Manny Diaz begins his first spring practice as UM’s head football coach on Tuesday, and nobody — not a single person in Canes Nation — is gambling on his future quite like UM athletic director Blake James.
And while adding the necessary caveat that a single game hasn’t yet been played, James makes this very clear:
“Everything Manny has done has impressed me,” James told me. “[New strength and conditioning coach] David Feeley and the feedback I’ve gotten from the guys have been overly positive; there isn’t one person I’ve spoken to that isn’t excited what they’re doing in that area. [Offensive coordinator] Dan Enos was Manny’s guy from the get-go.
“Just looking at the changes he made to build on the foundation in place were all things he communicated when we discussed what he was going to do if he was our head coach. Everything Manny has done is in line with the vision he communicated in order to have us competing for national titles. I’ve been very pleased with what he’s been able to accomplish.”
When Mark Richt retired, James had the biggest decision of his tenure — even more so than the fairly obvious move of hiring Richt three years ago.
James could move quickly to hire Diaz — before he finished cleaning out his office and relocating to Temple (a job he had accepted earlier in December) — or James could open up the search and hire one of several prominent coaches who likely would have listened (Mario Cristobal, Mike Leach, Butch Davis, among many others).
How many FBS coaches had interest in the UM job?
“A lot of coaches had interest; my phone was going crazy with agents of coaches, friends of agents of coaches,” James said. “I was hit by all sides. This is one of the premier jobs in the country.”
Hours after Richt resigned, with Diaz already on campus for what he thought would be one of the final times, James entered that Sunday, Dec. 30 meeting believing Diaz would be a good head coach but uncertain if he would hire him for this job.
“I don’t know that I went into the meeting thinking he was my guy,” James said. “I thought he was going to be a great candidate. I came out of the meeting knowing he would be our guy, that he was the absolute best person for us. He’s done nothing but further strengthen that belief.”
So what sold James? In part, James loved the substance of his vision “of what was needed to compete for championships” — a message that Diaz has revealed, in part, in comments he has made to the media.
That vision included an offense that has the same attacking, foot-on-the-gas-pedal mentality that his defense plays with; a team that looks like it’s having fun; a team that takes conditioning to the next level (which he has done by hiring Feeley) and a commitment to get UM’s South Florida recruiting back to an elite level, which he hopes to achieve by overhauling his recruiting staff and adding accomplished recruiters (such as tight ends coach Stephen Field).
The overall message sold James, who said he cannot recall anyone close to him encouraging him to hold off on a decision and risk losing Diaz to Temple that day in late December.
“Did it have to be as quick a window as it was [if he hadn’t already taken the Temple job]? I don’t know,” James said. “It was important we got this done quickly. But most important was to get the right person for the job.”
James revealed that from watching Diaz closely, he knew “without a doubt” after the 2016 season, Diaz’s first at UM, that “Manny would be a great head coach somewhere and somewhere soon. Our defenses under Manny the last three years - it doesn’t take someone with a great deal of intelligence to see his guys play hard for him and execute the game plan they put in place and have a great deal of respect and love for him.”
So did he ever consider naming Diaz head coach in waiting at UM before he took the Temple job, as James did with Jim Morris’ baseball successor, Gino DiMare?
No, because “that is such a challenge not knowing what the timeline is going to be,” James said. “Who knew when Mark was going to be done? It wouldn’t have been right for Manny.”
Ask James about the qualities that impress him about Diaz, and there’s no hesitation.
“Manny is a super smart guy,” James said. “Very, very driven, Very well thought out [beliefs]. Has a great vision. Great communicator. Connects well with the players. All those skills that he exhibits in daily actions make him the person he is and the great candidate he was.”
Diaz undoubtedly has won the first two-plus months on the job, injecting much-needed energy, improving the offensive staff and the strength and conditioning staff and clearly improving the talent base.
More important is whether he wins the next two years. Legacies, and far more, hang in the balance.
Here was our piece earlier today about Cade Weldon’s departure from the football team, which UM has subsequently confirmed.