University of Miami

Miami coordinator, the mayor’s son, comes home to defend his roots

UM Defensive coordinator Manny Diaz and his father Manny Sr. Take in a UM hoops game this season
UM Defensive coordinator Manny Diaz and his father Manny Sr. Take in a UM hoops game this season UM athletics

Manny Diaz Sr. reigned as mayor of Miami for eight years.

His son, Manny Diaz Jr., enters his first preseason football camp Thursday as the defensive coordinator at the University of Miami.

Judging by the past few years, there might be more pressure on the Miami D-coordinator than was on the mayor of one of the most high-profile cities in the universe.

“At this stage he gets it,’’ said the former mayor, who scored the first touchdown in Belen Jesuit Prep history and graduated from FIU and the UM School of Law. “We’re so excited to have Manny and the family back home.’’

Diaz Jr., 42, grew up in Miami rooting for the Hurricanes and Dolphins in the Orange Bowl with his father and knows all about public wrath after being fired at Texas two games into his third season in 2013.

“I think the world is that way now,” he said. “I don’t know if that’s something unique to South Florida anymore. We all get it. We’re in a world where people can say what they want to say. I’m not going out on a limb by saying there’s a lot of anger and hatred in the world right now.”

But unlike predecessor Mark D’Onofrio, whom Hurricanes fans trashed unmercifully as UM’s 3-4 aligned, read-and-react defense proved porous in the red zone, against the rush, in tackling, sacks and ultimately on the scoreboard, the younger Diaz has given Hurricanes fans hope – and Hurricanes the type of old-time, 4-3, speed-driven, pummel-the-quarterback defense of former UM champions.

UM's new defensive coordinator says his unit is still a ways a way from playing to the standard he wants and some players aren't giving it their all all the time. March 29, 2016. Video by Manny Navarro

“This is a unique place, and to have an understanding of the culture and what this university means to the people down here, helps,’’ Diaz said. “Obviously it’s a city with high expectations, but it’s not just for winning, though certainly that’s a big part of it. There’s a style of play that people expect to see when they watch our team, and it’s important for me, for us, to represent that.

“Miami is a city wrapped around toughness. And those Hurricanes football teams had coaches that changed throughout the glory years, but the model – the toughness, the physicality – didn’t. This is a passionate city and we ought to get excited for things that result from acts of toughness. That’s what we’re trying to build here.’’

Whether it works has yet to be seen, but there’s a buzz among players and fans that Diaz and Mark Richt’s lineup of defensive coaches – Mike Rumph for cornerbacks, Ephraim Banda for safeties, Craig Kuligowski for the line and Diaz, who also coaches linebackers – will be difference-makers.

“I don’t know if it’s the scheme or maybe the way they teach it, but there’s not a lot of thinking involved,’’ defensive end Trent Harris said of Diaz’s defense. “It’s more fun than having to sit and think.’’

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“Definitely aggressive,’’ said cornerback Adrian Colbert, a graduate transfer who redshirted under Diaz at Texas in 2012 and played while the coach was there in 2013. “He coaches effort and makes everything simple, so the players can just go out there and play fast. It’s not one of those complex defenses in which you have to make a check for every formation or every motion.”

Diaz is serious, to-the-point and candid, not the coddling type, a person who praises when it’s warranted and stings when it’s not.

“This defense is predicated on two things: making negative-yardage plays and not allowing big plays,’’ Diaz said after Miami’s second spring scrimmage in which the cornerbacks were repeatedly burned but the line was aggressive. “We succeeded in one and failed spectacularly in the other.’’

During his interview with the Herald, Diaz was asked how UM would be affected should any major defensive players lose playing time as a result of disciplinary action. Two of its best players —defensive end Al-Quadin Muhammad and linebacker Jermaine Grace — are being investigated by UM in a case involving rental cars from a local agency.

“We told our players that there’s not a man in that locker room who has beaten Florida State. So there’s nobody on this football team that has a status that we can’t afford to be without,’’ Diaz said. “Our players have a choice. We’re trying like heck to be the ones that get UM back to the team that everybody wants to see. But if they’re not, we are moving on.’’

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After graduating from Florida State in 1995, where he was the sports editor for the campus paper, Diaz, who played basketball, baseball and football as a safety at Miami Country Day High School, got a job as a production assistant at ESPN.

“I thought journalism was my best avenue into sports,’’ Diaz told the Miami Herald during his first season at Texas in 2011, when Al Golden was starting at UM. “But I realized when I was at ESPN that I’d never be inside the circle as a journalist, and that’s where I wanted to be.’’

He returned to FSU as a graduate assistant in 1998-99, joining the same staff as Richt and turning to his goal of one day coaching.

Diaz’s wife, Stephanie, has her PhD and taught sports administration, but now is home with their children. Colin is a 19-year-old freshman at FSU (“There are a lot of sneaky Hurricanes in Tallahassee,’’ Diaz said), Gavin “turns 13 the day we play Florida State’’ and Manny is 10.

Diaz began his rise from there, going from FSU’s national title in 1999 to NC State, Middle Tennessee, Mississippi State in 2010, Texas, then Louisiana Tech and in 2015, back to Mississippi State, where the Bulldogs ranked in the top 10 in red zone defense and tackles for loss.

At his first stint in Starkville in 2010, Diaz brought the Bulldogs from 71st nationally in scoring defense to 22nd, from 62nd in rushing defense to 17th, and from 89th in tackles for loss to 17th.

Except for Texas, where Diaz was released by former coach Mack Brown after the Longhorns allowed 670 yards of total offense (550 rushing) against BYU, Diaz’s defenses have been for the most part punishing, though his is a risk-taking defense that can get burned. The model is that of UM coach Jimmy Johnson’s in the 1980s, with leaner, quicker defensive linemen and linebackers “attacking and running and hitting and playing one-gap control’’ as they rush the line of scrimmage.

Said Manny Diaz Sr.: “Manny understands the Miami swagger. He grew up in it.’’

His son knows he has a long way to go.

“Until you get on the field and see what you’ve got,’’ Diaz said, “you never really know.’’

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