Bill Little commentary: Manny Diaz - Re-inventing Yourself
June 28, 2011
Editor's note: This is the second in a series of articles on the new coaches for the Texas Longhorns football team.
Bill Little, Texas Media Relations
In the on-line English Grammar Secrets by Caroline and Pearson Brown, we find the following: "We can also use 'have to' to express a strong obligation. When we use 'have to' this usually means that some external circumstance makes the obligation necessary."
Manny Diaz would tell you that sometimes, "have to" comes from within.
"I think it was coach (Bobby) Bowden who said that you won't make it as a coach unless you HAVE to coach," he said.
And there begins our story.
"Sports was a big part of my life growing up," the Longhorns' new defensive coordinator and linebackers coach recalls. "I was one of those guys who learned how to read by reading the sports page in the morning."
His early education came from Miami Country Day School, an elite college preparatory private school that begins at age three and continues through high school. Fewer than 1,000 students are enrolled in the historic institution that was founded in 1938.
"The classes were so small, so if you were in athletics you had to play on multiple teams. When the football season ended, we would all move to playing basketball. Then, from the basketball court to the baseball diamond. So it gives you a chance to be involved in a lot of different things--probably more than most people would think."
But where some kids grow up imagining themselves playing sports at the highest level, Manny Diaz dreamed of telling about it.
"A lot of people grow up who don't really know what they want to be. It dawned on me midway through high school that I just wanted to be in journalism in some way, shape or form. I had already talked to people that had worked at TV stations. I was writing for the school paper. Everything was on that line. That's part of why I chose a large university.
That is why he chose to travel northwest from Miami, to Tallahassee and Florida State University.
"I wanted to be in a big place where I was able to cover big time events," he said. Once there, it seemed the beginning of a charmed life. "It was one of those many, many breaks that I had--it's funny how things happen in your life."
In the fall of his freshman year, the school newspaper at Florida State lost its credibility with the administration. After a series of articles, readers and supervisors had had enough, and the school decided to start another newspaper on campus. So a call went out for volunteer writers, and at the front of the line was Manny Diaz.
"It was an amazing opportunity...one of those things that just kind of falls from the sky. I got a job as a sports writer and was covering the NCAA Baseball Regionals in the spring of my freshman year in college. The next year I was covering the football team. My third year I was sports editor of the paper, [and] I had a TV show on the campus TV station. Everything was going exactly according to plan. It was why I had come to Florida State. My third year we won the National Championship in football. I was on the field at the end of the game. The whole thing was like a dream."
Then, another turn came. Florida State's communications degree accepted journalism courses from cross-town Florida A&M, and in a speakers' series there he met Pam Oliver of ESPN.
"We wrote mock articles and did other work," Diaz recalls, "and at the end of the seminar she encouraged me to apply for an internship at ESPN. That was the second thing that fell from the sky."
The selection process for the internship began with a phone interview, and then, Manny was one of a dozen hopefuls chosen to go for in-person interviews at ESPN's headquarters in Bristol, Conn. The test there was about sports knowledge. Diaz handled the questions about the NFL and the major league baseball teams, but was stumped when they asked him who was going to win the National Hockey League's Vezina Trophy. Then, the straightforwardness that would eventually endear him to prospective employers such as the Longhorns' Mack Brown took over.
"I have to be honest," he said. "We don't get much hockey coverage down in Florida, and I have no idea what the Vezina Trophy is for."
But told that it went to the NHL's top goalie, he proceeded to rattle off the names of outstanding goalies in the league. Still, when he walked out, he figured his chances were slim.
"I figured one of the other 11 would know what the Vezina Trophy was, so I figured I was done," he remembered. When he got back to Miami, however, he got a call from ESPN. He had won the internship.
He returned for his senior year at Florida State, and when graduation came, he called ESPN and they hired him without an interview. Manny Diaz, the youngster from Miami who had dreamed of covering "big time" sports, had made sports television's "big show."
Immediately, the rising star was grabbed up by ESPN's NFL show, which at the time was the lynchpin of the network's coverage. He worked the 1996 season breaking down films and putting together production features. It was then that announcer Sterling Sharpe, a former college and NFL star, told Diaz that if he ever went into coaching, he was taking Diaz with him.
That began to stoke an emotion for Diaz. Finally, at the Super Bowl, the flame burst out.
"We were interviewing Bill Parcells," he says. "And I remember thinking this was my big moment. On the one hand, you are working for ESPN, and you have made it. You are at the top of your profession. But then, if you are getting interviewed by ESPN AND coaching the Super Bowl, you have made it to the top of the coaching profession."
So the question became, "which one would you rather be? And it was obvious. From that moment on, anything I was doing working toward the ESPN chair was denying what I really wanted to do."
At the time, he had sent out prospective interview tapes to television stations. Had one responded, his career as a coach would likely not have happened.
"I had been at ESPN for two years, and I think if I had been there two more months I might have gotten a promotion to the next level. And once I had that, I don't know if I would have ever left," he says.
His wife, Stephanie was using her degree in hospitality management from Florida State. She was running a restaurant in Bristol, and was six months pregnant.
"It's funny how, looking back, how youthful naivete can get you a lot of places, because you have no idea what all it takes to get into this deal. It wasn't the most well thought out plan in the world. I had no idea how [being a] graduate assistant worked...had no idea how staffing worked. I just showed up at Florida State. I knew of the coaches from interviewing them, so I just went back and wanted to throw myself on their doorstep and see what I could do," he remembers.
The first answer was "nothing." NCAA rules govern the size of football staffs, and volunteer coaches are not allowed.
"So I said `that was a great plan.'"
Still he pursued the dream. He started taking courses in coaching while Stephanie enrolled on a path that would eventually earn her a master's and PhD in sports administration. Diaz was working with a high school basketball coach at one of the main high schools in Tallahassee, and came close to getting the JV job there. Again, it was the turn in the road that he didn't take that made all the difference.
Florida State found that he could do clerical work in their football offices. For the entire 1997 season, he worked as a data entry employee in the Child Support division for the state of Florida in the morning, grabbed lunch and then headed to the football offices. But when he proved to the football staff that he was willing to do anything from picking up recruits at the airport to stuffing envelopes, he finally got a job as a graduate assistant. Just as he had done with the NFL films in his "other life", he was breaking down video tapes and doing the duties now handled at colleges under the job description of "graduate assistant" or "quality control."
The biggest break came when Florida State needed an on-the-field grad assistant, and the obvious candidate was right there on their staff--Manny Diaz.
A lot of his strength comes from his roots. His parents had divorced when both they and Manny were very young. He was reared by his mom, a cardiac cath lab nurse, and his stepfather. His father, Manny, Sr., was the son of Cuban refugees who had fled their native land in the late 1950s.
The admiration for his parents is obvious, as is his respect for those who dared to cross the water from Cuba.
"Those people came over with nothing. They were teachers, doctors and lawyers who were at the top of their profession. Then they had to get to the back of the line. They had to fight to get their way back up," he said. People will say `but your dad was the mayor of Miami.' That was in the last ten years. When I was growing up, he was re-inventing himself."
Reared in the home with his mom and step-dad, and attending Miami Country Day, he found the environment that would drive him. And when he got to Florida State, he got the motto that would become his benchmark.
You get what you demand.
When he left Florida State to become a full-time assistant coach for the first time, he had a new revelation.
"I had been at ESPN, and they were the industry standard. I went to Florida State, and they were the industry standard. We lost three games in three years. We had lost one national championship game and won another. It was an amazing time to be there...an amazing time to learn. So when I got to NC State with Chuck Amato, it was valuable because it was the first time I saw why people lose. I got to see how a program got built from day one, and it was really fascinating. That's where you start to see that everybody says the same things. You go to everybody's football practice and nobody's teaching the guy to go the wrong way. Everybody does an off-season program. Everybody lifts weights. Everybody does the same more or less drills in practice. Everybody runs one style of offense or the other. There is nothing that guarantees success. It is how you do it. The thing that jumped out at me is the attention to detail. That's what I saw at ESPN. We would do a four minute feature and show it to the boss and there would be a half second of video that's he didn't like, and we would have to redo it. Nobody watching television would ever notice a half second of video.
"At Florida State it was the same thing. A drill was all the way right, or it was all the way wrong. And if anything was not exactly the way it was supposed to be done, it was done again. And when we got to NC State, that was a surprise to those players. They had not had that level of accountability...to do everything exactly right. In the six years I was there we got the program to a different level."
In the years since he became a Graduate Assistant at Florida State, Diaz has coached teams that have appeared ten bowl games. He followed his tenure at NC State with stints as defensive coordinator at Middle Tennessee and Mississippi State.
Stephanie and Manny have three sons, Colin, Gavin, and Manny.
They have taken the values of their upbringing into their family today.
"What I learned from my mom and stepdad and my dad was to be loving, and that's the most important thing in parenting. It is to have your children be inspired and follow their dream and keep the lights on at your house.
"Leaving ESPN, almost becoming a JV coach...it doesn't seem to add up. The string of variables that have to go your way to make it to a place like Texas...you have to sit back and you have to believe one of two things: it is an extraordinary amount of luck, or it is the hand of God, and I am more willing to believe the latter. These things don't just happen."
What he has learned in the process of "re-inventing himself," is that the road Manny and Stephanie Diaz traveled has truly been a journey spotted by those who have touched their lives.
"Both at ESPN and at the places I have coached, I have been fortunate to work with great people. It is not about buildings or logos, which history had proven.
"If you love your profession, you will never work a day in your life," he said. "Coaching is an outstanding occupation. It is a hard profession. It's funny when you think back about the way I got into coaching football, because I was a fan first, and when I was a fan I didn't know what I didn't know about this game. You think you know, and you find out and realize how little you knew. There are certainly things that affect my philosophy that I remember from being a fan. When you start a restaurant, you are going to revert back to the type of food that you like and there are certainly some things about the aggressiveness of our defense that if I were sitting in the stands I would want them to do. I have been blessed to work with great people who had similar philosophies. And the coaches I have worked for have just let us go. There are things that we do that are exotic and unusual, and we turned those into our strengths. It almost became fun to stay ahead of the curve and do weird things."
It is what happens when you re-invent yourself, and when you have to coach.