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Archive for Saturday, August 30, 2008

Coach changing FIU’s ‘culture’

August 30, 2008

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KU football vs. Florida International

Orange Bowl Champions - A top 10 ranking - and plenty of BCS praise. All of that was then...and this is now. On Saturday, the 2008 Kansas football team hit the field with Florida International trying to improve upon a historic 2007 season.

Going Deep

Get familiar with FIU

In the first edition of "Going Deep," a weekly spodcast that puts KU fans in touch with the opposing team, Journal-World sports writers Matt Tait and Eric Sorrentino talk with Miami Herald beat writer Pete Pelegrin about KU's opener against Florida International. Pelegrin shares the ins and outs of FIU's program and discusses why FIU coach Mario Cristobal says KU is a Top 5 team.

The first things to go, the new coach with the funny name told them, were the cell phones and the iPods.

Hats and pants that sagged halfway down butts? Those were history, too. Players, this new coach said, would sit in the first three rows of class. They would not slouch. They would ask questions. Oh, and if a practice began at 5 a.m., that was simply an easier way of saying that it started at 4:45 a.m.

These were the first things Mario Cristobal addressed when he arrived as the head football coach at Florida International University in December of 2006.

"What we set out to do from the start," says Cristobal, who today will begin his second season as the team's coach, "was change the culture."

He knows people throw that term around these days. Everywhere you look, it seems, someone is changing some kind of culture. He knows it's cliche. But he doesn't know how else to say it.

A year ago, when Cristobal left his position as offensive-line coach at the University of Miami for his first head-coaching job, he inherited a program in shambles. In the six years since the program was founded, recruiting had dropped off considerably. Discipline was nearly non-existent. Located in the heart of one of the most storied college football states in history, FIU had a program best known for its role in a 2006 brawl with the University of Miami that left 31 players (18 from FIU) suspended and tarnished the images of both schools.

Cristobal looked at all this - the down-trodden program, the lack of development, the grim outlook - rolled up his sleeves and went to work.

This was not exactly a new venture for Cristobal. He was part of a turn-around project at Rutgers that has seen the program develop a national reputation under head coach Greg Schiano. There, members of the coaching staff had run into some of the same problems from the outset. And there they had been able to overcome them.

In addition to the daily class and etiquette requirements, Cristobal instituted what he believes to be the first strength-and-conditioning program in the program's seven-year history. He went after the big-time recruits, too, no matter that Miami or West Virginia was also in the mix. And sometimes he got them.

Most importantly, he instilled a discipline never before seen at Florida International.

"I think they were there before," quarterback Wayne Younger says of rules that existed before Cristobal's arrival. "It's just that nobody really followed them."

Says linebacker Scott Bryant, "Anytime a new coach comes in, you want to up the ante; you want to impress the new coach. But coach Cristobal, you gotta do a lot to impress him. You gotta push yourself to the limit."

The coach also stayed positive, even in the middle of last year's struggles - even as his team was getting routed 59-0 by Penn State and 47-6 by Middle Tennessee and 58-10 by Arkansas, finishing 1-11 overall. He took solace in the small signs of improvement; things that most likely went unnoticed by the great majority of the college football world were not lost on him.

Over the Golden Panthers' final six games of the 2007 season, for instance, they scored 137 points and averaged 327.7 yards per game (compared to 44 points and 211.7 yards during the first six). Their victory over North Texas in the season finale, meanwhile, snapped a 23-game losing streak, the longest in the nation. And as the year played out, he noticed something else: Despite all the losses, players' effort didn't waver.

"As the year went on, we got closer and closer to victory," Cristobal said. "You know, halftime blowouts became third-quarter games, became fourth-quarter games, became down-to-the-final-seconds games. Until at the end, we finally popped out a victory."

"I can honestly say," he added, "that with the excitement around here, and the work that's going on around here, it's only a matter of time before we have a championship down here."

This, of course, is what coaches are supposed to say in the days leading up to the start of the season. They talk about the great practices and great chemistry and tell you, with conviction, that they think their team has the ability to do some very good things this year.

Entering today's game, however, this FIU team is by no means a finished product.

As of Wednesday afternoon, Cristobal still hadn't announced whether Younger or Paul McCall - who replaced Younger late last season and led the Golden Panthers to their only victory - will be starting at quarterback this weekend. A Sports Illustrated poll rated them as the second-worst Div. I team in the country. And in their first four games of the season, the Golden Panthers will take on two ranked teams in Kansas and South Florida, along with Iowa and Toledo. There is no grace period, no backing into a season like the proven programs are able to do.

Still, on the eve of 2008, Cristobal does not seem overly concerned with any of these things. He uses words like "championship" when talking about his team. He believes, he says, that it's only a matter of time before FIU becomes a household name.

He's excited.

"Right now is an awesome time," he says. "It really is. And that's the beautiful thing about football. In college football, between recruiting and spring football and evaluation periods, you have about five season within a season. But this is a season. This is what this country loves, man, and this is what we live and die for on a daily basis."

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