How Mario Cristobal’s return transformed Miami football into a spender ‘literally overnight’
CORAL GABLES, Fla. — Miami football coach Mario Cristobal looks around the indoor practice facility and starts talking with an eager determination, pointing out all the different areas that are either going to be changed, remodeled or built.
Details rarely go unnoticed. As Cristobal talks about his vision for the future, he sees the portable flooring placed on the turf for a dinner later that night for the 175 former players returning to campus.
Cristobal has already told administrators they should purchase the flooring instead of renting every time there is an event to save costs in the long run. That is just one brief conversation among the many he has had since he returned to his native Miami to a hero’s welcome five months ago.
The to-do list is long, but it is one that has met little resistance now that the Hurricanes have finally decided to make a complete, committed investment in athletics for the first time in their history — one that has already cost close to $100 million with much more to come.
“I guess the best way to put it in perspective is that when everything was even, Miami was dominating the college football world,” Cristobal says. “Then other places started investing a lot, and Miami had fallen away behind. So that’s where there became a gap.
“Now that the gap is being closed completely, and we’re now going to jump ahead and create our own gap, that to me speaks very strongly. Miami with better resources than just about everybody will place itself in a very unique place in college football once again.”
To those who have followed Miami over the past four decades, this shift is startling.
“You can call anyone who’s ever worked at the University of Miami, and it’ll be mind-blowing to them,” said one source familiar with the program. “Budget was always a challenge for University of Miami athletics, and then all of a sudden things were different.”
The day Cristobal was introduced in Coral Gables, former Miami offensive lineman Joaquin Gonzalez put it this way: “We literally went from being the stingiest program out there to now being one that’s probably going to spend the most money in the ACC. Literally overnight.”
So what changed? One Saturday last September proved to be the tipping point.
THOUGH MIAMI HAD been having conversations about investing more in football, what happened Sept. 25, 2021, galvanized both university administrators and the board of trustees.
Until then, there was no clear-cut alignment from the top of the university down to athletics and the head football coach. Beyond providing money to cover scholarships, there was little financial support and a sense that “there never was a willingness to really support athletics,” the source said.
But then ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit went on College GameDay and ripped both the university and athletic department for a lack of alignment and support for football.
What vexed many both inside and outside the program centered on the championship expectations that come with five national titles — the most recent in 2001 — without the tools to compete on a championship level. Herbstreit was only giving voice to those frustrations.
“A lot of Miami fans were upset at him,” said Manny Kadre, vice chairman of the Miami board of trustees. “I wasn’t upset at all. He actually catapulted us on to a national spotlight that created a sense of energy that we wouldn’t have been able to create ourselves.”
Then-coach Manny Diaz took it upon himself to defend the university the following Monday, pointing to improvements the Hurricanes made to their facilities — including building a new indoor practice facility and new dorms — with a project to renovate the locker room up next.
Under former coach Mark Richt, Miami did start to provide more support to football, increasing the salary pool for both the head coach and assistant coaches. That pool remained among the highest in the ACC under Diaz, though support staff salaries lagged far behind.
Richt also spearheaded the building of the indoor football facility — much needed during the torrential downpours that are a trademark in South Florida. To make the indoor plan a reality, Richt donated $1 million of his own money. But the field did not stretch the full 100 yards to preserve the outdoor grass fields.
If anything encapsulates the half-in approach Miami had, becoming the last Power 5 school in Florida to build an indoor facility and making it only 80 yards in length would probably be it. Among the many items Cristobal pointed out on his to-do list, extending the indoor so the field can be regulation size is at the top.
Part of what prevented the university from providing more support was outside athletics’ control. Former president Donna Shalala helped acquire Cedars Medical Center in 2007 and turn it into the University of Miami Health System, seeing it as an investment that could bring a large profit stream to the university. But for years, operating the health system took significant resources and a financial commitment that left little for anything else. Miami lost $95 million operating the health system in 2017, according to a Securities and Exchange Commission filing obtained by The Miami Herald, before things started to turn a corner in 2018.
“When you’re a midsize college and you have other priorities, it takes time,” said Rudy Fernandez, executive vice president for external affairs and strategic initiatives and chief of staff at the University of Miami. “President Shalala did substantial things to build a world-class health system. She did a lot of great things with the university. But when your budget is tight, you have to prioritize.”
After Herbstreit made his comments, it became clear that something would have to change, and change quickly. President Julio Frenk appointed Fernandez and senior adviser Joe Echevarria to work more closely with the athletic department.
In their roles, Fernandez and Echevarria took a deep dive into the finances, while also getting information on other comparable schools. They met with then-athletic director Blake James and asked for his five-year plan. One source indicated James was not prepared to fully answer the question, in part because there had been an unwillingness to invest previously.
“The reality of the finances of athletics meant that we needed to invest,” Fernandez said. “Football revenues were significantly higher than expenses, but you need to grow the revenue significantly in order to make the model viable for all athletics.”
Miami officials often speak about their “verticals,” or major components — the university itself, the health care system, technological innovation and athletics. The athletics vertical was just added within the past year, which speaks to its shifting commitment.
What allowed Miami to invest was the increasing stability of its health system. Tax returns compiled by The Miami Herald showed $300 million in earnings in its 2019 filing. The health system generated over $400 million in profit in the recently completed fiscal year, during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“For a few years, we went through a difficult time, especially on the health care side, which is a large piece of the finances for the U,” Kadre said. “Frankly, we excelled during COVID, both financially and operationally.”
MIAMI FIRED JAMES in mid-November, and set its sights on an athletic director with the experience in building facilities and programs, and the cache to make it happen. The decision on Diaz was not as clear-cut.
After a 2-4 start, Miami reeled off three straight wins and found its quarterback of the future in Tyler Van Dyke. The players continued to play hard for Diaz despite the poor start, and many of their best players were those whom Diaz had recruited in his last two classes. There were hopeful signs for a future under Diaz.
But a devastating 31-28 loss to rival Florida State, in which the Hurricanes blew a fourth-quarter lead, changed the calculation. The vitriol surrounding Diaz and the program grew worse. Friends close to Cristobal started dropping hints that perhaps the Oregon coach would be willing to listen after the Pac-12 championship game.
In the meantime, Miami officials met with Diaz when the regular season ended in November to discuss his plans for the following season. Diaz and his staff went about recruiting and hosting official visits the first weekend of December, as if they would be back for 2022.
At this point, Fernandez, Kadre and others were headed to Eugene, Oregon, to talk to Cristobal. Cristobal grew up in Miami, won two national championships as a player at Miami, and got his coaching start at Miami. He became a head coach for the first time at Florida International, a few miles down the road from Miami.
Fernandez knew the city held a special power over Cristobal. He felt it himself growing up there. If Cristobal said no, Miami planned to retain Diaz, multiple sources told ESPN.
“We owed it to our kids to take a big swing even if we swung and missed,” Fernandez said. “In my heart of hearts, I was betting on the fact that Mario as a Cuban kid, with all things being close to equal, would want to be back home in Miami.”
What Cristobal needed were assurances that Miami was willing and able to make a long-term investment in football, the type that would allow the university to build facilities, bring in the support staff necessary to run an elite program and pay all its staff members competitive salaries.
Cristobal knows what that looks like, having spent his previous nine seasons at Oregon and Alabama, among the two biggest investors in football in the country.
“That was part of the agreement, and in the very near future, our facilities are going to reflect that because it’s moving, and it’s moving fast, and it’s a must,” Cristobal said. “To even the playing field and to show prominence in certain regards, especially in the investment in the student-athlete, we had to take things to a certain level. It had to be the best of the best as it relates to facilities, as it relates to personnel, staffing, sports psychology, nutrition, player development, academics, academic support, recruiting budgets, you name it.”
Fernandez said he barely slept over the next 48 hours. Cristobal went back and forth, ultimately deciding to leave Oregon after leading the Ducks to three straight Pac-12 title game appearances and two conference titles. Miami then fired Diaz, who went 21-15 in three years as head coach. As soon as they got on the private jet from Eugene to Miami, Kadre joked that Cristobal had to call Herbstreit and thank him.
Then it came time to complete the department.
Fernandez and other key stakeholders zeroed in on Clemson athletic director Dan Radakovich, whose reputation as a program and facility builder is among the best in the country. In his nine years at Clemson, the Tigers made more than $200 million in facility improvements across all sports and increased revenues by nearly $70 million — thanks largely to the success of the football program. In 2020-21, Clemson had its best finish in the Learfield Directors’ Cup, which measures athletic success in all sports, since 2007.
Miami is hoping to follow a similar blueprint, in which investment in football leads to the success that lifts the entire athletic department.
“Here on campus, it’s important to be able to say, ‘I’ve done these kinds of things — here’s how we’ve paid for it,” Radakovich said. “Here’s everything from soup to nuts, and it’s been successful, and it’s shown dividends. The university is investing in the program to be able to create a return on the investment. The investment may not be dollar for dollar. It could be in a lot of other intrinsic things that will help the institution.”
Sitting in his campus office, Fernandez takes down a framed piece of paper from one of his shelves. Written on the paper is “M + D,” a note he kept in his wallet during the entire search process with the ultimate goal — Mario plus Dan.
“I can exhale now,” Fernandez said. “It was an intense couple of months. I use the line, ‘We went whale hunting, and we landed both our whales.’ We have a world-class coach, and a world class athletic director and I’m optimistic about the future of Miami football.”
THE WORK IS only beginning, of course, as Cristobal is quick to remind everyone. The day before Cristobal was set to address the board of trustees in early March, his mother, Clara, died. Kadre called Cristobal and told him he did not need to be there.
But Cristobal insisted, telling Kadre it is what his mother would have wanted. The theme of his speech was “Canes getting to work.”
“He gave a speech that took all the air out of the room,” Kadre said. “It was a speech that inspired us all, and gave us a great way to launch Mario’s tenure here.”
Getting the key financial investments, fundraising dollars and facilities built are important. But so is recruiting the right players to Miami, another advantage for Cristobal. Not only does he understand what it takes to win at Miami, Cristobal is widely regarded as one of the nation’s top recruiters — and he proudly points to the way he was able to recruit top-10 classes to Oregon, where the pool of local talent is nowhere near what it is in Miami.
Keeping elite talent in South Florida is obviously a huge priority, and the Hurricanes have also worked the transfer portal hard — with key additions on defense that should contribute right away. Cristobal hired an elite coaching staff with recruiting chops, too, and brought in Dolphins Hall of Famer Jason Taylor as a defensive analyst.
“There’s no secret as to why he’s been nominated top recruiter in the nation for three years, why Nick Saban wanted him, why he’s been successful,” Gonzalez said. “When he talks, people not only listen, but they don’t want to let him down. Because he’s genuine. There’s nothing fake about this guy.”
The excitement is palpable. Season ticket sales have increased, and Cristobal is immediately recognized whenever he has time to go out in the community, whether it’s to a Heat game or a local restaurant.
“You run into so many people,” Cristobal said. “You see the passion in their greetings, and how energetic they are about the University of Miami. My sons were born here, but they don’t remember much of their time here. They look at me and say, ‘Whoa, this is wild. This is crazy, and it’s awesome. But man, Papa, this is real.'”
So what does it all lead to? Miami has had one 10-win season since 2003. Patience will be required, and not only from the fan base. The financial investment is long term, but so is the investment in Cristobal, who signed a 10-year contract that includes a cost-prohibitive buyout.
“There’s no time like the present for greatness,” Kadre said. “We’ll saddle him with lofty expectations and he has broad shoulders. So I’m not worried about Mario succeeding. We know he will succeed.”
Radakovich said they have a goal to take their plans for improvements and upgrades to the board in July and then “we’re off to the races.”
“A lot of the folks are really good business people, and they they’ve been around the block, and they know that you just don’t come in and flip a switch and everything’s changed,” Radakovich said. “They understand that corporate culture takes a while to change, and culture within a university takes a little while to change as well.”
What is indisputable now is that Miami has joined the college football investment party.
It all begs the question that has been asked over the past 15 years. Maybe that question can finally be put to rest.
Is Miami going to be back?
“We are back,” Kadre said.