Ah yes, I remember well those halcyon days for Florida International University football, back when the young program was rising, winning, going to consecutive bowl games. Back when Mario Cristobal, home-grown hero, was The Hot Young Coach coveted by others but loyal to the city he loved.
I remember well those heady days mainly because they happened about a minute and a half ago, didn’t they?
FIU fired Cristobal on Wednesday, and it was unexpected, unfair and fraught with reckless impatience. Of course, by FIU we mean the school’s autocrat athletic director and one-man tempest, Pete Garcia, who evidently thought his program was above and beyond an off-year and should be on an uninterrupted beeline to a national championship.
Dear Mario, We truly appreciate all that loyalty you showed. Now get the hell off my campus! Love, Pete.
“We’ve gone backwards,” Garcia explained his decision Wednesday.
The memory can be so selective, can’t it? So short, too.
One year ago, Cristobal’s Panthers had finished an 8-4 regular season and were preparing for a second consecutive bowl game. The year before that they’d shared the Sun Belt Conference title and won their bowl game.
One year ago, Cristobal had just been rewarded with a four-year contract extension — perhaps because overtures from Rutgers and Pittsburgh verified the rising stock of a bright young coaching mind.
Six years ago, Cristobal took over a program that predecessor Don Strock left in a mess. He inherited NCAA sanctions not of his doing (as Al Golden similarly would with the crosstown Miami Hurricanes). But he worked through the lean, losing years and saw the program finally begin to gain stability, a local footprint, a bit of national credibility.
Then came the off-year Garcia would not abide.
A “total collapse,” the AD called it.
The 3-9 record included five losses by one score. FIU had lost its best player by far, T.Y. Hilton, to graduation. Starting quarterback Jake Medlock and top running back Kedrick Rhodes both missed a big chunk of the season injured.
But Garcia figured a team with a lot of seniors should overcome all those things.
That’s why Cristobal, 42, Miami-born and the first Cuban-American head coach in NCAA Division I football, is unemployed today. And why Garcia is shopping for a new coach — perhaps former Canes coach Butch Davis, if rampant speculation proves true.
Davis and Garcia are good friends from their UM days. Cristobal and Garcia are said to have had a cooler relationship, at times strained.
The latter might be more expected than the former, given that Garcia seems to lead the league in rubbing people the wrong way. Fortunately for him those have been underlings more than superiors, at least so far.
Perhaps someday soon someone higher than Garcia on the FIU food chain will begin to wonder if the problem with FIU athletics starts with the AD, but we digress.
Davis would be the kind of splash-hire Garcia seems to favor, as when he brought in Isiah Thomas to coach FIU men’s basketball, finally had to admit that was a colossal failure, and replaced him with Rick Pitino’s son.
In Davis, 61, FIU would have itself a “name” hire whose Canes background would be seen as a bonus by Garcia, whom some might portray as obsessed to overcome UM’s dominance in this market, the steepest of climbs.
But in Davis FIU would also have itself a guy with baggage. Some untruths floated in the wake of his departing UM not under the best of circumstances. He has battled health issues.
He also was fired from his most recent coaching job, at North Carolina, after the 2010 season, on account of NCAA improprieties related to academic misconduct and players receiving improper benefits.
One also imagines that FIU would be Stepping Stone U. to Davis, a man who has been a head coach in the NFL and in the ACC.
Davis made his comeback aim known by recently unsuccessfully seeking the Tennessee job in the SEC, and now we’re supposed to think he’d be content at a program migrating a baby step up from the Sun Belt to Conference USA?
A program that can’t fill its small stadium?
A program in the deep shadow of UM?
Come to think of it, Davis and Garcia might be the perfect match:
A coach looking to leave even before his AD can fire him.