Starkville, Miss.—It was a journey Manny Diaz thought he would never have to make when he left Mississippi State at the end of the 2010 season.
At the time he was 37 years old and one of the hottest young defensive coordinators in the business. In his one and only season in Starkville, the Mississippi State defense forced 28 turnovers (3rd best in the SEC) and showed a knack for keeping teams out of the end zone.
Then the University of Texas, with all of its vast tradition and resources, came calling. Suddenly, Diaz was on the coaching fast track. Just a few good seasons for Texas, went the narrative, and Diaz would be a head coach.
It didn’t turn out that way.
When Diaz turned 41 on March 13 he was back at Mississippi State, albeit in a much nicer office in the school’s quickly-growing football complex. In the past four years he has learned a lot—especially about himself.
“After what I went through at Texas I knew that from now on I was going to be really big on people,” said Diaz. “You have to be in a place where you trust the people that you are with.”
Understand that Diaz did not climb the conventional coaching ladder. He played high school football in his native Miami (where his father was mayor) and then attended Florida State, where he majored in communications. After three years of working at ESPN (1995-97), he got into coaching as a graduate assistant to defensive coordinator Mickey Andrews at Florida State. He moved on to N.C. State where he became a position coach.
In 2006 Diaz became defensive coordinator at Middle Tennessee State, where his defenses gained a national reputation for forcing turnovers and creating negative plays. In 2009 the Blue Raiders were second nationally in tackles for loss.
In 2010 Dan Mullen hired Diaz to improve a defense that finished 71st nationally in points allowed the year before. That season Mississippi State was 22nd nationally in scoring defense (19.9 points per game).
But when Mack Brown of Texas called, Mullen knew that Diaz was going to—and should—take the opportunity.
“At that point we had not built our program to the position where he could stay,” said Mullen. “I had to wish him the best. It never entered my mind that someday he would come back.”
There are a number of reasons things didn’t work out at Texas. The program was beginning to slip from a talent standpoint after the Longhorns lost to Alabama in 2009 BCS championship game. Diaz’s defenses are built around taking calculated risks in order to pressure the quarterback. Sometimes it works. Other times it doesn’t.
The bottom line is that on Sept. 7, 2013 BYU simply torched Texas for 679 yards, including 550 yards rushing. Brown fired Diaz the next day.
Diaz sat out the rest of the season and did a bunch of soul searching. He determined that if he got another shot at big-time college football he would do things his way. In Diaz’s mind, he had made too many comprises to stay at the highest level of the game.
“I wasn’t happy with what I had become,” said Diaz. “I made up my mind that I was going to do things the way I thought they should be done. I also made up my mind that I wanted to stay a coordinator.”
Diaz had a number of offers to return to college football as a position coach, but Skip Holtz at Louisiana Tech offered him the job of coordinating his defense in 2014. The year before the Bulldogs were 4-8. With Diaz as its DC, Louisiana Tech went 9-4 and lost a three-point heart-breaker at Marshall (26-23) in the Conference USA championship game. Louisiana Tech led the nation by forcing 42 turnovers.
“We loved Louisiana Tech. It was the perfect laboratory where everything to you hope is true becomes true,” said Diaz. “It was a case study of chemistry and unselfishness.”
Diaz was content to stay with Holtz for a while but after the 2014 season Mullen was suddenly in the market for a defensive coordinator. Geoff Collins left Starkville to join Jim McElwain’s new staff at Florida. Mullen called Diaz.
“There are a lot of good defensive coaches out there but in Manny I knew I’d have a guy that I wouldn’t have to bring up to speed on the culture of our program and what my expectations are,” said Mullen. “Now our core values here are the same as when he was first here. But we are both different people. So we had to figure out if we were still comfortable together.”
As it turned out, they were.
“It clicked and it made sense,” said Diaz. “We had to have a little conversation to make sure we saw the world the same today as we did before. But he gave me his expectations and I shared what I needed from him in return.”
Now Diaz is a coordinator at a football program that spent five weeks as the No. 1 team in the nation last season. From a competitive and a facilities standpoint a lot has changed for the better.
“We’re still a player development program but now there is a different standard and a different expectation,” said Diaz. “When I was here before we had to sell guys on the belief that we could compete for championships. Now they believe it because we’ve done it.”
There is still much work to do before the Bulldogs open the season with Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg on Sept. 5. A total of 15 starters are gone from last season’s 10-3 team. Seven of those were on the defensive side and included big-time talents like linebacker Bernardrick McKinney and defensive lineman Preston Smith.
“But we’ve got some guys up front like Chris Jones (6-5, 308) and Nick James (6-5, 325) who can be a handful,” said Diaz. “We played a lot of people last season and we have guys that are ready to step up. We really bring back a lot of snaps.”
Diaz also believes that having the best quarterback in the conference (Dak Prescott) is no small thing.
“The X-factor for us is the quarterback,” said Diaz. “He makes a big difference at a lot of positions. I think Dak changes the dynamic of this team after a lot of people walked out the door.”
So after his difficult journey, Diaz returns to a Mississippi State program and an SEC West that is considerably better than it was five years ago. He’s happy for the chance not only to do it, but to do it his way.
“You live and you learn. You learn about what kind of coach you want to be,” he said. “You learn about relationships and what’s important to you. And I’ve learned a lot.”
Next stop: Missouri.