HUNTINGTON, W.Va. - As recently as four months ago, Alex Mirabal never thought he would spend his 43rd birthday training his offensive line on a 50-degree day in West Virginia.Mirabal is a Miamian to the core, from birth through education to his football coaching career, high school and college. In that part of Florida, a 50-degree day is treated with near panic.But not here, not on Tuesday. A jacket, a good pair of sweatpants and a birthday serenade from his Marshall linemen sufficiently warmed him up."It's beautiful. It's a change of pace for me," Mirabal said. "You know what? If you're up here, people complain it's too cold. If you're down there, they complain it's too hot. So nobody's ever happy."
That change of pace was not his choice - not the arrival at MU, mind you, but events leading to it. More specifically, his firing by Florida International.He spent six years at FIU, his alma mater, with coach Mario Cristobal. He tutored tight ends for three years and the offensive line for the next three, and earned the title of assistant head coach.He and Cristobal have been friends since high school, and served as best man at each other's wedding. And on Dec. 5, they became unemployed.In one of the most unexpected events of the 2012-13 "silly season," Cristobal was dismissed after a 3-9 season - a year after saying "no thanks" to inquiries from Pittsburgh and Rutgers.It wasn't that long ago the young FIU program played Marshall in a bowl game, its second in a row. But athletic director Pete Garcia, citing a "total collapse," fired Cristobal and replaced him with Ron Turner - both decisions mockingly compared in the Miami media to Garcia's basketball hiring of Isiah Thomas.
Surely, Mirabal has Nov. 23 circled on his mental calendar. That's when the Herd visits new Conference USA member FIU.He was out recruiting that December day - going head-to-head with Marshall at times - when Garcia swung the ax on Cristobal and staff. (Cristobal is now offensive line coach at Alabama.)"When stuff like that happens, it was personal to me. Someone's telling you you're a failure," Mirabal said. "There's a big chip on my shoulder. There's a big chip on his shoulder, I know, to go out in a place that we're in right now, and have a tremendous amount of success, to basically stick it to them."And I'm not going to mince words. But I'm excited about the opportunity I have here, and I don't wish I was back over there. I'm happy to be here with this group of people."He didn't have time in December to get angry. A high school coach for 16 years before joining the FIU staff, Mirabal had never been in a situation that many college coaches have faced multiple times. He got advice from his ultimate link to Marshall, Bill Legg, who ran the FIU offense in 2008-09.
"When we got let go at FIU, you find out who your real friends are, who returns your calls and who doesn't," Mirabal said. "First guy I heard from when we got let go was Bill Legg. And it wasn't to offer me a job because the staff at the time was full, it was to see how it was going, and to tell me the steps there are in the hiring process."
Eventually, Mirabal became one of several new MU coaches, added during the recruiting stretch drive. He immediately worked his South Florida stomping grounds with head coach Doc Holliday, whom he didn't know as well beforehand."I had shaken Doc Holliday's hand one time in my life, and that was after the bowl game," Mirabal said. "Other than that, I didn't know who he was. I knew his reputation, because he's a legend down in South Florida, because of recruiting."Working under offensive coordinator Legg once again, Mirabal is quickly establishing a reputation in the offensive line room, where his men dwarf him - he is 5-foot-6, if that tall. But that's plenty tall enough for Holliday, who rarely gets through a post-practice conference without mentioning his name."He's as good an offensive line coach I've been associated with, anywhere I've ever been," Holliday said. "He's a great motivator, he's a great recruiter and he goes to work every day. He just lives what he does. It rubs off on the kids. You can tell that offensive line has totally bought into what he's doing and how he's coaching, and they're playing extremely well."Mirabal knew some names from the 2011 bowl game in St. Petersburg, Fla., in which Marshall's offensive line was a bit younger than it is now. He is without a few players - Jordan Jeffries had offseason surgery, Corey Tenney is still healing and backup center Cam Dees is being held out of contact.Sophomore Sebastian Johansson is getting his opportunity at left guard, with veterans all around him.
"Garrett Scott at right tackle, he's got old eyes. He's seen a lot of things," Mirabal said. "He's playing excellent; he's lost of lot of weight, so he's quicker, moving his feet a lot better. [Right guard Alex] Schooler's having a great camp so far, had a great offseason."And then [center Chris] Jasperse, he's the 'intel.' He's sneaky athletic, he's tough and he puts us on the right page. A guy I think is tremendously underrated is Gage Niemeyer. He's a phenomenal player, and he gives us the nastiness on the offensive line, which is contagious to the other guys."Apparently, Mirabal brings his own contagious qualities."He's brought a lot of intensity. He gets after it," Jasperse said. "He brought some new ideas and new beliefs we hadn't seen, so we're getting coached up and trying to figure out everything right now."Reach Doug Smock at 304-348-5130, firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at twitter.com/dougsmock.