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March 2, 2013

New Tide assistant brings energy, excitement

TUSCALOOSA | The night T.Y. Hilton's father closed his front door behind Mario Cristobal, everyone in the house knew.

The ideal man to trust his son's college football career to had just walked out, and it didn't really matter that Cristobal was a one-win coach at a can't-win program in Florida International University.

"We all looked at each other and said, 'Now that's a guy you can play for,'" said the elder Hilton, whose son went on to become the face of FIU football and was one of the NFL's top rookies in 2012. "Mario was the guy you wanted to trust. You knew he was going to get involved with a kid in a personal way."

Though his formal commitment didn't come until later, the recruitment of T.Y. Hilton Jr. was all but over. Tiny Florida International University, loser of 23 of its previous 24 games, was getting one of the top players in talent-rich Dade County to the chagrin of some far bigger programs, including Urban Meyer's mighty Florida Gators. None knew at the time that the shipwrecked FIU program Cristobal inherited would rise to back-to-back bowl appearances over the span of the next three years.

But the Hiltons knew enough.

Cristobal was enough.

That's the kind of reach the University of Alabama's new offensive line coach has as a recruiter in South Florida. But UA coach Nick Saban has hired a lot more than just a recruiter to rebuild an offensive line that returns only two starters in 2013. He has hired one of the most dynamic and determined personalities anywhere in the college coaching ranks.

In the beginning
If determination is one of Cristobal's best qualities, his father can certainly claim a hand in it. Luis Cristobal came to the United States as a Cuban exile in 1961.

He and his brothers had worked in the Cuban national police, and Luis was made a political prisoner of the Fidel Castro regime. By the time he reached Miami to make a better life, he had conquered challenges far more daunting than little things like a language barrier.

Five years after arriving in Miami, Luis met and married his wife, Clara, who had been a Cuban exile a year longer than he had. She is 72 today, and still works full-time at at a job that she has held nearly half her life.

The same values that crossed international waters with Luis -- loyalty, resilience, work ethic -- would become the fabric of the upbringing of sons Lou and Mario. The Miami neighborhood the Cristobals called home was a tough one. By Lou's own account, many of the kids they knew eventually landed in prison. But the Cristobals had law enforcement blood in them, and chose a smarter path.

"It's because of our upbringing that Mario is who he is," said Lou, now a police officer himself in Hammocks District of the Miami Dade Metro Police Department. "Our parents' discipline and work ethic were ingrained in us from a very young age. We owe them everything."

Mario, of course, will be early to rise to go to work for the Crimson Tide. Hard work is the only kind of work he knows.

The crossroads
When the Alabama football team visits the White House on Wednesday for a presidential celebration of the program's third national championship in four years, forgive Cristobal if he spends a minute wondering how his life might have turned out in the nation's capital. He could have been greeting Nick Saban rather than following him.

The Secret Service once wanted him.

Twice.

He was no ordinary football player as an offensive tackle for the Miami Hurricanes in the early 1990s. He was also one of the most distinguished academic performers on the roster, and his intelligence attracted job offers even more impressively than his football skills attracted the National Football League.

Years earlier, it had actually been brother Lou's dream to work for the Secret Service.

"I didn't have good enough eyes to pass the test. You had to have 20/40 uncorrected vision, and I didn't have it," said Lou. "So when he got out of college, he took an interest in it too."

Mario not only had the necessary eyesight, but he passed the stringent exam and visited Washington D.C. to explore the possibility. The first time he was offered the job, he declined in order to complete a master's degree at UM. The second time, Lou received a 911 message on his beeper while testifying in what he called a "high-profile" criminal trial, and received permission from the judge to exit the witness stand for a family emergency.

This time, not even a judge would keep the secret service waiting for an answer.

"There are two Secret Service agents outside my door and they're telling me I have to make a decision right now," Mario Cristobal told his brother over the phone. "What do I do?"

The older brother told Mario to make his own decision. "But I think you were born to coach," Lou added.

Still today, Lou believes Mario originally took an interest in the Secret Service in part because Lou had been denied the chance. The brothers fought often, and fiercely. But they were also fiercely loyal.

Mario Cristobal was unavailable for comment under UA team policy that doesn't allow assistant coaches to do media interviews.

Something from nothing
Down in South Florida, there is still plenty of head-scratching going on about how it came to be that Mario Cristobal isn't FIU's head coach anymore. Google search the names of FIU Athletics Director Pete Garcia and Cristobal together, and the search turns up some stinging media criticism of Garcia's decision to fire the six-year coach who, by every account, built the program up from nothing.

Cristobal himself simply called it "puzzling."

One of his FIU assistants, Alex Mirabal, still can't figure it out either.

"He built that place. FIU football should be synonymous with Mario. He built it from scratch," said Mirabal, who took the offensive line job at Marshall after Cristobal and his staff were let go. "We had no facilities, we practiced on an intramural field, and we took over a program that was run like a fraternity, and made it into a legitimate college program."

Some 25 years ago, Cristobal and Mirabal were teammates at Miami Columbus High, and they have remained best friends since. They were in each other's wedding parties, and Cristobal wouldn't have anyone but Mirabal coach his offensive line at FIU. And because Mirabal was once an FIU student when there was no such thing as FIU football, his level of appreciation for Cristobal's efforts there carries a unique perspective.

"What he did there was nothing short of miraculous," Mirabal said.

Cristobal's reputation as a recruiter in the Miami area already was strong from his previous years coaching as an assistant at Miami and Rutgers. At FIU, however, it was lifted even higher.

Unlike most head coaches who assign territories to assistants, Cristobal took on territories of his own. Nobody knew FIU football, and it was his mission to change that. He instituted a traveling FIU football clinic in which the Golden Panthers coaching staff canvassed the state to establish a brand. If he couldn't bring recruits to FIU, he would bring FIU to them.

Meanwhile, on campus, the sort of jobs handled by support staffers at Alabama were left to Cristobal and his staff.

"We were the football coaches, the academic advisors, the team psychologist, the classroom checkers, everything," Mirabal said. "And Mario didn't just delegate all that. He was involved in it."

The struggle began with a one-win season in 2007, one win better than the team Cristobal inherited. The on-field gap between FIU and its opponents was staggering. Lou Cristobal helped Mario on the sidelines that first season, and saw first-hand how much work had to be done.

"We went to Penn State, and we were so much smaller than they were it looked like the attack of the Keebler elves," Lou said. "We lost 59-0. And Mario was just as focused as ever at times like that. He coached them to the very last second."

In 2009 in Tuscaloosa, a Cristobal team that went 3-9 got a kickoff return for a touchdown from Cristobal's prized recruit, T.Y. Hilton. But consolation was not to be had in a 40-14 loss.

For three years, the highlights were few. Then came the lowest point of all.

In March of 2010, Golden Panthers running back Kendall Berry, one of the team's best role models and example-setters, was fatally stabbed after an argument outside FIU's student recreation center. According to Lou, Berry was the first recruit to commit to FIU after Cristobal took the FIU job.

If T.Y. Hilton was to be the face of the program, Berry was to be a cornerstone.

"This kid was like a son to Mario. It really affected him," Lou said. "And he could play. They had a wildcat package for him they called the 'WildBerry.' He was a special kid."

That season, a program that had lost 39 of its previous 48 games dedicated the season to Berry and won a Sun Belt Conference Championship and a trip to the program's first-ever bowl appearance, in Little Caesar's Pizza Bowl.

"Mario Cristobal has the greatest work ethic of any human being I have ever seen," said Canesport.com reporter Gary Ferman. "Nick Saban hand-picked Mario for a reason. He will transcend Alabama's ability to recruit South Florida. You can put Mario in the middle of Russia and he'd be one of the best recruiters there."

The Miami years
Art Kehoe has been around the offensive line game long enough to know what it takes to motivate. He's spent 29 non-consecutive seasons working with UM offensive line talent, and remembers easily the day he went to Columbus some 25 years ago to determine whether Mario Cristobal had what it took.

"He was 6-4 and really a good athlete, but he wasn't the biggest guy and he was getting kind of bounced around. He was a great basketball player. But I liked his toughness, and we took him," Kehoe said. "He came here and played like he coaches today. Very determined, very tough, and he's a really intelligent guy."

A couple of years later, the Cristobal brothers made their permanent mark on the Hurricanes' bitter series with Florida State. With Lou being two years older than Mario, the brothers didn't often have occasion to start together at UM, but the 1990 FSU game was, for Kehoe, a memorable exception.

Florida State's vaunted defensive line was anchored by twins Henry and Joe Ostazewski, and Kehoe knew the brotherhood angle was just the bait to make the Cristobals bite.

"I was tormenting both of them the whole week, saying 'Well, my money's on them Ostazewskis against the Cristobals,'" Kehoe said. "We watched film and I said 'Man, look at them Ostazewskis. There's not a brother combination like them out there.' I never let up on it."

With the Cristobals starting beside each other, Mario at tackle and Lou at guard, the Hurricanes dominated up front and rushed for 334 yards in a 31-22 beating that thoroughly humbled one of the nation's top defenses. "They told me for the rest of their careers they didn't want to ever hear me talk about the Ostazewskis again," Kehoe said.

Mario and Lou were teammates on the 1989 Miami team that made easy work of Alabama in the Sugar Bowl to win the national championship on the back of Bill Curry's final game as the Crimson Tide's head coach. Nearly 25 years later, Kehoe expects the younger Cristobal to fit in perfectly with the Crimson Tide staff.

"He'll do a terrific job. He's going to be a persistent and relentless guy if you're playing for him, because that's who he is," Kehoe said. "And he will demand players be good students and good people. I can guarantee you that."

High octane
The intensity with which Cristobal coaches football is the stuff of legend in South Florida, where -- be it at Miami or FIU -- he always has demanded nothing less than maximum effort of his players.

TIDESPORTS.COM Premium recruiting:

Andrew Bone compiles Alabama's offers for 2014 class.

It's a competitiveness that goes back to his younger days, and was born from fiercely competing with Lou.

"In high school our senior year in practice one day he literally took on the whole entire defense in a fight," Mirabal said. "It was 11 on one until the rest of the offense had to get involved. It's his brother's DNA. He just will not take a step backward."

And in a show of togetherness, Mario has been known to join players in conditioning and in lifting weights. He is an avid lifter, and extremely conscious about eating healthy foods. What he asks of his players, he will do himself.

"None of his offensive linemen are going to be in as good a shape as he is. That ain't happening," Mirabal said. "... A lot of times coaches are hypocritical, telling kids to get in shape, and you look at them, and they're fat and sloppy. That's not Mario. He's going to walk the walk. He won't tell you how it's done, he'll show you how it's done."

Mixed martial arts training has been another way Cristobal has chosen to stay in peak physical condition, working under noted MMA trainer Efrain Ruiz in Miami. One night in 1999, when he was a UM graduate assistant, he tried out his martial arts skills on his brother Lou. The older brother would visit him at UM after his police shift ended, and often found Mario watching game film as late as midnight.

On this particular night, Mario issued his brother a martial arts challenge right in the graduate assistant office.

"We thought we were alone there being that late, and he gets into the guard position, and says 'All right, come on,'" Lou said. "We moved some furniture out of the way. I engaged him, and it was on. Chairs flying, picture frames coming off the walls. This is 11:30 at night, and that office is rocking. The door swings open, and (head coach) Butch Davis in his Arkansas drawl, says, 'Mario! Luis! What in the Hell?' We just stopped like two kids being scolded. Then Butch closed the door, and we kept going."

Indeed, Alabama's offensive linemen are in for a lot more than a coach.

They are in for a ride.

Reach Chase Goodbread at chase@tidesports.com or at 205-722-0196.

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