Mario Cristobal, former four-year letterman for the Hurricanes, embraced the opportunity to coach the troubled team.
But it wasn't easy: Through his first three seasons at the helm, the Golden Panthers compiled a 9-27 record while struggling in conference play.
"On the surface, (the program) was awful," said Cristobal. "But it was a united effort by everybody that turned things around. We truly believed it could be done."
FIU took home its first-ever Sun Belt title in 2010, when it won its final five of six games to end the season. But a resurgence among conference opponents kept Cristobal out of the title race last year.
"There were some painful moments, but you have to get your butts kicked before you can take Texas A&M to the wire and get your victories," said the 41-year-old Miami native. "It's been a process from the beginning, but it's always been about the team—trainers, walk ons, staff members, everybody."
Now with a well-tuned offense, a seasoned defense and the fire to be the best, Florida International is prepared to get back to a championship-like caliber of play this fall.
Wide receiver T.Y. Hilton, the best player in FIU history, was drafted by the Indianapolis Colts in the third round of the NFL draft, leaving a gaping hole in the depth chart.
"There's a tremendous buzz around here," said Cristobal. "Recruiting has really taken off to a high level, we've got a lot of pride and we believe in ourselves. There's something special going on here."
But that doesn't bother coach Cristobal too much, who has moved on and adjusted accordingly.
The Panthers are my preseason favorite to win the Sun Belt with an undefeated conference record, but they'll need to perform to their highest potential in order to do so. Arkansas State and Louisiana-Lafayette are two teams ready for war and pose as a threat on the regular season schedule.
"(He'll be replaced) Collectively. With the play of the offensive line, quarterback, receivers, everybody. He's one of the most dynamic players in history and its hard, but the moment is here and everybody is ready to step up. We have units that are capable of getting the job done."
"Both teams have always been great," said Cristobal. "Arkansas State has arguably the best player in the conference with (quarterback) Ryan Aplin. Lafayette's quarterback is really tough to handle as a dual-threat guy. Both are gonna be real good, but they both have a short week coming to us.
Two games I have as losses on FIU's schedule—Central Florida and Louisville—were wins in 2011. It'll be very difficult, but to go unbeaten is not out of the question. The Golden Panthers have a very good football team this year and could be brewing something big for a unprecedented postseason run.
"They can beat anybody, and that's how we feel about everybody in the conference," he continued. "Every single year everybody is in it until like Week 10 or 11. We have to play great defense because there are a lot of high-powered, top-25 offenses...we're looking for complete games."
FIU will square off with the Duke Blue Devils in its season-opener Saturday, September 1.
"We try to be 1-0 every week. We have a special team, and we're ready to play ball," said Cristobal, when asked of a possible undefeated regular season.
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