Greg Cote

UM was a ‘mess’ and Diaz was partly to blame. His first recruiting class can help him fix it

There is no other way to say it but that for Miami Hurricanes football coach Manny Diaz, the past five weeks have been a mad scramble to fix what he had such a large part in leaving broken.

From the moment he returned to UM on Dec. 30 through Wednesday’s National Signing Day and conclusion of 2019 recruiting — this was one coach’s redemption tour.

“We didn’t have the best December at Miami,” Diaz understates it. “I contributed to that by leaving when I did.”

Include this program’s rally from the depths of December to this moment when you think about the greatest comebacks in Canes history. It cannot be easily quantified on a scoreboard, but it is real. Diaz has helped create and market The New Miami (#TNM) from what had been a program enveloped by chaos as this past season ended, while you were doing your holiday shopping and making plans for New Year’s Eve.

Diaz abruptly and unexpectedly left on Dec. 12 to become Temple’s head coach, erasing from UM its brilliant defensive coordinator, the inventor of the Turnover Chain, the single best hiring of Mark Richt’s three years as head coach.

The timing could not have been worse. It was the heart of recruiting season. UM started bleeding verbal commitments as prospects jumped ship. It wasn’t just Diaz bolting. Miami, a preseason No. 8, was stumbling to a 7-6 season that would end later in December in a humiliating 35-3 loss to Wisconsin in the Pinstripe Bowl.

Three days later, the bombshell. Richt quit.

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As the Richt news broke the morning of Dec. 30, there was panic in Coral Gables.

“It was a cluster[bleep],” a senior member of the UM Board of Trustees whom I’ve known for years told me this week. “The way the season went, Diaz leaving, Richt leaving, the timing. It was a mess we certainly didn’t foresee.”

Fortunately (except for Temple), Diaz agreed to return to UM as head coach just hours after Richt had quit.

He returned to a mess. There was “a lot of tension,” he admitted.

Diaz leaving when he did cut the legs out from under Miami’s recruiting season.

“When coach Diaz left it was actually a panic moment for me,” admitted Miami Northwestern linebacker Sam Brooks, who second-guessed his commitment as many others left.

Other schools pounced on UM’s sudden vulnerability. For example, Nebraska, Oregon and South Carolina all immediately made the push for Brooks to abandon the school Diaz had abandoned.

Brooks kept his commitment to the Canes — but as the only player from Miami-Dade County, the backyard, that UM was able to include among its 24-man 2019 incoming class that features 16 high school recruits and (blessedly for Miami) eight transfers.

ESPN ranks UM’s incoming class No. 30 in the nation. It includes no five-star whales. The best of the four-star recruits probably are receiver Jeremiah Payton from the Jacksonville area and defensive back Christian Williams from Daphne Alabama — who said no to Nick Saban’s ardent wooing in favor of the Canes. Flipping Williams from the Crimson Tide on Wednesday was a huge get.

It’s a faulty science, assigning star grades and predicting futures of a bunch of 17-year-olds.

UM signed a safety back in the day, a mere two-star recruit nobody was raving about getting. He just made the Pro Football Hall of Fame. You may remember Ed Reed.

How college coaching staffs develop these kids means more than resume’s coming out of high school.

Besides, UM’s prep haul got that No. 30 national ranking. But if you included those eight transfers (which do not count in the recruiting-class rankings), Miami’s overall incoming talent likely would have been top 10 quality. (Miami’s additions also should include talented receiver Jeff Thomas, who left UM after last season and seemed poised to sign with Illinois but was convinced to stay a Cane by Diaz).

It was through the “Transfer Portal” that Diaz really swung big and hit, taking full advantage of the new NCAA initiative that (un-NCAA-like) gives more freedom to players to change schools without penalty.

The door swings both ways, but UM made net gains led by former Ohio State quarterback Tate Martell topping the transfer marquee. Canes also got Trevon Hill, who had double-digit sacks and 20 tackles for loss at Virginia Tech. In all Diaz lured four of the nation’s 17 top-rated transfers, winning the Portal.

“We had to fix our roster,” Diaz says. “We had to create age in the room. Older guys can set the tone. There were all kinds of guys from all kinds of places we said no to.”

(One of the transfers is the new punter from Australia, 6-4 Louis Hedley, whose torso and arms are covered with tattoos. Hedley looks like a 30-year dockworker who could beat up a room full of linebackers).

Sizing up the 24 new Canes overall, Diaz especially loves his new interior linemen on defense.

“If there’s a more athletic group of defensive tackles signed anywhere in the country, I’d be afraid to see it. An outstanding haul,” Diaz says. “We are a much better football team today than we were in December.”

Five weeks ago the opposite seemed true. Today Diaz says: “This football team is not very far away from competing for championships.”

If it’s true, it is because Diaz spent the past five weeks looking not just for new players, but for his own redemption.

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Greg Cote is a Miami Herald sports columnist who in 2018 was named top 10 in column writing by the Associated Press Sports Editors. Greg also appears regularly on the Dan LeBatard Show With Stugotz on ESPN Radio and ESPNews.