Future first-round NFL cornerback Mike Rumph was an 18-year-old incoming freshman in the summertime of 1998 when he entered a room stuffed with wrestling pads in Miami’s Hecht Athletic Center and stumbled upon a “big guy drenched in sweat.’’
Standing next to the big guy: a UM player, equally drenched.
“This dude is tough, man,’’ Rumph recalls saying to himself.
He wasn’t talking about the player.
The “dude” was Mario Cristobal, then a 27-year-old offensive line grad assistant who had gained nationwide titles in 1989 and 1991 as a Hurricanes deal with — and on Dec. 6, 2021, was employed as UM’s twenty sixth head soccer coach.
“We practice on each other,’’ an incredulous Rumph, now UM’s assistant director of recruiting, said he was told by the former player about Cristobal. “Coach Cristobal likes to wrestle. The dude is good.’’
Be assured the 6-4 Cristobal, now 51 with a 10-year, $80 million contract, no longer wrestles with players. When asked by the Miami Herald in late August if he still does jiu jitsu or martial arts, Cristobal said, “I’ll leave it as a firm yes. I don’t want to expand on that.’’
Cristobal is still very much a tough dude — a tough, football-obsessed dude who works nearly ‘round the clock and is driven to not only help players become proficient in their craft, but to become proficient, caring, problem-solving human beings when they enter “the real world” after school.
The first-generation Cuban-American who grew up in Miami and accepted a “dream job” as a Secret Service agent earlier than altering his thoughts (maintain studying), and preaches that “the U isn’t back— just back to work,” is as relentless as he was as a lineman at Miami Columbus High beneath coach Dennis Lavelle and with the Canes beneath Jimmy Johnson and Dennis Erickson.
“I haven’t ever been as excited for UM as I am right now,” mentioned Johnson, who famous he tried a number of occasions to get former athletic director Blake James to think about Cristobal when Miami employed Manny Diaz. “I’m glad in the end we finally got him.’’
Lavelle, 74, Cristobal’s all-time mentor whom he still adores, is more than thrilled.
“Mario is the perfect person at this point in his life to run the UM program,’’ said Lavelle of his former player and “straight-A’’ Algebra II student, describing him as “intense, focused, mature and respectful — a great student and great kid with a great family. He never gave anybody trouble. Ever. I can’t remember ever yelling at him.
“I know how he’s going to coach, how he’s going to discipline his players and make things go. I bet some of the players can’t believe the change. Mario don’t play around. When you think of old school, he’s old school.’’
Lavelle coached high school football for 45 years, 27 at Columbus. He said he still regards Cristobal, Cristobal’s dear friend/UM offensive line coach Alex Mirabal and UM general manager of football operations Alonzo Highsmith — all of them former Columbus players — as his children.
“Alonzo and Mario FaceTimed me a few weeks ago,’’ Lavelle said. “It was cute. This is goofy, but when they come into my brain I still think of them as my kids.”
Highsmith redshirted at Miami in 1983, 5 years earlier than Cristobal did the identical, however the seemingly unbreakable Columbus bond and UM brotherhood saved the alums linked.
“Coach Lavelle talked to me about his players all the time and Mario was one of the guys he always talked about because he thought he was a tough son of a [gun],’’ Highsmith said. “Mario still lives by what was preached to him in high school — he’s fiery, competitive, doesn’t back down to anybody.
“In order to succeed as a coach in Miami you have to be tougher than the team and have a no-frills work ethic. That’s Miami football. That’s Mario Cristobal. He’s a very humble man who is all about work ethic.’’
These days, nearly everything that runs through Cristobal’s mind relates to football, even when he’s recalling significant dates. “My father passed in 1996 when I was out there in NFL Europe,’’ said Cristobal, an undrafted free agent cut in camp by the Denver Broncos. “My grandfather passed after my senior year national championship game [1992 season loss to Alabama in the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 1, 1993]. My grandmother passed in 1989 before the LSU game — ‘88 that is.”
It’s no surprise that Cristobal, whose head-coaching stints included FIU from 2007 via 2012 and Oregon from 2018 via 2021, attended his mom Clara’s funeral on March 7, the primary day of UM spring follow and first time he took his beloved Greentree Field as UM’s boss.
“This is exactly, exactly what she wants and so it’s all good,’’ he said that day. “Today is about moving forward and making sure that everything that was ever taught to us, my brother and I, that’s always carried on in our daily doings. … The best part about her: She’s relentless, tireless, there’s no give. She’s gonna finish everything and that’s what we do. That’s the way we’ve been raised.”
Both mother and father considerably influenced Cristobal and his older brother Luis “Lou” Cristobal, a fellow offensive lineman who performed at UM from 1986 (redshirt yr) via 1990 and even began some video games along with Mario. The youthful Cristobal mentioned their father, in high-level legislation enforcement in Cuba (“one of the good guys”) earlier than he got here to Miami within the early ’60s, always spoke of the significance of “work and being of service to others.’’
“He would show us a map of the country and say, ‘Being a good person who works really, really hard doing right by others transcends all those lines that divide states and cities and counties,’’’ Cristobal said. “It didn’t matter where you were from, it didn’t matter how tall you were, the accent you may have had from not having spoken a language. It didn’t matter the color of your skin.
“He said working hard and making people better works in Miami, works here, works there — and he would have said works in Eugene, Oregon,’’ Cristobal said of his last home while he coached the Ducks. “Doing things the right way, doing right by people and working hard transcends all those lines.”
Late within the 1998 season, that very same season Rumph found the grad assistant may wrestle, Cristobal realized by way of his pager that he had the Secret Service job for which he had dreamt and spent two painstaking years searching for. He mentioned “Yes,’’ and then after a restless night, “No.’’
“It was like a collision of two goals in life,’’ Cristobal said. “I always wanted to work as a government agent. I had applied and the career had arrived after a lot of hard work, a lot of tests, a lot of background checks and panel interviews.”
But soccer, it seems, meant extra. “I had lost football once in my life from a playing standpoint,’’ Cristobal said. “All of a sudden I realized, ‘Man, I love this coaching stuff.’ I didn’t want to let go of football again.’’
In hindsight, was it the right decision?
“It was the right one then and it’s the right one now,’’ he said, acknowledging that “it was difficult.’’
“I pour every ounce of what I have into whatever I’m doing. Things change and that’s OK. That’s why I always say when people make changes and they move on, there’s no judgment. People have to act according to what they know is right for them.”
Big bro Lou
Lou Cristobal, 54, is a longtime Miami-Dade Police sergeant who mentioned his official retirement date is ready for Oct. 31. He is ecstatic that his child brother is again with the Hurricanes so he “won’t have to follow Mario at some other university” whereas additionally following his personal son Luis’ profession as an offensive lineman for Georgia State.
“I’m really fired up,’’ Lou said. “Mario always loved the program deeply and he and his coaches bring the necessary passion and energy and knowledge and experience to build a championship program. But I’m also excited as a family man that Mario and his wife Jessica and their sons [Rocco, 11, and Mario Mateo, 12] have brought us back together again. I’m totally jacked.’’
“He’s a machine,’’ Jessica said the day her husband was introduced as coach. “He’s out the door at 4:30 a.m. for work. I don’t know anyone who works harder than he does. He’s soooo pumped to be back.“
Lou had his own reputation as an intense tough guy who regularly brawled with Mario growing up. Lou was a huge Dolphins fan; Mario, a Pittsburgh Steelers fanatic. The fights on the way to school over their choice of NFL teams, Lou told the Herald, were “legendary.” During UM highway journeys, when the Cristobals roomed collectively, Friday nights turned their very own model of the previous World Wrestling Federation, when he mentioned their teammates would collect to observe.
“The only rule is you can’t close-fist punch’’ Lou told the Herald in 1990. “Everything else is OK. It really gets us ready for the game.’’
That same year, Clara Cristobal, who said each of her sons weighed 9 1/2 pounds at birth, acknowledged she would have loved to also have a daughter.
“Try for a girl?’’ she was asked. “No way,’’ the mom said. “Do you know what it’s like having two football players? I wouldn’t take the chance of having three.’’
Both former Hurricanes helped protect Gino Torretta, Miami’s 1992 Heisman Trophy winner who came to UM the same year as Mario.
“Mario probably caught the short end of the stick when it came to Lou,’’ said a laughing Torretta, adding that the only time he had “ever been afraid of a teammate was with Lou Cristobal on the field.” He recalled a recreation he began as a redshirt freshman in 1989 in opposition to San Jose State, when “San Jose State blitzed like 78 of 82 plays.’’
“I called a play on first down, the team showed blitz and I had to call an audible.”
“’Easy, easy, easy,’’’ Torretta said he told his linemen. “’I need to change the play.’ But it was too loud in the Orange Bowl,” Torretta mentioned, and Lou didn’t hear his directions and jumped offside. “I was fearful for my life as I backed up five yards from the penalty with Lou chewing my butt in the huddle.”
Mario Cristobal was simply as intense however extra managed in coping with others. However, he was identified to get sick to his abdomen throughout follow and video games, Torretta mentioned, however “still pushed himself harder than everyone else.’’
“He’d be throwing up and still put his hand on the ground and kept going,’’ Torretta said. “He might throw up in the huddle, might throw up breaking the huddle. We didn’t care, as long as he was still playing.’’
Joaquin Gonzalez, another Columbus grad who was the UM right tackle in 2001 when the Canes won their fifth and last national title, is nine years younger than Mario Cristobal. But Gonzalez got to know him well because Lou Cristobal was best buddies in high school with Tony Gonzalez, Joaquin’s older brother, and Tony and Joaquin shared a bedroom.
“I learned at an early ago how to defend myself because all their friends were a very tight group of guys and they’d come over the house and use me as a rag doll,’’ Gonzalez said. “Mario was only two years younger than Lou, so Mario was already hanging around. His dad and his mom and my parents developed a friendship all based on us kids.”
Cuban-American function fashions
Gonzalez mentioned Mario Cristobal and his brother “were one of the reasons I fell in love with UM.”
“I wanted to emulate their story — these Cuban-American kids that came from Columbus, were both starters, came out of the smoke in the Orange Bowl and won national championships,’’ Gonzalez said. “That was a pipe dream for me. I was like, ‘Man, these guys have it all.’ ”
Gonzalez believes Cristobal’s rent was a watershed second for Miami Hurricanes soccer.
“There’s no way Miami competes for a national championship without working their tail off the way they should,’’ Gonzalez said. “Mario brings back all the lure of the University of Miami in a forgotten way of doing things, which is the right way — busting your ass.”
“We needed anyone that got here via the Hecht Center earlier than and placed on cleats and got here out the backdoor to Greentree,’’ mentioned former Canes nice Mel Bratton, who was a part of UM’s first nationwide title crew beneath Howard Schnellenberger and later performed with Lou. “Mario would trip his bike to follow and noticed us combating one another and kicking one another’s asses.
“Mario understands our mindset. He’s been there. He realized beneath the coaches at Miami and beneath Nick Saban at Alabama [offensive line coach/recruiting coordinator 2013-2016] and was at Oregon studying the monetary method of doing issues beneath Phil Knight [Nike co-founder and Oregon booster].’’
As Cristobal launched into the season, he was requested to complete this sentence: “A satisfying season could be … ’’
“I’m not ending that sentence,’’ Cristobal mentioned. “I’m not into projections and all that different stuff. A satisfying day could be to work laborious and get higher. I’ll go away it at that.’’
Miami Herald sports activities author Jordan McPherson contributed to this report
Miami Herald sports activities author Susan Miller Degnan has been the Miami Hurricanes soccer beat author since 2000, the season earlier than the Canes gained all of it. She has gained a number of APSE nationwide writing awards and has lined the whole lot from Canes baseball to the College Football Playoff to main marathons to the Olympics.