Manny Diaz has taken quite the circuitous route to college football jobs, from Florida to Pennsylvania to Florida and back again.
It hasn’t been always a smooth transition. He spent 18 days as Temple’s head coach after the 2018 season before an opportunity came up in his hometown as head coach at Miami that he couldn’t refuse. Now after three seasons with the Hurricanes, a stint that ended inelegantly, he’s back north at Penn State as its new defensive coordinator.
Diaz met the media Friday for the first time in his new job at the Nittany Lions’ media day prior to the Jan. 1 Outback Bowl matchup against Arkansas. He will not be coaching the defense in the game; that responsibility will go Anthony Poindexter, the team’s safeties coach who will serve as acting DC.
But before he could turn his full attention to his new team, Diaz was asked to explain what happened with the Owls, which he called Friday “an outstanding job, a place where you can win, a place where you can recruit great players.”
Things all changed, however, when head coach Mark Richt, whom Diaz had served as Miami’s defensive coordinator, announced his sudden retirement.
“Head coaching jobs are really, really hard to get,” Diaz said, “and when the unforeseen events occurred a few weeks later with Mark Richt retiring, and I had the opportunity to be the head coach of my hometown team, that was the one-off opportunity that I couldn’t say no to.
“We tried to do it the right way. I think from the time that I heard the news that Mark had retired, I think that was around 11:30 in the morning, I think by the time the sun went down that night, I was the head coach at Miami.
“We were very transparent with the people at Temple along the way to let them know what happened. If you follow college football and the coaching profession in general, you’d think it was a very, very unique set of events. I don’t know if it could ever happen again in that same sequence, and it just happened to involve me in the middle of that.”
Diaz experienced a similarly awkward situation last month after his Hurricanes finished the 2021 regular season at 7-5. Published reports had the team reaching out to Oregon coach Mario Cristobal, another Miami native, and negotiating with him while Diaz was still employed.
Finally, Diaz was fired on Dec. 6 and Cristobal was hired the same day. Diaz released a statement then expressing his disappointment with how things were handled, but when asked Friday, he declined to talk about it.
“I’d rather remember my time at Miami for the positives,” he said.
Five days after Diaz was fired, Penn State head coach James Franklin announced his hiring, noting that he was “the most experienced and successful defensive coordinator” available and one accustomed to the scheme run by previous DC Brent Pry, now the Virginia Tech head coach.
While he was wooing Diaz, Franklin said he tried to be sensitive as to how difficult last week was for him.
“Obviously, his last week was kind of crazy,” he said. “It was a whirlwind. I tried to be respectful of what he was going through both personally and professionally. I also made sure that we talked enough that we could come to a point where both parties were comfortable moving forward.”
Diaz said he had no idea what he wanted to do after Miami – “This past month has been a hell of a year, I’ll tell you that,” he noted – and that he wasn’t seeking anything before Franklin contacted him.
“I kind of wanted to be organic and see what the best opportunity was,” he said, “and make sure it was a place where I could make sure I was around great people, like-minded people that were about the right things, and that we could win. Certainly if it was going to be at a defensive coordinator level, it was where we had a chance to play great defense, and I think Penn State ticked all those boxes.”
Members of the Nittany Lions’ defense, like safety Ji’Ayir Brown, were impressed in their first contact with Diaz.
“He’s definitely intimidating,” Brown said. “He comes into our meeting with the slicked-back hair, his chest poking out and stuff like that. I was like, ‘Yeah, this guy’s serious.’ He’s walking around our team meeting with just so much confidence. You can feel that confidence as he’s speaking to us. That was the moment it occurred to us, this guy is the real deal. He’s going to be great.”
LB Smith to declare for draft
Junior linebacker Brandon Smith, the team’s second-leading tackler and a third-team All-Big Ten selection, announced he would skip the Outback Bowl and his final season of eligibility to enter the NFL draft. Smith finished the season with 81 tackles, and his nine tackles for loss ranked second on the Lions.