University of Miami

Thirty-five years after little boy sees Miami win its first title, he becomes its coach

On January 2, 1984, 9-year-old Manny Diaz would never have believed his 44-year-old self would be in the position he is in now.

“Thirty-five years to the day,’’ the new University of Miami coach said Wednesday in his introductory news conference, “that the University of Miami won its first national championship against Nebraska. And for the 9-year-old kid up past his bedtime, watching Kenny Calhoun bat that ball down and watch the Canes storm the field, the fact that I’m here standing in front of you now as the head coach at [UM], if you need any more evidence that is a God story, that’s it.

“And then when you combine the let’s just say unusual events of this past weekend, certainly I believe God’s hand was in this.

“I surely want to acknowledge my family, starting with my wife Stephanie, who has been with me every step of the way in this crazy ride, and just when you think the ride is crazy and you think you had all the crazy you can handle, crazy has a way of saying ‘Watch this.’’’

Now, 35 years later, Diaz, the former UM defensive coordinator, is intent on getting the Hurricanes (7-6, 4-4 Atlantic Coast Conference) back to the promised land, which, in this day and age, is known as the College Football Playoff.

Diaz, born and raised in Miami and the son of former longtime mayor Manny Diaz Sr., officially became UM’s 25th head football coach on Sunday, just 10 hours after former coach Mark Richt announced his retirement.

By Monday night, Diaz had fired the entire offensive staff, noting Wednesday how painful it was.

By Wednesday, the Mann Auditorium in the Schwartz Center for Athletic Excellence was filled with various coaches, administrators, boosters and the media — as well as Miami mayor Francis Suarez and Diaz’s family, including his father and grandmother — listening to Diaz’s vision as well as some remorse.

“Those are good men,’’ he said of the coaches he fired. “They’re good coaches and to be honest they were friends. And it is unfair to suggest that any one of them or all of them collectively were the problem. That’s the way it will look. The fan base in coaching wants blood. When it happens they all cheer. That’s not the way it works. If it was always one thing it would always be easy to fix. But at the same time there has to be accountability.”

Diaz made it evident that Richt’s pro-style offense, which ranks 112th in passing offense, 104th in total offense and 65th in scoring, would be overhauled with a new offensive staff that he plans to have in place by Jan. 10 — the date the dead period for recruiting ends. He said he has three finalists.

Some of the names that have been reported as candidates include former North Carolina coach Larry Fedora. Former Houston coach Major Applewhite, as first reported by The Athletic, is another candidate.

“The word ‘spread’ has been dragged around to the point where it’s so spread out I don’t even know, as a defensive coordinator, what the word ‘spread’ means anymore because there’s so many different styles of spread offense,” Diaz said, “but what I will tell you is the word I want to be is cutting edge. The word I want to be is modern. The idea that I want to be is an offense that creates problems for the defense, that puts defense in conflict, that presents issues before the snap, during the snap, that forces mistakes.”

When asked to explain “what happened’’ this past season, Diaz cited three main negatives: field position, turnovers on offense and the quarterback.

“We got destroyed in terms of field position,’’ Diaz said. “I think I mentioned we were bottom five in the country in average starting field position for the other team and you can even look at the Wisconsin game as a microcosm of the entire year. You just can’t win a game when the other team plays on a 58-yard field. It’s just math. It’s science. This is all analytics driven.

“[UM] cannot rank second to last in anything.’’

Since Miami’s 10-0 start in 2017, the Canes, among major conferences, have the nation’s second worst scoring offense against Power 5 competition.

As for turnovers, only two Power 5 teams — Cal and Rutgers — turned the ball over more than Miami, which had 26 giveaways. UM ranked 117th nationally out of 129 teams in turnovers lost.

Diaz indicated the quarterbacks, with a combined 14 interceptions, were a big part of the reason UM couldn’t sustain drives.

“The 800-pound gorilla in the room is that you’ve got to play better quarterback,’’ Diaz said. “We have to get the guys on our campus to play a lot better. We’ve got to put them, as much as we can, in the best position for them to succeed. Or we’ve got to find another guy.’’

Diaz said the defensive staff will remain intact. He specifically lauded defensive line coach Jess Simpson, linebackers coach Jonathan Patke, cornerbacks coach Mike Rumph and safeties coach Ephraim Banda. Diaz did not, however, commit to continuing to use Patke and Banda as co-defensive coordinators. Miami will make one more assistant coaching hire on the defensive side of the ball, at which point Diaz said he will sort out the roles for the staff.

Diaz openly apologized to Temple University, where he was announced as head coach on Dec. 13, and to its players.

“When I woke up Sunday morning, as [UM athletic director] Blake [James] mentioned,’’ Diaz said , “I was putting together a staff to lead Temple to a championship... I had every confidence in Mark Richt that he was going to bounce back from this past season... I apologize for not being with you and not being able to execute the vision I laid out.’’

Manny Diaz Sr., sitting in the front row with Diaz’s grandmother, said it was “a really, really proud moment’’ and that he was thrilled “the family can stay together.’’ His son is the first Cuban-American head football coach at UM.

“What a way to end/begin a new year,’’ Diaz said in an email to the Miami Herald. “Four generations of my family attended today’s press conference — from my mother (abuela) to my grandchildren. An immigrant mother forced to leave her husband behind in Castro’s jails in order to bring her son to America/Miami...with a dime in her pocket. She sees her son become Mayor of the city and her grandson the head coach of its university.

“Only in America. Only in Miami. That is our Miami story.’’