“We entered a place that needed to kick butt again,” Cristobal said.
It’s been six years since the Hurricanes were anywhere close to threatening backsides. That’s when Miami lost by 35 to Clemson in the ACC championship, three blocks away from The Westin Charlotte room where Cristobal spoke at the ACC’s football kickoff. It has been two decades since the ‘Canes finished in the top five — a feat they accomplished every year of Cristobal’s playing career at The U (1989-92).
Cristobal spent some of his 5-7 first season figuring out why and, as importantly, instilling toughness into a program that, by his telling, needed it.
“Let’s call it what it is,” Cristobal said. “Our blueprint and our culture is as physical, as demanding, as accountability-driven as a culture we walked into was opposite of that. I hate to put it bluntly, but when those two cultures and mentalities collide, you know what? You’ve got to go through what you’ve got to go through.”
What he and his program went through was one of the worst years of the program’s modern era, including a rock-bottom 45-31 loss to Middle Tennessee. The locker room, safety Kam Kinchens said, wasn’t fully bought in. Some players became selfish.
“As the season wasn’t going our way, we had more superhero ball,” Kinchens said.
The talent level was fine but not strong enough to withstand horrid injury luck. Cristobal alluded to it when he joked about the top-10 class he signed in his first full cycle.
“Yeah, we signed the No. (7) class in the country,” Cristobal said. “But Miami should have been doing that every single year, right? Well, we probably wouldn’t be here if it was.”
But Cristobal is here for a reason. His rough debut has not changed the championship expectations or the steps he believes are necessary to get there.
Cristobal said it starts and ends with personnel. Miami lost two dozen transfers but reinforced the roster with top-10 classes in both high school recruits and portal acquisitions. An offensive line that ranked No. 109 nationally in sacks allowed added all-AAC center Matt Lee from UCF and standout guard Javion Cohen from Alabama, plus a pair of five-star tackle recruits. Miami then poached offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson from Houston and defensive coordinator Lance Guidry from Tulane.
Though the people have changed, Cristobal’s structure has not. He’s sticking with the ideals that won him a conference title at Florida International and Oregon.
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“I can confidently say nothing’s going to stop Miami from returning to national prominence,” Cristobal said.
The only question to Cristobal is the one Hurricanes fans have been asking for the better part of two decades: When?
Though Cristobal isn’t putting a timetable on it, he sees the intangibles coming together. He said accountability is showing up in better academics and as many community service hours as anyone. Coaches can’t take attendance on voluntary days, but players understand that winning the ACC is voluntary, too.
“It didn’t get here overnight,” Cristobal said. “It’s not going to be an overnight process to get to where we need to get to.”
The destination remains the same as it always is at Miami. Start with coming back here in December for the ACC championship at Bank of America Stadium, then begin aiming higher, like a first College Football Playoff appearance.
Realistically, those goals are a year or two away. But Cristobal sees them nearing as the talent rises, the culture meshes and his program — he hopes — starts to resemble the one that kicked as much butt as any in college football history.
“This is the one that when you get to a point where you’re rolling strong, then it rolls strong,” Cristobal said. “It’s really, really hard to stop.”
He just has to get it going again.
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