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Rutgers makes the easy choice: Mario Cristobal, second coming of Schiano (Updated)

Matt Hinton
Dr. Saturday

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The "last-second surprise" referenced in the first graf below? Turns out it was prescient: Please see the update at the bottom of the post.

It didn't take long, but then again, there was never much doubt how Rutgers' coaching search was going to end: Barring a last-second surprise, multiple outlets in New Jersey and South Florida confirm that the Scarlet Knights are replacing NFL-bound Greg Schiano with the closest they could get to a Schiano clone, Florida International head coach Mario Cristobal. The official announcement could come as soon as today, pending an agreement over the final details of Cristobal's contract and approval of Rutgers' Board of Governors.

Scarlet Knight fans may not know much about Florida International, but the fact that it still exists as a Division I program is a feather in Cristobal's cap. When he took over at FIU in 2007, the Golden Panthers were coming off an 0-12 season and facing heavy-handed scholarship penalties for falling short of academic benchmarks and fielding ineligible players. At that point, the most notable moment in program history, by far, was a bench-clearing, helmet-swinging brawl against Miami in 2006 that resulted in a tidal wave of suspensions. (Not to mention a timeless Internet meme devoted to the immortal heroism of running back A'mond Ned.)

By the end of Cristobal's first season, FIU was in the throes of a 23-game losing streak, and not long after that was forced to (temporarily) suspend its cheerleading squad and marching band for lack of funds. In other words, after six years of existence, the program Cristobal inherited barely qualified as a "program" at all.

Five years later, the Panthers are coming off back-to-back winning seasons and a pair of bowl games, with an improbable Sun Belt championship to their credit in 2010. In a few months they'll have at least one player called in the NFL Draft (wide receiver/kick returner T.Y. Hilton) for the second year in a row. Average attendance at FIU Stadium topped 18,000 last year — more than 92 percent of capacity, second-best in the SBC — with another stadium expansion underway, leaving FIU with at least as solid a foundation as any other program in the league.

Cristobal knows Rutgers, having spent three years there as Schiano's offensive line coach from 2001-03, and — like Schiano — he knows recruiting in South Florida, having grown up in Miami and spent a combined ten years as a Hurricane player and assistant before taking the FIU job. He's young, he's respected and he has a track record in a situation that's even more daunting than the one he'll face at Rutgers. He's a good fit. Now: He has 36 hours to salvage a tenuous recruiting class and brace for the battle to keep football relevant on another campus where it hasn't been a traditional priority.

UPDATE, 5:52 p.m. ET. Hope your hopes weren't too high, Knight fans: Despite the certainty of local and national reporters spanning the entire Eastern seaboard, talks with Cristobal unexpectedly broke down Monday afternoon. He will remain at Florida International, and offensive line coach/interim head coach Kyle Flood has been promoted to the full-time job.

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Matt Hinton is on Facebook and Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.

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