Longhorn Network vice president for production Stephanie Druley still shakes her head when she sees Manny Diaz walk into the LHN studios near downtown Austin to be interviewed.
When her brother called to say Diaz was a candidate for the Texasdefensive coordinator job in January 2011, after Will Muschamp had left to become head coach at Florida, Druley didn’t believe him. That’s because Druley remembered Diaz as a 21-year-old production assistant at ESPN, toiling away, cutting up film of NFL games in a tiny screening room in Bristol, Conn., while aspiring to become the next Dan Patrick.
“The Manny you see now is, in many ways, the Manny we knew back at ESPN,” says Druley, who ascended from an associate producer of NFL programming at ESPN to the senior coordinator of all NFL programming and then to VP of LHN.
“Manny was a very intense guy who had a super strong work ethic, worked hard and takes an extreme amount of pride in what he does,” Druley adds. “He set high expectations and achieved them, and he has that sneaky sense of humor, too.”
Long before Diaz landed the defensive coordinator job paying $625,000 per year at Texas; long before he helped coach players like Mario Williams, Manny Lawson and Stephen Tulloch as an assistant at NC State under Chuck Amato; and long before he coached the likes of defensive tackle Fletcher Cox at Mississippi State under Dan Mullen, Diaz was an aspiring broadcaster helping put together “SportsCenter.” His final job at ESPN was compiling highlights of Tiger Woods’ first Masters victory in 1997.
As a 21-year-old production assistant, Diaz even became a songwriter.
Diaz found himself in the House of Blues in New Orleans leading up to Super Bowl XXXI between the Packers and Patriots trying to convince a blues band to put his lyrics to music for the intro of “NFL Countdown.”
“The lead singer’s name was Coco Robicheaux,” Diaz says laughing. “It was like out of a movie. So I wrote this song that was all about like Cheeseheads, Packers and Patriots. And the guy was like, ‘This isn’t a song. Where’s the melody?’
“And I was like, ‘The melody is your job. I just wrote a bunch of words that rhyme about the Packers and Patriots.’ Low and behold, they pulled it off and it aired.”
Druley laughs at the thought now.
“We were all stuck in this office in the mall connected to the Superdome, and Manny was putting that musical tease together,” Druley says. “That’s one of the lasting images I have of him at ESPN.”
Diaz’s journey from production assistant to one of college football’s hottest coordinators would take a dramatic twist a couple days later in New Orleans during a 6 a.m. interview of then-Patriots coach Bill Parcells.
For months, ESPN analyst and former Green Bay Packers star receiver Sterling Sharpe had been telling Diaz he would make a good coach because of the way he broke down film for the on-air hosts. Diaz had studied journalism at Florida State because he loved sports and wanted to be in the arena but didn’t want to be in the stands like a fan.
Sharpe had gotten Diaz believing there was a step between playing the game and covering the game — coaching the game. As Diaz watched ESPN’s Tom Jackson interview Parcells, the feeling finally crystallized inside of him.
“I want to be him,” Diaz thought, looking at Parcells. “I want to coach. I want to be the one being interviewed, not the one conducting the interview.”
Diaz’s father, Manny Sr., the son of Cuban refugees who became a successful attorney and later the mayor of Miami from 2001-09, asked his son, “What makes you think you can be Bill Parcells?”
And the kid who accompanied his father to Dolphins and Miami Hurricanes games in the Orange Bowl responded, “What makes you think I can be a big dog at ESPN?”
“I don’t know if I’ll ever make it to Bill Parcells’ level,” Diaz says now, looking back. “But I don’t know if I would have ever been on air at ESPN or any other place, for that matter. But it was clear at that point, I had to go try and be a football coach.”
Diaz’s first big break came while he was working in the football office at Florida State and an entry-level quality control job came open. Diaz got it, and over the next two years in that role, he soaked up everything he could from Bobby Bowden and legendary FSU defensive coordinator Mickey Andrews during a run that included a national title in 1999. All the while, Diaz’s wife, Stephanie, was supporting him by working in the FSU athletic department after giving birth to Colin, the first of three sons, in July 1997.
Amato was impressed enough to take Diaz with him as a graduate assistant to NC State in 2000, when Amato was named head coach of the Wolfpack. Stephanie Diaz took a job teaching middle schoolers at a Catholic school in Durham, N.C., to feed the family.
After the 2001 season, there were two openings on the NC State defensive staff, and Diaz was named linebackers coach and given play-calling duties.
“That was the biggest break,” Diaz says.
In that 2002 season, Diaz found himself calling plays against Texas Tech’s Mike Leach in a game that NC State won in overtime in Lubbock.
“It was wild,” Diaz says.
The Wolfpack went on to win 11 games that season, finished No. 12 in the country, beat Florida State, took down Notre Dame in the Gator Bowl and had one of college football’s best defenses.
After three more seasons with Amato, coaching the likes of defensive end Mario Williams and linebackers Stephen Tulloch and Manny Lawson, Diaz became defensive coordinator at Middle Tennessee State, a job he held for four years. Diaz was then named defensive coordinator at Mississippi State under Dan Mullen in 2010, a season in which the Bulldogs posted a 9–4 record, including a 10–7 win over Florida in The Swamp.
When Mack Brown’s program took a downward turn after playing in the 2009 BCS National Championship Game and slumped to a 5–7 record in 2010, Brown replaced half of his staff, including both coordinators. Brown called coaching colleagues in the SEC, who said Diaz’s defense gave them fits. It’s a scheme predicated on getting upfield and attacking gaps with a lot of zone blitz pressure. Brown was able to land Diaz — and more than doubled his salary (from $260,000 at Mississippi State to $625,000 at Texas).
“Manny certainly took an unconventional path to getting into coaching,” Brown says. “Not many people go from journalism and interning at ESPN into coaching, but if you really get to talking to him, you realize he’s always had a passion for sports, and particularly football.
“He really enjoys studying and learning the game, and I’ll give him credit — when he decided it was the route he wanted to go, he took a big gamble, switched careers and jumped right into it. He was very fortunate to be around so many great coaches as he worked his way up, because they were great mentors for him.”
At the age of 38, Diaz is well on his way to becoming a head coach. Texas led the Big 12 in both rush and pass defense in 2011, and the Longhorns defense has a chance to be better in 2012. If Diaz’s side of the ball plays at a championship level this season, it could be his last as an assistant coach.
Meanwhile, Druley and Diaz still share a good laugh about that blues band intro to “NFL Countdown” at Super Bowl XXXI back in New Orleans.
“You would hear updates about Manny at North Carolina State or Mississippi State,” Druley says. “Then, he went to Texas, and I sent him a note letting him know that it was my alma mater. Little did I know I would be joining him a month later in Austin (with LHN).
“But Manny is sort of like my classmate at ESPN who is now the guy coming back for the reunion who was super successful.”
— By Chip Brown
This article appeared in Athlon's 2012 Big 12 Preview Annual.
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