When he was hired on Jan. 10, Mario Cristobal was hailed as a perfect fit for Miami. He was a former Hurricane offensive lineman that had coached at Florida International for six seasons and had strong recruiting ties to South Florida.
“It’s a tremendous honor to be back,” Cristobal said. “When I had the opportunity to go somewhere, it matched up pretty well.”
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When he was hired on Jan. 15, Billy Napier was also thought to be a good fit for Florida State. He had coached at Clemson, including a run as the Tigers’ offensive coordinator, and at Colorado State and also was known as a top-notch recruiter in the Southeast.
“When you get an opportunity to come to a program with the tradition and history of Florida State, you can’t pass that up,” Napier said. “The timing was right in terms of where this program is headed, and it is a great opportunity.”
Six weeks later, the timing was clearly right again. Both assistant coaches decided to leave the green pastures of Coral Gables and Tallahassee (Cristobal as an offensive line coach and Napier as a receivers coach) for the lush, golf-course-manicured fairway that apparently is Tuscaloosa.
Their moves — and it’s hard to even call it that considering that they barely had time to settle into their offices — have been met by frustration from many Hurricanes and Seminoles fans. Neither was thought to hang around for the long haul, but it was hard for fans to accept that they wouldn’t coach even a single game before leaving.
Many fans took to Twitter and message boards, infuriated by their sudden departures. Yes, they would now be coaching at Alabama, for a program that has won back-to-back national titles (and three of the last four). But it comes at the expense of a Miami program that is rebuilding and a Florida State program that is on the rise.
It’s tough to call your boss of less than two months and tell him you’re going elsewhere. But it’s also what some perceive as what’s best for their careers.
“You just have to do it as a coach,” said Pete Roussel, who tracks the moves of football coaches on the popular site coachingsearch.com. “It’s not about the money — it’s a career decision.”
Cristobal’s career, however, had been tied to Miami for decades. After graduating from Miami’s Columbus High, he played on the offensive line for the Hurricanes from 1989-92. He even had two stints on the coaching staff in Coral Gables, first as a graduate assistant from 1998-2000 and then as an assistant coach from 2004-06.
He then built up the program at Florida International, but a 3-8 season in 2012 led to his dismissal. And Al Golden came calling, offering Cristobal the chance to join the Hurricanes’ staff a third time.
“He truly knows what it means to be a Miami Hurricane,” former Miami quarterback Gino Torretta told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel in January. “You don’t need a sales pitch to sell a recruit on your alma mater. It’s in your blood.”
Or then again maybe it wasn’t.
Napier didn’t have as many ties to Florida State, but his departure was just as startling. But in a sport that values five-star recruits, Napier is a five-star traveler. He is now working for his fourth school since 2010.
Just 33, Napier was dismissed from Clemson after the 2010 season, and he took a low-pay, quality-control coach job at Alabama (and won a national title in 2011). He spent a year at Colorado State as the quarterbacks coach, and then landed at Florida State.
In his only public comments, Napier met with fans and boosters at a party celebrating Florida State’s signing class on Feb. 6. He spoke for a few minutes and then commented that it was good to see bacon mixed with green beans again.
“It’s good to be back in the South,” Napier said with a smile and the comment drew both laughter and applause.
He signed his contract on Jan. 31, for $275,000. Just 22 days in, and after earning about $16,500, Napier will owe a $75,000 buyout (which will likely be paid by Alabama). The University of Miami is a private institution, so Cristobal’s contract details are not available through Florida’s open-records laws.
Moves like Cristobal’s and Napier’s are becoming all too common the past few years. Roussel’s site notes a list of 28 coaches that have held three, four or five different jobs in consecutive years.
The funny thing is that coaches sign incentive-laden, multi-year contracts, where bonuses can be earned for winning a division title, conference title or national title. But the buyouts? They are so small, relatively speaking, that an in-demand coach can be snapped up with little regard for a five-figure buyout.
And “little regard” may be overstating it: many programs that are flush with cash will happily pay the buyout.
So when a coach is assembling his staff, he chooses the best man for the job whether he’s been at his previous employer two months or two years.
“He has an outstanding reputation as both a coach and a recruiter,” Saban said of Cristobal. “He will be a great fit in our organization.”
The fun is still in mid-swing, too. Roussel notes that the coaching carousel will continue until the end of March.