Consecutive bowl seasons, the only two such years with winning records in FIU’s 11-season football history, couldn’t protect FIU football coach Mario Cristobal from being blindsided Wednesday morning.
FIU fired Cristobal, who turned down more lucrative jobs at Rutgers and the University of Pittsburgh in the last year to stay at FIU, 11 days after the Panthers finished a disappointing 2012 season with a 3-9 record.
The third coach in FIU history will take over the program as the school moves from the Sun Belt Conference into Conference USA in 2013. FIU executive director of sports and entertainment Pete Garcia said Wednesday afternoon he hadn’t spoken with any prospect specifically, including his a longtime friend and former University of Miami coach Butch Davis, now an NFL assistant coach with Tampa Bay.
Garcia said he’d like to have a new coach hired in the first days of January, giving a new staff one month to recruit before National Signing Day.
“Very puzzling,” Cristobal said by phone Wednesday afternoon, his voice still shaking slightly from shock.
Though his relationship with Garcia could be described more as cool coexistence, Cristobal clearly had no idea what Wednesday would bring. Tuesday night, he was visiting the home of Suwanee (Ga.) Collins Hill High quarterback Brett Sheehan, who announced Wednesday a retraction of his verbal committment in the wake of Cristobal’s firing.
Garcia’s explanation: “He’s done a very good job for this program, but we’ve gone backwards over the last year and a half. Over the last 22 games, we’ve gone 8-14.”
This season began with FIU getting a few Top 25 votes in the coaches poll and as the preseason Sun Belt Conference favorites in the conference coaches poll. Optimism flowed freely with a senior-laden team coming off 7-6 and 8-5 seasons that included appearances in the Little Ceasar’s Pizza Bowl and the Beef O’Brady’s St. Petersburg Bowl, respectively.
But special teams gaffes and a porous defense, expected to be the team’s foundation, led to FIU allowing 37.4 points per game over the first eight games. Meanwhile, injuries to starting quarterback Jake Medlock and running back Kedrick Rhodes hampered the offense. FIU started freshman quarterback E.J. Hilliard in three games against bowl-bound teams. Hilliard’s first college action was the entire second half against Sugar Bowl-bound Louisville.
All this led to a season of close losses, two by one point, two by one touchdown and one other in overtime. Cristobal’s final record at FIU is 27-47.
The new coach will inherit a team that needs to be rebuilt mainly along the offensive and defensive lines, especially the former. Underclassmen saw significant playing time in the secondary, among the linebackers and at skill positions on offense.
“In four or five years, we quickly put FIU on the map nationally,” Cristobal said. “We gave FIU an identity. We went to two bowl games, won a conference title, beat a BCS opponent. The importance of getting into Conference USA was emphasized and we helped do that. It’s obviously puzzling and shocking after a year when we had so many critical injuries at key spots and close losses.”
He said he’d already received interest from FBS schools with head coaching jobs and coordinator jobs available.