

Who fits the description? Here are a few possibilities:

Temple coach Steve Addazio. In his first season as the head coach at Temple, Addazio went 9-4 and brought the Owls back to a bowl game. He has ties to the tri-state area, having grown up and coached in Connecticut. He also served as an assistant at Syracuse in the 1990s and he clearly has established ties in the past year in the Pennsylvania area. That state has been a huge recruiting area for Rutgers, particularly given what has happened to Penn State.

Florida International coach Mario Cristobal. One of the brightest up-and-coming coaches in the country, Cristobal has done for FIU what Schiano did for Rutgers. He completely resurrected a program mired in misery, taking it to its first-ever conference title and back-to-back bowl appearances for the first time, too. FIU is obviously a much younger program, but Cristobal has got the coaching and recruiting chops. Plus, he worked under Schiano at Rutgers from 2001-03, so he has a familiar with the recruiting area. Cristobal was also a candidate for the Pitt job before ultimately deciding he wanted to stay in the South Florida area. What could Rutgers say to change his mind?

Notre Dame defensive coordinator Bob Diaco. A defensive mastermind like Schiano (who also served as defensive coordinator this past season), Diaco is from Cedar Grove, N.J., and has some coaching experience in the Big East. He was an assistant at Cincinnati under then-coach Brian Kelly before leaving to join Kelly with the Irish.

Sources: Pitt to hire Chryst as coach

December, 21, 2011
Paul Chryst's wait is over.

The Wisconsin offensive coordinator will be named head coach at Pittsburgh, colleague Joe Schad and others are reporting.

Chryst interviewed for the Pitt vacancy for the second consecutive season, and this time, he landed the job. Florida International coach Mario Cristobal and Ohio State's Luke Fickell also were in the mix at Pitt. Chryst also reportedly drew interest from Illinois for its recent vacancy.

As most blog readers know, I'm a big fan of Chryst's. He's one of the nation's best playcallers and should be an excellent head coach. This opportunity is overdue. While Pitt has botched its last two head-coach hires, the school should be much happier this time around.

Chryst's departure will affect Wisconsin, which also will lose quarterback Russell Wilson and possibly running back Montee Ball. His exit also could push quarterback transfer Dayne Crist away from the Badgers. Crist is deciding between Wisconsin and Kansas. It will be interesting to see where head coach Bret Bielema turns for Chryst's replacement.

More to come Thursday ...

Instant analysis: Marshall 20, FIU 10

December, 20, 2011

Marshall beat FIU 20-10 in the Beef 'O' Brady's Bowl on Tuesday night. Here is a look at how it happened:

How the game was won: Marshall special teams. The Thundering Herd have been excellent all season at blocking kicks, and Tuesday night was no exception. With its offense stalling left and right, Marshall got the big play it needed with 7:35 left in the game. FIU set up to punt from its own 22, but Zach Dunston blocked the kick -- the seventh block of the season for Marshall (three kicks, four punts). The Herd appeared to score on the play, but the touchdown was negated because there was an illegal forward pass. A personal foul call on Tyrone Carper was tacked onto the end of the play. But Marshall was able to stay in field goal range, and Tyler Warner made a 39-yard kick that hit off the inside of the upright to put the Herd ahead. Aaron Dobson caught his second touchdown pass of the game on a fourth-down play with 30 seconds left to ice the game.

Turning point: The block was a huge turning point for Marshall. For FIU -- it was the play of T.Y. Hilton. The Panthers were determined to get him going early, and he had some nice plays -- including their only touchdown of the game. But he bruised his thigh in the first half and was mostly ineffective when he returned to the game in the second half. After Marshall kicked its go-ahead field goal, Hilton had a costly play that ended up being a deciding factor. He fumbled after a catch near midfield with 4:24 remaining, and Marshall recovered. It was his second fumble of the game, though he recovered his first.

Player of the game: Dunston. His blocked kick turned the tide in the game.

What Marshall learned: The Thundering Herd won their seventh bowl game in the last eight appearances, and Doc Holliday led this team to a winning record in his second season. This win is huge for the momentum he is building at program eager to restore its past traditions. Rakeem Cato was inconsistent in the game, but playing as a true freshman can only help next season.

What FIU learned: Without an effective quarterback, it is hard to win games. The Panthers decided to start senior Wesley Carroll, but he struggled. Backup Jake Medlock came in briefly in the fourth quarter but was equally ineffective. They had no downfield passing game, also hurt because of a hobbled Hilton. Now the question that looms is whether FIU coach Mario Cristobal returns next season. He is a candidate at Pitt.

Beef 'O' Brady's Bowl Keys

December, 20, 2011
You saw the preview and prediction, now here are three keys for FIU and Marshall in the Beef 'O' Brady's Bowl tonight:

FIU (8-4)

1. Block Vinny Curry. There is a reason Curry has become one of the best defensive ends in the nation. "He disrupts offenses completely," FIU coach Mario Cristobal said. "We have got to find a way to block him and contain him." FIU has done an excellent job at protecting the quarterback this season, allowing just 13 sacks. Curry has 11 sacks this season, but he also has 21 tackles for loss and has forced six fumbles.

2. Get T.Y. Hilton loose. There is no doubt Hilton is one of the most dangerous players in college football because he can hurt you in so many ways. He catches passes, he is used as a runner out of the backfield, and he can return punts and kicks. A hamstring injury bothered him for a good portion of the season, but Hilton says he is 100 percent, so Marshall is going to have a real threat on its hands. It was Hilton who helped lead FIU to its win in the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl against Toledo last season with his famous hook-and-ladder on a fourth-and-17. He also caught a touchdown pass and scored on a kick return.

3. Score touchdowns. FIU has done a good job of converting red zone opportunities into points, but it has to do a better job of getting touchdowns and not field goals. In 45 red zone chances this season, FIU has kicked 18 field goals and scored just 21 touchdowns. Maximizing those opportunities is essential to winning this game.

Marshall (6-6)

1. Slow down Rhodes and Hilton. In addition to trying to contain Hilton, Marshall also is going to have to slow down FIU running back Kedrick Rhodes. The sophomore finished the regular season with 1,121 rushing yards, 13 shy of breaking the FIU single-season record. But his yardage total is the most since FIU joined the FBS level, and he helped shoulder the load while Hilton was hobbled.

2. Don't ask Cato to do too much. Tron Martinez and Travon Van are going to have to do their part to take the pressure off quarterback Rakeem Cato, who has been up and down this season. Cato is back in the starting lineup and coming off a game in which he threw for a career-high 341 yards, but he also has a tendency to throw interceptions and take too many sacks. FIU is good against the run -- ranking No. 23 nationally -- so this will be a big test for the Herd.

3. Keep it close. Marshall has done exceptionally well in close games this season -- 5-0 in games that are decided by a touchdown or less. Marshall has had a hard time blowing teams out, or even winning comfortably, for that matter. In fact, the Herd are one of seven bowl teams to have been outscored this season. Only UCLA has been outscored by a wider margin, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
FIU posted a school-record eight wins and is making back-to-back bowl appearances for the first time in school history. Marshall is back in a bowl under second-year coach Doc Holliday. Both teams feature the top players in their respective conferences -- T.Y. Hilton has been a force in the Sun Belt, while Vinny Curry has been a menace to Conference USA opponents. This is the first meeting between the schools and just the second time FIU will play a team from C-USA. The Panthers beat UCF this season.

WHO TO WATCH: Hilton. One of the most dynamic playmakers in all of college football, Hilton was slowed earlier this year with a hamstring injury but has returned to form. This season, Hilton broke the FIU and Sun Belt career records for receiving yards (3,443), receiving touchdowns (24), all-purpose yards (7,351) and kickoff return yards (2,819). He also was named to the Sun Belt first-team as a receiver, kick returner and all-purpose player. That's as well-rounded as you can get.

WHAT TO WATCH: Quarterback situation. Neither team has the most stable quarterback situation. Marshall will start true freshman Rakeem Cato, who is back in the starting lineup after he got benched midway through the season. With A.J. Graham out because of a shoulder injury, the Herd must rely on Cato to help lead the team to victory. He was great in an overtime win over East Carolina to get Marshall bowl eligible, but he has been maddeningly inconsistent this season (10 interceptions to 13 touchdown passes). Meanwhile, FIU is expected to play both Wes Carroll and Jake Medlock -- coach Mario Cristobal will probably make a game-time decision. Carroll was benched this season as well but played again after Medlock got hurt. Both are healthy going into this game.

WHY TO WATCH: This is your last chance to get a look at Curry before he moves on to the NFL. The C-USA Defensive Player of the Year, Curry has put together back-to-back outstanding seasons. Cristobal says Curry "discombobulates people." That is an astute way of putting it. This season, Curry is tied for third nationally with six forced fumbles, ranks second in tackles for loss (21) and is sixth in sacks (11).

PREDICTION: FIU 28, Marshall 21. Neither team jumps off the page statistically speaking. In fact, Marshall is the only one of the 70 bowl teams to rank 80th or worse in both total offense and total defense, according to ESPN Stats & Information. FIU has Hilton, and he makes the difference in this game.
The scene is one that FIU coach Mario Cristobal easily recalls, some four years later.

[+] EnlargeT.Y. Hilton
Robert Mayer/US PresswireT.Y. Hilton set multiple school and league records in four seasons at Florida International.
There was his prized recruit, T.Y. Hilton, playing for Miami Springs High, ripping balls out of the sky. Scoring at will. Cristobal turned to the coaches with him and said, "Fellas, this is the guy who's going to change our program."

Cristobal had a little problem. Florida was at the game scouting Hilton, too. Ole Miss and West Virginia were after Hilton as well. FIU had no weight room, no real facilities, no stadium at the time. It was a fledgling program playing in the shadow of the University of Miami, the Gators, the Seminoles, the Dolphins.

But Hilton, a Miami native, hit it off with Cristobal. "He struck me as a man who wanted to create his own footprints," Cristobal says now. Hilton had a tough time choosing between the Panthers and West Virginia. So tough, that he needed a little bit of intervention to help him make a decision.

Hilton placed an FIU cap and a West Virginia cap on his bed. He then had his infant son crawl toward the caps. If his son picked up the FIU cap, he would go there. If he picked up the West Virginia cap, he would go there. Little Eugene Junior picked FIU. Not once. But eight times.

"I never told him I put a Snickers bar behind that cap," Cristobal jokes.

The decision is one that has impacted not only Hilton but the FIU program. Hilton is no doubt the best player in school history, having rewritten the FIU and Sun Belt record books. This season, he set a career high with 64 receptions, and was selected to the Sun Belt first team as a receiver, kick returner and all-purpose player. Hilton owns the school and league marks for receiving yards (3,443), receiving touchdowns (24), all-purpose yards (7,351) and kickoff return yards (2,819).

FIU, meanwhile, is in the midst of the best two-year run in school history -- winning its first Sun Belt title last season and a program-record eight games this season while making back-to-back bowl appearances. Hilton will take the field for the Panthers for the final time Tuesday night against Marshall in the Beef 'O' Brady's Bowl in St. Petersburg, Fla., with yet another chance to make a huge impression on the national stage.

His son, now 4, will be there watching as his daddy closes out his career -- one that Hilton thought would be possible when he arrived at FIU in 2008.

"I knew I could through hard work, because hard work always pays off," Hilton said in a recent phone interview. "Coming in, I took myself to a different level. I did things differently, went back to the fundamentals, and did a lot of conditioning, and that took me to where I am now."

Hilton began the season on a huge tear, and got national headlines after catching seven passes for 201 yards and two touchdowns in a win over Louisville in Week 2. But the following week against UCF, Hilton strained his hamstring. He tried to play through the injury, but it bothered him for the next month. After beating the Knights, FIU dropped three of its next four games and was in a serious bind with its best player hobbled.

"When I was running, the injury was pulling me back, not letting me do more things I was capable of doing," Hilton said. "I couldn't go in and out of cuts, so it was very painful. But I was able to play through it a little bit just to help the team any way that I could."

Hilton says he is completely healthy and "200 percent" ready to take on his final game. After that, a trip to the Senior Bowl awaits, and then most likely a spot in the pros.

"I'm trying to go out with a bang and let people know my talents and what I'm able to do," he said.

FIU Panthers off to a fast start

September, 21, 2011
FIU coach Mario Cristobal has taken his Panthers to places they have never been: a conference championship, a bowl game, a little bit of national credibility.

He began the hard work five years ago, yet the breakthrough season of 2010 was just the first step to what he envisions for his program. Indeed, what happened last season has helped lay the groundwork to start this one: the first 3-0 start in school history; first win over a team from an AQ conference; first time receiving votes in both the AP and coaches’ polls.

“We’re at the point now where we feel confident playing,” Cristobal said in a phone interview. “It was a great thing for our football program to be 1-0 for the first time, to carry over the momentum from the bowl game into the first game of the season. This is a game of momentum and confidence, and every single time you have the opportunity to have success early on, it builds that. We still have miles to go, but every little bit helps.”

[+] EnlargeWesley Carroll
Jamie Rhodes/US PresswireWesley Carroll and FIU beat an AQ program for the first time when they faced down Louisville.
The bowl victory over Toledo a year ago helped springboard FIU into the toughest offseason ever. Players were more motivated than ever to continue the good work of 2010, to get people to see them as a solid program and not just living in the shadow of the University of Miami.

Cristobal let it be known time and again that teams win games with the work they put in during the long winter, spring and summer months. His players bought that message.

“We worked our you know whats off,” quarterback Wesley Carroll said. “We saw the extra preparation, extra film study. More and more guys were getting in film room, studying opponents and it’s shown up. Talk about one of the hardest working teams in the country, and it’s showing.”

FIU easily beat North Texas to start the season, then traveled to play Louisville in Week 2. Some thought this a fashionable upset pick because the Panthers have an experienced group returning and one of the most dynamic playmakers in the country in receiver T.Y. Hilton.

Hilton burned Louisville for 201 yards receiving, and the Panthers pulled the upset 24-17. When the final seconds ticked off, Cristobal pumped his fist and jumped around, realizing what his players had accomplished. One season ago, they nearly pulled off upsets over Rutgers and Texas A&M but did not finish in the fourth quarter.

This year, they did.

“It was a moment we worked toward for a long time,” Cristobal said. “We finally found a way to finish against a BCS team. … In terms of the development of a football program, there are painful and tough steps. You cannot skip those and those [losses] were part of the process for us to learn what it was going to be like in the fourth quarter against a BCS program. That experience proved invaluable. We were able to push ourselves. We responded appropriately and got it done.”

FIU followed up the win over Louisville with an impressive 17-10 victory over UCF. The Panthers did it despite losing Hilton in the game to a sore hamstring. Cristobal expects Hilton to be able to play Saturday against Louisiana.

The 3-0 start has gotten more people noticing FIU than ever. That has led to chatter about Cristobal being the next up-and-coming coach to get called for a bigger job.

Cristobal deflects that question, saying, “The only thing on my mind is taking this program and elevating it as high as it can go. The sky is the limit and there is no limit for this program. … We’re going to build a premier football program and one day become a perennial champion.”

It could happen again this season. A glance at the rest of the schedule shows FIU should be favored in all its remaining games. Duke and Akron are the only two remaining nonconference contests on the slate.

“It’s on us. We feel we can be 1-0 at the end of every night. We just have to take it week by week,” Carroll said. “We can’t worry about the past games and future games. If we take that approach, we have a chance to be successful.”