Friedlander: Did Manny Diaz learn enough from his time at Miami to keep things rolling at Duke?
DURHAM, NC – Twelve days after Mike Elko skulked off to Texas A&M in the dead of the night and athletic director Nina King promised a national search to find an “exceptional” replacement, Duke finally has a new football coach.
It’s Penn State defensive coordinator Manny Diaz, who is best known to folks around the ACC as the former head coach at Miami.
The fact that it took so long for King to make the hire speaks to 1 of 2 conclusions. Either her search was incredibly intensive and it took time to vet the large number of candidates or the unique challenges presented by the job make it difficult to fill.
History suggests that it’s more likely to be the latter.
Not everyone with an impressive coaching resume wants to try to build and sustain a successful program at Duke given the academic and budgetary limitations that exist at the small, private school.
That King was fortunate enough to have hit it out of the park with Elko 2 years ago only added to the degree of difficulty this time around.
Only time will tell if she got it right again with Diaz.
I’m not necessarily a fan of the hire. Between the Temple fiasco in which he left the Owls high and dry by leaving for Miami only 2 weeks after he was hired, reports of fractured relationships with school administrators and his own players and numerous instances in which his team didn’t look prepared – including a 62-21 beatdown at the hands of North Carolina in 2020 – there are a lot of potential red flags.
And yet it’s easy to understand where King was going for by choosing him.
“He embodies Duke values of trust, respect, inclusiveness and excellence,” King said Saturday in introducing her new coach, adding that “he’s the perfect fit for Duke.”
Like Elko, Diaz’s background is defense. His unit with the Nittany Lions this season leads the nation in total defense, allowing an average of just 223.2 yards per game, and is 3rd among FBS programs in scoring defense at 11.4 points per game allowed.
As such, he’s more likely to build on the progress his predecessor made rather than tearing it all down to build it back with a radically different, more offensive-minded system.
At the age of 49, he’s at the point in his career in which there’s just as much chance of him viewing Duke as a destination job rather than using it as a stepping stone, the way Elko did.
He has experience, as a head coach at Miami from 2019-21 and in the ACC as a graduate assistant at his alma mater Florida State and as a position coach under Chuck Amato at NC State.
And while he was fired at Miami after only 3 seasons, one of which was the COVID-disrupted 2020 campaign, his dismissal was motivated more by the availability of his successor – Hurricanes alumnus Mario Cristobal – than his own failures.
“I thought we were building a strong culture,” he said. “It felt like we were on the way.”
He left Coral Gables with a 21-15 overall record (16-9 ACC). All 3 of his teams qualified for bowl games and none finished lower than 3rd in the conference. Even in 2021, the year he was dismissed, his team rallied from a 2-4 start to finish 7-5, with a 5-3 league record.
By that time, Miami’s most influential boosters were already passing around the hat to raise his buyout while school officials were actively negotiating with his successor.
That doesn’t absolve Diaz for some of the missteps that contributed to his firing.
Miami isn’t an easy job for anyone, let alone a 1st-time head coach, because of the expectations that go along with it. And Diaz clearly wasn’t ready to handle the assignment.
Perhaps that experience will make him better prepared this time around. It better have, because even though the expectations won’t be as high at Duke, he’ll be dealing with an even more difficult set of circumstances.
Especially when it comes to recruiting.
It’s an immediate task made all the more difficult by the 2-week lag between coaches. At least 7 starters from this year’s 7-win Birmingham Bowl team – including quarterback Riley Leonard, top rushers Jordan Waters and Jaquez Moore, run stopper Aenas Peebles and 2nd-leading tackler Jaylen Stinson – have all entered their names into the NCAA transfer portal.
One of the big reasons for Elko’s immediate success with the Blue Devils, beyond his coaching ability and motivational skill, was his ability to retain left behind by his predecessor David Cutcliffe. The clock is already ticking on Diaz to do the same with Elko’s players.
Replenishing the talent pool quickly isn’t just a luxury. It’s an absolute necessity for continuing the momentum that’s been building over the past 2 years for a program that has and always will play 2nd fiddle to its basketball team, both on the field and among its fans.
“We are not here to tear down what’s been done,” Diaz said. “But at the same time we’re not here to sustain what’s been done. The growth that’s happened during the past year, we’ve got to continue to build on that.”
As Duke knows only too well, things can go bad in a hurry. And when they do, the climb back up can take years – and multiple coaches – to complete.
It’s Diaz’s job to make sure that doesn’t happen. The odds are about 50-50 that he’ll succeed.
Even if he does, King might want to hang onto that list of candidates from her extensive national search. At Duke, you never know when you’re going to need to find the next “exceptional” replacement.
Win or lose.