In the middle of the most difficult decision of his life, Mario Cristobal called a familiar number. Dennis Lavelle traveled from Eugene, Oregon, to Stuart, Florida. Lavelle only heard rumors about a return to Miami as the Hurricanes' new head coach when he was at Christopher Columbus High.
Lavelle said that he was 51 years old. You have a chance to go back to your hometown.
The voice of Lavelle was more affirming than anything else. Everything had to be right at Miami for Cristobal to return to the place where he won two national titles. As Cristobal settles into his new digs, the significance of the pull of family, culture, tradition and history has become more apparent.
Lavelle said that he has Cuban coffee, arroz con pollo and flan. He's in the sky.
It is true that he wanted this. He once told Davis that he wanted to be the Hurricanes coach. The reality is still weird for a kid of Cuban exiles who tried to send him and his brother to a private school He spent his time after practice with his friend and now fellow coach Alex Mirabal. The two imagined a path made of dreams. They hatch game plans inside buildings that honor the players who drew them to those practices.
Mirabal said you remember the simple things. The city has embraced someone who has embraced the city because it raised him.
It will take a lot more than nostalgia, culture and connection to bring the U back to its glory days, but spend some time talking to people in the city, around the program and who know best, and it's already clear that any future success will carry more than just a single
Luis thinks it's a source of pride for the community. "Not just that he's Cuban American, but that he was born here, raised here, and played high school here and won national titles here."
The prodigal son that comes back is more popular than the prodigal son that never left, according to current Columbus High head coach DaveDunn.
The soul of the family was named Clara Castillo. The sweet, but tough, old-school Cuban mom who would cook in droves to feed the linemen at her house was the one who made Mirabal like having dinner at the Cristobal house over his. The most difficult time in our lives was when her health issues worsened after she fell.
After Oregon beat Oregon State in November, Cristobal went back to Miami to be with his mom and the rest of the family. Luis explained that Mario made the trip on a week when the family thought she didn't have much time to spare.
Luis cried as he said that she was able to hang on. It wasn't her time and that gave us hope.
The family back home tried to balance the reality of Clara's health with the possibility of Mario returning to Miami. The circumstances made it more important for Mario to have an opportunity.
It's still about the vocation of being a football coach when you go away. I didn't think it would actually happen. It hit a lot of bricks when it became a reality.
Luis, who played at both Columbus and Miami and is a retired police officer, said it was difficult because of the relationships they built at Oregon. Come on. He thought it was his dream job. I was able to reflect on it by myself.
He was able to do something he wasn't able to do in Eugene after taking the job at Miami. He would head home after a long day of work and practice to see his mother at the hospital.
Mirabal said that she was concerned about him being so far away. She was happy that he was doing well, but it was nice that he was here for a while. It was a big deal for him.
Luis said that Clara died peacefully in March.
Luis said it was difficult for all of them. "Mario did what we've been told to do: Do your job."
During Clara's wake, memorial and burial, no one noticed a chance in their head coach or absence.
Luis said people were surprised by that. She would have wanted that, that's how we're wired, that's how we grew up.
The story of the Cristobals is well known. Luis Jr.'s dad was a political prisoner in Cuba who traveled to South Florida to meet Clara, a Cuban exile. The two lived in Miami for a short time.
The first wave of Cubans built Miami, according to Joaquin Gonzalez, a Cuban American who was a lineman at Columbus and a graduate assistant at Miami. The difference between them and immigrants is how they raised their children. Hard work and sacrifice were ingrained in that generation.
Even though family is important in Cuban American culture, Mirabal and Mario's move to Miami was more than that. Being close to family and the place where they were raised is just icing on the cake.
The family and his mom played a role in the move. The real factor was that I wore this helmet and I wore this uniform. That will never be the same.
Once every few weeks, Gonzalez will take out his phone and send a text to a group chat that includes his closest football friends, some of whom played at Miami or Columbus High, including his older brother Luis.
Did you know that Mario is the coach of the University of Miami?
Reality hasn't set in for Gonzalez. He played at the U when Mario first returned as a grad assistant to help coach the offensive line, but knew the Cristobal family from when his older brother and Luis struck up a friendship that extended to their families. Gonzalez was one of the former players who went to meet with the Miami leadership to make sure that Cristobal was given the resources to succeed.
"We always thought that this could happen, but we didn't know if it would ever happen," Gonzalez said, looking over the practice field at Columbus, where his son now plays quarterback. He said it was a dream come true for him.
Mario went back to Miami after his parents thought they would go back to Cuba. He was an offensive line coach at Rutgers from 2001 to 2003 before returning to Miami as the tight ends and offensive line coach. He got his first head-coaching job in 2007, but was fired in 2012 after going 27-47. Mario ended up at Alabama where he was an associate head coach. He got his second chance at running a program when Oregon gave him the job. He proved his credentials as a head coach with a 35-13 record.
Gonzalez said that the man was not born with a silver spoon. His tale is from Cuba. He had to cut his teeth and I'm not saying that Miami is going to be easy. I'll tell you that his work ethic is what this program needs.
Both Gonzalez and Romberg remember Mario as the intense grad assistant who would get on their cases for how out of shape they were, make fun of them in Spanish and crushprotein bars, shakes and film on a daily basis. It was clear to them that Mario had the desire to be a head coach.
"Cuban families have a culture of 'we're going to make you stronger, both mentally and physically, not only by pushing your buttons, but also by seeing how far we can take you in the insult category,'" said Romberg, Everything in this city is geared towards the culture. It's very special. Being a Cuban American is huge.
The cultural connection is not as important as the fact that he trusts Mario to lead the program back to the top. Hill believes that the culture that meshes with him is not about Mario or any coach being Cuban, Black or white, but rather what they can do to return Miami to its glory days.
Hill was a member of the 1987 and '89 national title teams. Mario called me after he got the job and asked where I was. You have to come back out here at practice. We need to let people know that you're still here and that we're going to do it again.
Hill believes that the local community will benefit from the success of Miami football. Hill witnessed the effect a successful Hurricanes team had on bringing everyone together. Mario will be asked to try to do the same thing.
Gonzalez thinks that there's more responsibility on top of him to get the job done. He doesn't need it.
The Miami air is very humid on a late August morning just one week before the start of the season. The time of the year in South Florida when sweating quickly becomes a constant state of being is in the summer. This has become the norm for players having to worry themselves with coverages and drills as they swelter under layers of pads and jerseys. This is one of the things that Cristobal has experienced since arriving in Coral Gables.
Chicken Kitchen is a local Cuban restaurant. It feels like home when he runs into his old friends. He doesn't have to use a gps to navigate around the city because he knows all the routes. Even if Luis is worried about the lack of sleep and the amount of cafecitos he drinks, it all feels like home.
Luis was worried that he wasn't sleeping when he arrived. He's just fueled by Cuban coffee.
Mirabal says thatCafecito is in his family.
Mario goes to the corner store near the campus to see what goes into a cafecito. After Mario ordered the Cuban coffee in the store, he pointed the cafecito towards the camera.
If someone can't get Cuban coffee to froth like that, you need to call them out. You will be put on the right spots when you see me in Miami.
One patron wants to know if that is the coach. A few people are taking pictures. There is an orange sign next to the apparel store. We're all in.
The buzz within the Cuban community has been created by the fact that Cristobal came to Columbus after taking the job. He was raised in the streets and went to school right down the street. He is the head coach at that school.
The players are taking notice. Restrepo's family is from the South Florida area, and he's seeing fans on social media riding for Cristobal.
It feels like a huge cultural force that is behind us.
It may be a small detail, but the fact that Cristobal can speak Spanish indistinguishable from most Cuban Americans in Miami shows something. It was noteworthy to Gonzalez that he didn't speak Spanish when they first met. Gonzalez said that it was strike one.
Spanish is the primary language in Miami. The kind of community Miami has is demonstrated by the language you hear more often than not. "Adelante" is the motto of Columbus.
"I don't think a lot of coaches speak Spanish," he said. I take pride in that. My first language was Spanish and I am a life coach.
Several of the Cuban American families and Latino families connected to Cristobal were in attendance at his opening news conference and the university showed up in support.
"I have never seen so many Hispanics at a football press conference," he said. That much linen, that's what I mean.
There is a belief among those who have been a part of the glory days of Hurricanes football that the team can bind the city and all its cultures together in support of Miami. It can't be ignored how important it is for the Cuban community and former Miami players that one of their own is leading the charge.
Cuban is the main culture in Miami. He's coming back in the prime of his working life to be the center of that culture. That's worth something. You can't put a price on that.
Lavelle was home when he got a second call. The team's general manager at the time, a Columbus and Miami native named Alonso Highsmith, was the one who sent this one. He wanted to check in with their former coach.
Lavelle joked that they just called to tease her. It was great to see them both there.
As they remembered the past and looked at the present, they shared laughs. Lavelle is credited with setting up his future in football and showing what a head coach should be for him.
At the end of his long journey, the head coach of the University of Miami showed Lavelle the school's latest investment into the program: preliminary sketches of a new practice facility.
It was the right time for him to return to Miami. I told my wife that if Mario won at Miami it would be a storybook.