20 Sep Mario Cristobal has been fighting all his life; now he’s doing it for the Oregon Ducks
MIAMI — Between sips of coffee at a local Starbucks, Lou Cristobal stopped smiling.
“He’s actually a very dangerous dude,” said the 26-year South Florida law enforcement veteran.
That’s not the first thing that comes to mind about Lou’s brother, Mario Cristobal. Perhaps you’ve noticed the gregarious, outgoing coach of No. 20 Oregon is getting ready for the biggest test of his second go-around as a head coach.
Maybe you’ve forgotten that Mario is preparing for only his fourth game as a Power Five coach on Saturday against No. 7 Stanford — or that he is more than grateful for this second chance. The man already has a conference title on his resume and three national championship rings — one as a coach, two as a player — in a safe somewhere.
In fact, after less than two seasons in Eugene, Oregon, Mario is ready to retire there.
“When I say ‘all in,’ I don’t see that guy ever leaving,” Lou said.
But there is a part of this smiling family man you do not want to test, and maybe do not want to know. First, know that Lou is a sergeant with the Miami-Dade Police Department’s Crime Suppression Team. His days and nights are filled with undercover work on the streets investigating narcotics, robbery, burglary and auto thefts.
So when Lou says Mario is a bad man, he means it.
“Protect your friends, protect your family, do what’s right,” Lou said. “Sometimes that takes over.”
The brothers are second-generation Cuban-Americans. Their father was a political prisoner under the Castro regime. Their parents, Luis and Clara, met in South Florida. In their blood runs the pride of both countries.
A grandfather used to march Mario and Lou around the backyard — military-style — just to instill a sense of discipline. Cousins would watch on the periphery and snicker.
After the first day of kindergarten, the brothers were shipped off to judo classes. That was somewhat of a Cuban tradition. Three of the most popular sports in the country are baseball, boxing and martial arts.
“We don’t want them to be like big dorks or anything,” Lou said, channeling his parents.
They definitely were not. Lou and Mario played side-by-side on Miami’s offensive line for Jimmy Johnson and Dennis Erickson. One of the few things that separates them is age. Mario, 47, is three years younger than Lou.
Lou gravitated toward law enforcement. Mario? Different story. After football, he was searching for a time. As a young adult making his way in the world, he applied for the Secret Service. One day, Mario found himself as an account executive for a public relations firm.
It was not glorious.
“I had to drive a convertible car with a mascot for a client. The mascot was Garfield,” Mario recalled.
Yes, Garfield the cat from the comics.
“I’m driving him and … Garfield was a little bit out of whack and got into it with a bunch of kids,” Mario said.
“Garfield went Kung Fu Panda on everybody in full costume. I had to separate him and pull kids off of him.”
Garfield saw something in the former Hurricanes offensive lineman that day. Garfield suggested Mario come down to a gym and take up something called “shootfighting.” In those days, shootfighting was a precursor that would become the combat sport of mixed martial arts.“With the mascot’s head off, I went with him to Efrain Ruiz,” Mario said. That changed Mario’s life. Ruiz, 45, is an MMA veteran whose career goes back to at least 1998. Like Garfield, he too saw something different in Mario.
“I remember telling him, ‘You [football players] don’t need to learn. People are never going to mess with you,'” said Ruiz, himself a South Florida fixture. “Predators always look for the weak.”
It didn’t matter. That’s the idea with any kind of martial arts. You don’t need it until you need it. Mario soaked up Ruiz’s training: judo, Brazilian jiu-jitsu, kickboxing, Muay Thai.
“It started when I was cut by the Denver Broncos and played in NFL Europe,” Mario said. “That’s a tough moment, man, when you get cut. And if you play in Miami? C’mon now. You better go to the NFL. There are promises to your mom. Promises to yourself.”
The PR thing was in the past. The NFL never was going to happen. By this time, Mario was a graduate assistant back with the Hurricanes in the late 1990s. He would stop by for a workout with Ruiz after his 12-hour days.
“He was tough, man,” Ruiz said. “I’m telling you, he’s got two blue belts. He was really good. He’s already an athletic guy. You put athleticism and size in any sport. People expect him to be very arrogant and this and that. If he fought, he’d be the toughest guy on Earth. I told him, ‘I’m going to use you as my bodyguard.'”
In the midst of that training, Mario was driving around one day with former Miami assistant Art Kehoe. They witnessed a man robbing a convenience store. Instinct took over.
“I turn to Art and say, ‘Let’s get him,'” Mario recalled.
Kehoe responded with an emphatic, “Nooooo.” Mario got out of the car and gave chase.
“I end up spotting him in a backyard,” he said. “I can hear the cops whizzing by. I made sure he didn’t have a weapon. He turns out, and we start going at it. I crushed him.”
Mario Cristobal is looking to turn around Oregon, which went 11-14 over the last two seasons. USATSI
Mario was hooked. The training helped him trim down from a football-playing weight of 337 pounds accompanied by what he called a “triple chin” that resembled Meat Loaf. Cristobal wasn’t a violent man, but all that training — both mental and physical — had reinforced that philosophy Ruiz mentioned.
“Should you ever need to use it, you can,” Mario said.
He began to spar with champions. Ruiz set him up with the best. Mario could have been a champion. At the Pac-12 Media Day in July, Cristobal pointed to a scar beneath his nose and showed off a dislocated elbow.
“Not all of is taking blows,” he said.
Yes, a lot of it was delivering blows. Some of that juice never leaves. When University of Washington radio guys teased him about the Ducks-Huskies rivalry, Mario blurted, “Hey, c’mon. Let’s go to the Octagon.”
“The trash talk,” Cristobal recalled, “was getting too intense.”
Ric Flair once relayed a message of admiration. Cristobal is trying to get former Miami teammate Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson to speak to the Ducks. Before he was a movie star, you may remember Johnson was a professional wrestler.
They may not necessarily know about Cristobal’s background … but he knows.
There is a character in the 1995 film “Things To Do In Denver When You’re Dead” named Critical Bill. He is named that because every opponent Bill went up against ended up in critical condition.
Mario quotes Critical Bill, who is asked in the movie why he works out by punching corpses hung from the ceiling like a heavy bag.
“It keeps my power dry,” he said.
MMA is how Cristobal keeps his powder dry. In 2001, Cristobal got his first full-time assistant coaching gig at Rutgers. For three years under Larry Coker, he coached Miami tight ends and the offensive line. In 2007, he got his first head-coaching job at FIU.
Back in South Florida, he and Ruiz would meet at 4:45 a.m. for a workout to begin the day. In 2010, Cristobal accomplished what hasn’t been done before or since: FIU won a conference championship (Sun Belt).
“It’s such a great discipline,” Mario said. “It teaches you respect. It’s about calm, cool confidence.”
That’s what the public gets from Mario. That second chance has to do with unceremoniously being fired at FIU in 2012. Nick Saban thought enough of Cristobal to scoop him up six weeks later as assistant head coach, recruiting coordinator and offensive line coach at Alabama.
That explains why the father of two sons, husband of Jessica was the popular choice for Oregon when Willie Taggart bolted for Florida State.
It was thought that at least Cristobal could finalize a recruiting class that ended up ranked second in the Pac-12 and 13th nationally, according to 247Sports.
The Alabama offensive line that is protecting Tua Tagovailoa? Cristobal had some hand in recruiting every single one of those players as that Tide assistant from 2013-16.
Cristobal arrived in 2017 as Taggart’s offensive coordinator and immediately fell in love with Oregon.
Even with Oregon going on its third coach in three years, there is the feeling that a turnaround is coming. The Ducks are 3-0 with Justin Herbert, the Pac-12’s highest-rated passer, leading the way.
“When Oregon was changing coaches, there was no certainty he was going to get it,” Lou said. “A month into his being out there, I was talking to him on the phone. He sounded different. He’d say, ‘Dude, what a great place.’ I would be talking to friends and ask, ‘Are you reading the same thing? He’s happy as hell.'”
When Mario shows you that beat-up elbow, you start to believe in a lot of things. That turnaround may indeed be coming at Oregon. Its 2019 recruiting class is ranked fourth behind only Georgia, Alabama and Texas A&M in the 247Sports Composite rankings.
When you hear the growing-up stories, you have to believe in everything.
Luis Cristobal built a car battery business out of nothing. Mario Campos, that military-minded grandfather, was on the roof of his house at age 82 hacking branches off a large tree with a machete.
“Cancer took him like that,” Lou said.
On a trip to a family wedding in Puerto Rico, Campos’ wife noticed a lump under her husband’s arm. That was November 1992. Luis passed in January 1993.
“He never made it off the island,” Lou said. “Mario got to see him before he passed. I was in the police academy. I thought I couldn’t leave. When you’re a rookie, you think, ‘I can’t miss.’ Bullshit. I could have gone.”
The whole Cuban-American community in South Florida is close knit. In July, the 16-year-old son of Miami pitching coach J.D. Arteaga was killed in a car accident. Ari Arteaga attended the same Christopher Columbus High School as the Cristobals.
“The whole community is destroyed,” Lou said. “Brutal.”
The community also gives back. Ruiz is now training Mario’s nephew. Three-thousand miles away, Mario is beginning to deliver the work ethic and modesty he learned in the neighborhood.
“It’s just different out there, very wholesome, very clean,” Lou said. “The support they have, the fan base, and the guys they’re bringing in. Holy shit, those guys are going to win a championship.”
At that moment, Lou showed me. You see, he trained like his brother, too, because … should you ever need to you use it, you can.
Who cares if these days the closest Mario gets to training is trading barbs with UW radio guys? Who cares if Lou gave up his training years ago? It’s part of mom, dad, grandpa, machetes and not coming home when you were a kid until it was dark.
“This is the furthest I can extend my arms,” Lou said. “My elbow exploded and … one piece of bone stuck. … The doctor chose to leave it in there for quality of life.”
That life is certainly going great for Lou, and it’s never been better for Mario.