Elisa Diaz, spunky as ever at 87, sits in a 19th-floor law office on Brickell Avenue and sighs as she takes in the view of Biscayne Bay.
Across the desk is her son, Manny, the former mayor of Miami. Five miles down US-1, her grandson, Manny, Jr., is generating major buzz as the new University of Miami head football coach — a remarkable achievement considering his career began as an ESPN production assistant.
“I am a very lucky woman,” she says, beaming with pride. “I never imagined when I arrived here on July 21, 1961, with little Manolito just six years old, leaving behind my husband as a political prisoner in Cuba, that my story would turn out like this. My first day in America was very, very sad. We came on Pan Am Airlines. I was 29. I had one dime to make a call, and I was crying and crying.”
She moved in with her brother, got a job as a housekeeper, and then at a book warehouse in Allapattah. She eventually landed a job at an auto parts store in Little Haiti, where she worked for 18 years and was joined by her husband, Manolo, when he was released from prison in 1963. Manny Sr. also worked there part-time as a teenager, and as a janitor for $1.10 an hour.
Determined to assimilate, Elisa spoke English every chance she got. She always liked English, went to the English-language cinema back in Havana suburb Regla, and took English classes three nights a week while in high school.
“I don’t speak perfect English, but when I sit at the table with Manny Jr., his wife and my American grandchildren, I understand what they’re saying,” she said. “I have friends whose family speaks English and they don’t understand anything. They have to ask, ‘Que dijo? Que dijo?’ (what did he say?). If you go to a country, you have to learn the language.”
In 1967, right around the time the Diaz family was getting settled in Little Havana, Patty Knap’s family moved from Pennsylvania to Miami Beach. She was in sixth grade and one of six children. Her father was a dairy executive, her mother a nurse at St. Francis Hospital. She attended St. Patrick Catholic School, where she was a cheerleader, graduated from Miami Beach High, and dated Manny Diaz, Sr., who in 1971 scored the first touchdown in Belen Jesuit history.
By age 19, Manny and Patty were married, parents to baby Manny, and living in a garage apartment at her parents’ house. With the help of family to take care of the baby, Patty studied nursing at Miami-Dade College and Manny Sr. pursued pre-law at Miami-Dade and Florida International University and then attended law school at the University of Miami. They divorced after a few years, Patty remarried when Manny Jr. was four and Diaz Sr. also remarried.
Young Manny lived with his mother and stepfather John Knap, a boat salesman, in Keystone Point in North Miami. He spent every other weekend with his father.
“I’m the quintessential Miami story because my dad was born in Cuba and my mom was born in the Northeast, and they came together in Miami, an Irish-Catholic transplant and a Cuban immigrant,” said Diaz. “All the changes and friction Miami went through to make it what it is today were being defined in the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s, when my family arrived and when I was growing up. Miami became Miami and the Hurricanes were coming to prominence in the ‘80s. It is all intertwined.”
Diaz says he benefited from being exposed to the mosaic of cultures that made up his family and his hometown.
“When you grow up through divorce, it can be a negative or a positive,” Diaz Jr. said. “For me, it turned out a positive. I lived with my mom and step-dad, and they had a huge influence on me. I saw my dad and his family on weekends in the south part of town. I was exposed to all of Miami. I heard English. I heard Spanish. I felt a lot of love. I had four sets of grandparents and I was the first grandchild for everybody. None of my step-grandparents treated me like a step-grandson. I had siblings, aunts and uncles and cousins from both sides and that was really cool.”
Coach Diaz is proud of his Cuban heritage, but he does not speak fluent Spanish and you won’t find him drinking a cortadito at the ventanita at Versailles. You’re more likely to find him making a fruit smoothie for breakfast, doing daily Bible study, and taking long runs while listening to spiritual or motivational audio books.
Diaz Jr., now the father of three sons, still enjoys a bowl of his abuela’s potaje (hearty soup), but his music of choice in the car is U2 and Pearl Jam.
Unlike his father, who at age 12 played for a Little League baseball team called Miami Cuba Libre (which, by the way, won the Boys’ League World Championship in 1967), Manny Jr. was obsessed with football from the time he could read the Miami Herald Sports section.
His mother and grandmother both tell stories of little Manny going out in his pajamas to retrieve the newspaper, and poring over the Sports section while eating breakfast.
“Manny was a very bright child, and learned to read with the Sports section,” Knap said by phone from Tallahassee, where she lives and recently retired. “He was always a UM and Dolphins fan, and would talk sports to anyone who would listen. He’d sit there at our parties and say, `The Dolphins are going to lose this week because they haven’t beaten whoever since 1960’. He knew stats from before he was born.”
Elisa Diaz has similar memories of her breakfast table.
“Manny Jr would wake up and instead of saying ‘Abuela, I want breakfast’ he would say ‘Abuela, the sun is out, is the newspaper outside?’ He would go get the paper and pull out the Sports. I would make him bacon, eggs, Cuban bread and café con leche and he would eat it while reading about Sports.”
When Manny was in third grade, Knap recalled, he was being tested for the gifted program at Miami Country Day School. The psychologist asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up. “A football player,” he replied. The psychologist looked at Knap and said: “Not good for the gray matter.” She suggested maybe the boy could become a football coach – a prescient comment his mother never forgot.
Diaz played Optimist football in Miami Shores, went on to become an “A” student, play three sports and was elected class president as a senior in high school. He headed to Florida State University with intentions of becoming a sports journalist and took a job as Sports Editor of an alternative campus newspaper called FS View.
When FSU played at Notre Dame in 1993, Diaz drove 15 hours to cover the game. When the Seminoles beat Nebraska for the national title in the 1994 Orange Bowl, Diaz was on the field with a press pass. He landed an internship at ESPN and parlayed that internship into a job as a production assistant.
Diaz spent two years in Bristol, Conn., cutting highlights, logging game films, and talking football with analysts such as Tom Jackson and Sterling Sharpe. Stephanie Druley, ESPN’s Vice President of Event and Studio Production, worked with Diaz and remembers him as “very intense, very driven, even at that young age.”
One night over dinner at Outback Steakhouse, Sharpe told Diaz that if he ever became a coach, he’d hire Diaz as an assistant. That conversation lit a fire in Diaz, and he decided to chase his dream, crazy as it seemed.
His family was all about the American Dream, and now it was his turn to take a leap of faith.
“I thought sports journalism was the next-best thing to playing, but I realized when I was at ESPN that what I really loved was the Xs and Os, what was under the hood, and I’d never get inside that circle as a journalist,” Diaz said. “Coaching had always been in the back of my mind, but I had no idea how to get there. It was my natural instinct. I coached the Theta Chi fraternity basketball team and always gravitated to the role of team leader.”
In 1997, at age 23, married and with an infant son, Diaz left ESPN and returned to Tallahassee to pursue a coaching career. Diaz asked Sharpe to call the FSU football office and put in a good word. Chuck Amato, then the assistant head coach under Bobby Bowden, took the call.
Amato remembers that call as if it were yesterday. “Sterling Sharpe says, `You may know me, but I don’t know you. I’m doing a favor for a young man here. He graduated from Florida State and wants to go into coaching. Do you have anything?’ I was like, `Take a urine sample. Are you kidding me?’ I told him we had nothing. He told me Manny was special, so I gave the kid a call.”
Diaz offered to work for free. Amato found him a volunteer job in the recruiting office, stuffing envelopes, making copies, and driving recruits to and from the airport. He enrolled in graduate school, as did Stephanie, who began working on her Master’s degree in Sports Administration. Stephanie took a job with on-campus catering and was the main bread-winner. Diaz got a part-time job as a data entry clerk at the State of Florida Child Support Enforcement office to make ends meet.
“The star of the show is my wife, Stephanie, because she had to support the family for five years while I got the coaching career going,” Diaz said. “She got her PhD in Sports Administration, and was able to get good jobs to pay the bills. There was no guarantee I would make it as a coach, but she really pushed it.”
Stephanie felt coaching was her husband’s mission. “We were so young. We didn’t know any better than to follow our dreams,” she said. “We were blinded by our passion and didn’t think we would fail.”
By the end of the 1997 season, FSU coaches trusted Diaz enough to break down opponents’ film. Diaz’s background at ESPN proved vital.
“It helped that when I was getting into coaching, the computer revolution was coming into football,” Diaz said. “You had a lot of great coaches like Coach Amato and Coach Mickey Andrews who had no background in computers, so I became valuable because I had some knowledge of how to use technology.”
Amato agreed that being tech-savvy gave Diaz an edge.
“The first time I asked him to break down film, he did a great job,” Amato said. “I asked him how long it took. He said, `Five or six hours.’ I knew then that he was serious. We were switching from films to tapes. I was the only fulltime coach who knew how to turn the dadgum computer on, and Manny showed me how to do it.”
Diaz also had a knack for making film sessions entertaining, Amato said. He’d throw a funny video into the middle of the tape, and that caught the players’ attention. Those skills are even more valuable today as social media takes on a bigger role in recruiting and connecting with fans. In his short time as head coach, Diaz has drawn national attention with his clever Twitter posts and cryptic GIFS that drop clues when news is coming.
“Manny was so far ahead on technology years and years ago and kept growing on that,” Amato said. “I worked for Lou Holtz, who was an amateur magician and did tricks to get the players’ attention. Manny has some of those qualities Lou Holtz had.”
When Amato got the head coach job at North Carolina State in 2000, he took Diaz with him. He coached linebackers, safeties and special teams. At age 31, he was hired as defensive coordinator at Middle Tennessee State. From there he went to Mississippi State, Texas, Louisiana Tech, and back to Mississippi State before Mark Richt brought him to Miami as defensive coordinator in 2016.
Before long, Diaz, 44, had come up with the idea of the Turnover Chain, a motivational gimmick that was the talk of the 2017 season. Then, on New Year’s Eve 2018, when he least expected it, Diaz landed his dream job. Eighteen days after accepting the head coaching job at Temple, Diaz returned to UM to replace Richt, who retired abruptly.
As he begins his new job, Coach Diaz is relying on some valuable lessons from Mayor Diaz.
“My dad gave me great advice about what it’s like to be in the public eye and being in charge of a massive organization and how to face criticism, whether it’s warranted or not,” Diaz Jr said. “In both jobs, you’re responsible for a lot of people and don’t have control over all of their actions. You have to stick to your vision and not be concerned about what is said on the outside because if you’re constantly sticking your finger out to take the temperature, you’ll never do anything.”
Diaz the father feels it is tougher to be a coach than a mayor.
“His job is much harder than my job ever was and harder than most jobs because he’s got 12 or 13 days a year he’s got to get it right,” Diaz Sr. said. “Most of us have the benefit of 365 days and if things don’t go well a few days here or there we have time to fix things. Also, his job security depends on what 18- and 21- year-olds are doing for three hours on a Saturday. I wouldn’t want the food on my table to depend on that.
“But the jobs are very similar. You have to have a vision and have people buy into that vision. It’s your name. If you don’t succeed, nobody’s going to blame the City Manager or the Defensive Line coach. They blame you.”
Colin Diaz, Manny Jr’s 21-year-old son, is a junior at FSU, majoring in Sports Administration. He recently got a job as a coach’s helper at Florida A&M. “He’s caught the bug,” Stephanie Diaz said. Like father, like son.