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FIU fires football coach Cristobal

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.

Heated interest last offseason from Pitt and Rutgers led to FIU giving Cristobal a one-year extension on his contract last summer that took him to 2017. That extension included an increase in funds for assistant coaches and the minutiae of football operations. Before the 2011 season, Cristobal received another extension that included a raise in base salary to $453,183.

Bonuses pushed that over $500,000, still cheap for the job and the market. According to Cristobal’s contract, FIU now owes him $906,366 if he doesn’t get a job next season. If he does, FIU owes him one year’s base salary plus a pro-rated amount.

Cristobal took over from Don Strock after the 0-12 2006 season. He was one of Garcia’s first coaching hires after Garcia took the athletic director’s job. Under Strock, the football program committed various NCAA violations that resulted in 2005 wins being vacated and possessed a low enough Academic Progress Rate to get scholarship reductions.

In August, Cristobal referred to the heavy total scholarship sanctions from the NCAA levied on FIU as “a near death penalty” and said: “I was never aware of the stuff that was coming. No one had made us aware as a coaching staff that we would lose 20 or 30 scholarships.”

FIU just returned to full scholarships this season. Also, FIU’s facilities in 2007 defined “austere” — no stadium, no weight room, a bare-bones academic support system, etc.

The 2010 and 2011 seasons saw FIU finish with its first .500 regular season records, 6-6 and 8-4, and go to the aforementioned bowl games. The bowl games, appearances on ESPN and individual dynamism of wide receiver/kick returner T.Y. Hilton drew attention to the school, which is attempting to reach an enrollment of 60,000.

It also drew greater crowds, at least until this season. FIU’s only sport close to being a revenue producer played its first 2012 home game against Akron in front of half-full stands despite the consensus prognostications and enclosing of FIU Stadium’s north side. By midseason, the losses shrunk the crowd down to a third of that.

Crowds and revenue fall under Garcia’s job description. Garcia was asked Wednesday afternoon if FIU remains at three-to-five wins over the next two years after such a drastic move, what does that mean for his job?

“I’m held accountable for everything in the athletic department,” Garcia said. “My job is to make sure the entire athletic department is headed in the right direction. Right now, I didn’t think the football program was headed in the right direction. It’s my job to hire a coach that will make us competitive year in and year out and successful. Success is going to bowl games and having winning seasons. That’s how our coaches are evaluated and how I’m evaluated.”

If that’s not the case, he said, “Then I’ve got to be held accountable.”

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