Took him into his second season but Mario Cristobal on Saturday finally scored his first significant victory as Miami Hurricanes head football coach -- his first win of any real size, the first over a ranked opponent, and the first to offer evidence of a program on the upswing.
No. 23 Texas A&M, like Miami, is coming off a 5-7 season; still, for Cristobal and UM fans, you don’t argue whether this qualifies as a “signature” victory or how big is big. You take a nice win, smile and exhale.
Because Cristobal needed this.
A pall interrupted the feelgood with 1:58 to play when safety Kam Kinchens, Miami’s best defensive player, was injured during a play and later put on a stretcher and carted off the field to warm, nervous applause. Teammates formed a semicircle on the field as their comrade was taken to a hospital for further tests.
The outlook soon was promising, though.
You saw that when Cristobal was dancing with celebrating players in the winning locker room.
And you heard it in the postgame media session with Cristobal’s first words to rteporters:
“How ‘bout them Hurricanes!?”
“Everything seems relatively normal,” the coach quickly said of Kinchens, before heading to the hospital to see him. “It seems we’re going to be fine.”
Cristobal called the win “a massive step for the program.”
Fourteen games after returning home to save UM football, and until now doing a lot of not doing that, Cristobal and these fans get to feel good about the win, at least, to feel like a reason for hope has just been earned.
That happened because Miami, a three-point betting underdog, crushed A&M, 48-33 Saturday, and now the 2-0 Canes could climb onto the lower rungs of the next Top 25 poll if the voters are feeling generous. A Hard Rock crowd of 48,792 was making good-old-days noise and partying like it was 1983.
Baby steps, right? Signs of progress. Results on the field catching up to the strides we are seeing of Cristobal’s recruiting.
This game felt much bigger than a typical early season college football game between teams coming off 5-7 seasons.
And it was.
That’s why ABC TV was in town. See, while the stunning turnaround Deion Sanders, “Coach Prime,” has brought to Colorado may be dominating headlines in the sport right now, there still is drama in the opposite — in watching big programs and big coaches struggle and fall, and try to get back up.
Yes, so Texas A&M Aggies at unranked Hurricanes — and Jimbo Fisher vs. Cristobal — felt bigger than it deserved to, because desperation will do that.
One coach was going to come out 2-0 with early evidence (if not yet proof) of a turnaround season.
The other coach was going to be 1-1 but feeling much worse after losing a statement game that would tell a lot, and none of it good.
On “ESPN GameDay Saturday” analyst Kirk Herbstreit had said, “I don’t know if there’s a game or a coach that needs a win right now more than Miami.”
He wasn’t lying.
Recall that UM had lost its last two and four of the last six games last season, Cristobal’s first as Canes coach. And in those four losses Miami had allowed 45, 45, 40 and 42 points. This coach, a former championship-era offensive lineman for Miami, returned home as a savior, failed miserably in Year 1 and entered this season needing vindication, fast.
He had overhauled his coaching staff, seldom a good sign.
He needed this.
This program has won five national championships, the last in 2001, and Cristobal got a 10-year, $80 million contract to get that elusive sixth crown. The first title team from 1983 was honored at halftime Saturday, the young trailblazers 40 years later, now all in their early 60s and wondering, like the rest of us, when The U will truly be back.
Saturday was only a small step. Miami still has games ahead against ranked opponents North Carolina, Clemson and a scary-good-seeming Florida State.
But what was won Saturday, beside a game, was the belief.
It hardly started that way.
A&M led 10-0 and then 17-7 in the second quarter because sloppy Miami’s own mistakes gifted the Aggies two short touchdown drives, one after the Canes had a punt blocked, the other when Miami muffed a punt return.
“I think last year we would have quit, honestly,” quarterback Tyler Van Dyke said of the early deficits.
Aside from those two special-teams errors, though, the Hurricanes defense was mostly solid, and Van Dyke was a lot better than that, going 21 for 30 for 374 yards and a career-best five touchdowns — three of them to Jacolby George.
When A&M drew within 21-20, UM’s special teams enjoyed a comeback with Brashard Smith’s 98-yard kickoff return touchdown. Then Kinchens’ interception led to a 34-yard field goal and a 31-20 margin.
Kinchens later stopped a threatening Aggies drive with a fumble recovery that led to a TD drive — demonstrating why he is an elite safety who could be an NFL first-round draft pick as hopes for his full recovery fill fans’ and teammates’ hearts.
For UM the climb to all the way back has to start somewhere, so why not Saturday?
This is a once-proud program that has been 1-10 in bowl games dating to 2006. Randy Shannon, Al Golden, Mark Richt and Manny Diaz all have failed to do what Cristobal is now tasked to accomplish.
Mirroring two “name” programs coming off 5-7 seasons, postseason representatives on hand scouting this game included the Taxslayer Bowl, Hula Bowl and Pop-Tarts Bowl.
But as the living ghosts of UM’s 1983 championship team looked on, maybe Saturday marked a small step up, a small step ahead, a small step toward “back.”
For Mario Cristobal, especially, it felt bigger.