March 16, 2013
By JACK BOGACZYK
HUNTINGTON – When Alex Mirabal wakes up mornings in his temporary apartment here, clicks on the TV news, and hears phrases like “black ice” and “lake-effect snow,” he doesn’t really swoon over Miami.
When Mirabal was hired last month, he’d spent his entire life in the home of the Dolphins, Marlins, Heat, Hurricanes and the place he’d worked on the football staff for six years, Florida International.
“Although I lived in Miami all that time, I’m not a big-city person,” Mirabal said. “I’m not. My wife (Berta) and I are home-bodies, so the hardest part now is I miss the heck out of my wife and two sons. But I’m not homesick, if that makes sense.”
Mirabal – christened Alejandro Jose Mirabal -- was a high school assistant football coach in Miami for 15-plus years when he was hired by his buddy since their freshman year at Christopher Columbus High School, Mario Cristobal, as an FIU assistant in 2007. Cristobal was fired after this past season, and suddenly, Mirabal was out of a job, too.
Another friendship took Mirabal out of his comfort zone. Herd offensive coordinator Bill Legg had the same job on Cristobal’s FIU staff in 2008 and ’09 before Legg ventured home to the Mountain State to join Doc Holliday’s debut as a head coach at Marshall.
It’s funny you use ‘comfort zone,’ because always use it with my players,” Mirabal said. “You guys have got to get out of your comfort zone,’ with everything in the weight room, on the field. It’s true.
“I could have gone right back to high school and taught there and coached in Miami and been very comfortable, but it’s kind of hypocritical if I’d done that, because I always taught my kids not to do that.”
Mirabal, 42, said he and his wife look at the Marshall opportunity as “an adventure.” Berta – a high school science teacher -- and the boys will move north after the school year. Their sons, Alejandro, 11, and Nicolas, 6, have been to Huntington for one visit.
“What they thought was the coolest was the green-and-white fireplugs,” said Mirabal, who appreciates the passion for the Herd here after being at FIU, a constant sporting neighborhood stepchild to those ACC Hurricanes only 8 miles away.
Besides, what’s a move to West Virginia after a change in address his parents made in 1959?
When Castro seized power in Cuba, Mirabal’s grandparents fled. His mother’s family emigrated to Spain, and eventually to the United States, to south Florida, then Chicago. The coach’s dad’s family headed to Miami.
“They’re Cuban refugees. My dad was 8 when they left, my mom was 6,” Mirabal said. “I’m very proud of my heritage. There aren’t a lot of Spanish football coaches, and I happen to be one of them. I’d like to see a lot more down the line, and I hope the few of us can open doors for others to get into the profession.
“When I call home to talk to my dad, mom, grandma, I speak Spanish. Yes, they do still call me Alejandro.”
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Sometimes, things just work out. Like Mirabal and his wife. They taught at high schools whose property was adjacent, separated only by a fence. One day in the parking lot, one of Mirabal’s friends said he had someone he wanted the coach to meet. He and Berta are going on 13 years of marriage.
A job opportunity can work the same way.
“Contacts, it’s all about who you know, and when you’re out of work, you find out who your true friends are,” Mirabal said. “Coach (Bill) Legg and I worked together two years, 2008 and ’09. He found out I was one of the guys let go, and he called me that day we were let go, touched base with me, made sure everything was all right, gave me guidance on how the whole college football offseason works.
“Before FIU, I’d been a high school coach for almost 16 years, FIU was my first foray into college football, so when I got let go I was debating whether to go back into high school coaching or stay in college.
“My wife’s originally from Chicago and moved to Miami, but I’ve been in Miami my whole life, so obviously it would be a complete change for my family. What my wife and I decided was to stay in college the college football world. I told Coach Legg that was what I wanted to do.
Obviously, there was nothing on MU staff just then. I went to the coaches’ convention (in early January) and Bill and I talked for two days. By the time I got back from the convention, Tony Petersen was gone (to Louisiana Tech) and other coaches were leaving, and the ball started to roll.”
Cristobal and Mirabal have been friends for nearly three decades. They were in each other’s weddings. Cristobal ended up as assistant head coach and offensive line coach at Alabama. Mirabal’s earlier hire became fortuitous for the Herd, too, because of his very deep high school contacts in Miami, where former Holliday assistant JaJuan Seider had recruited for the Herd. Now, that Dade-Broward-Palm Beach area is Mirabal’s to pump. He knows those schools and coaches because he’s from the neighborhood.
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Mirabal doesn’t look much like a football coach, but just ask Legg or some of Mirabal’s new offensive “students” how he handles the job teaching people twice his size.
“I played football in high school at Christopher Columbus,” Mirabel said. “I ended up coaching. Don’t ask me how it happened, but I was always fascinated with offensive line play, so I was an offensive lineman in high school, and obviously there’s not much demand for offensive lineman my size.
“I’m 5-foot-5, 140 pounds. When I played, I was just over 200. But it always was my passion, really was. So, when I got done playing, I went to FIU -- at the time FIU had no football program -- studied education and became a teacher and got into coaching.
I taught American history and U.S. government, two subjects that I love and I’m passionate about. I was lucky enough my high school coaches were good classroom teachers, phenomenal math teachers, phenomenal social studies teachers. They always told me every day you’re in the classroom, it helps because that’s the training grounds.
“Coaching is teaching, except your classroom is outside in the grass instead of being in a room. Some people think it’s different from teaching. Really, it’s not. I never was a high school head coach. I interviewed twice for the head coaching job at Christopher Columbus, but I was passed over twice, so I must make a real good impression, huh?”
Legg said the Herd improved the staff with the hire of Cristobal.
“I am thrilled to have Alex on our staff, for multiple reasons,” the veteran Herd coordinator said. “No. 1, he’s a great human being. No. 2, he is a bulldog when it comes to work ethic and he’s constantly improving himself as a coach and the way he works at recruiting. And No. 3, which may be equally as important as the first two, is he’s a guy I’ve coached with before.
“I’ve sat in staff meetings with Alex before and he’s sat with me before, and he knows it exactly; he knows the offense. We may be calling it ‘oranges’ now instead of ‘apples,’ but he knows the offense, so the transition will be seamless. And I think that’s critical for us. He’s a heckuva guy, a heckuva football coach and I’d go to war with the guy. I trust him explicitly. I know our guys will be coached hard, be coached well, they’ll appreciate and respect where he’s coming from. And when it’s time to line up on the field of play, I don’t worry about how hard they’ll play or what they’ve been taught or what they’re supposed to do. I know all those things will be taken care of. That was a huge, huge, huge piece of the puzzle, in my opinion because it allows us to do other things, allows me to be more mobile and get where I need to go.”
“I would say I’m very emotional,” Mirabal said when asked for a scouting report on his style of coaching. “I’m passionate about what I do, but I always pride myself as being a teacher. That is first and foremost my job.
“The mission of coaching to me -- and I got this from (late Pro Football Hall of Fame Coach) Tom Landry, just reading his stuff, is a coach’s job is to eliminate uncertainty. You’ve got to eliminate uncertainty.
“It’s your job to teach that. I’m emotional, but I’m a teacher. I’m not just a yeller and screamer. I may yell and scream and be enthusiastic, but I pride myself on being a teacher.”