CORAL GABLES, Fla. -- There's a story Patty Knap remembers about her son, Manny Diaz, from his childhood that still makes her smile. Diaz was just 5 or 6, and Knap hoped to enroll him in the gifted program at the prestigious Miami Country Day School. Before Diaz could be accepted, however, he needed to interview with a school psychologist.
"What do you want to be when you grow up," the psychologist asked him.
This was an easy question. The best days of Diaz's life were spent in the stands at the old Orange Bowl, watching Miami football or a Dolphins game. His father, Manny Sr., jokes that Diaz learned to read by consuming the sports pages of the local newspapers.
"A football player," Diaz quickly replied.
The psychologist frowned, shook her head and glared at Knap.
"Not good for the gray matter," she quipped.
No, Diaz was too smart to get beat up on a football field, she told them, so maybe coaching football instead.
"Or how about becoming a doctor?" she snapped back.
Truth is, Diaz probably could've been a doctor or a lawyer or a politician, like his dad. He even started his career in TV production for ESPN. But coaching, that sounded right.
And so the path began, first as a graduate assistant at Florida State, later with big jobs at Texas and Mississippi State. In those years, a lot changed. Diaz learned the ropes of coaching, endured his share of ups and downs. Miami -- the football program -- plummeted from annual championship contender to the back pages of those papers Diaz grew up reading. And the city, Diaz's hometown, faltered badly before Manny Sr. -- as mayor -- helped rebuild it.
It's funny how things come full circle sometimes, Knap said. Her son doesn't remember that school interview, but when he took the job as Miami's defensive coordinator last January, she teased him about the prediction anyway.
Diaz has never been in the prediction business. When he left home two decades ago, it was with the understanding that he might never return beyond the brief visits with family. But when Mark Richt called with a job offer, there was no hesitation.
Miami is home.
"When the opportunity came about, it was hard to find a reason not to take the job," Diaz said. "It may be the only time the train comes to the station and if that train takes off, it may never come back again."
After Diaz took the job, he called his dad. The call went something like this: "Hey dad, I need a place to crash."
Diaz's family was staying in Mississippi through the school year, but his new gig required him in Miami immediately. That usually means an extended hotel stay or a rented apartment, but for Diaz, it was a homecoming.
Funny thing is, Diaz had never really lived with his dad, at least not as far back as he could remember. His parents divorced when he was a kid, and while the divergent wings of the family remained close, Diaz still spent only alternating weekends with Manny Sr.
"Now, all of a sudden, your 40-something son returns home," Manny Sr. said.
As a kid, Diaz wasn't shaken by divorce. He looks back now and sees it as a luxury. His father's family instilled an understanding of the immigrant experience. His grandparents had fled Cuba during Fidel Castro's regime. His father had worked his way through law school to become a prominent attorney.
His mother worked, too. She raised the kids, did so much of the dirty work. And his stepfather, John Knap, and his father both proved to be a great influence. They'd moved from up north, started a new life in Miami, and they made it work.
Diaz sees one story or the other repeated again and again with the players he recruits, and he connects with all of them.
"It was all some form of the American dream," Diaz said. "They started over, but the idea was, in America, you could."
Still, this was a chance to reconnect. All those family ties had been frayed by years of coaching football, bouncing from town to town, job to job. Now he was home.
So each morning, the Diaz boys woke early. Manny Jr. brewed up a fruit smoothie and shared with his father -- "my way of trying to get my dad to eat some fruit." They talked family and sports and politics, just like the old days. Dad went for a walk. Son went for a run. They'd both return late at night, and they both gained a better perspective on how much work it took to be successful in their chosen fields.
The father is still the more famous Diaz in Miami, the son says.
The son has the tougher job, the dad says.
That's the funny thing about family. You grow up, and you gain a whole new perspective on something you'd always known so intimately.
Just a few weeks after Diaz returned to Miami, he was a guest at a family wedding -- a cousin on his mother's side -- that he never would've had a chance to attend at previous jobs. When Diaz entered the reception, it was a like a conquering hero returning from battle.
"Everyone was so thrilled," Diaz's mother said. "And of course, they're all Miami fans there."
That's not why Diaz is here though. It's nice to be recognized, fun to see the seeds of his work make an impact in his hometown. But it's the little moments, like when he sees his dad on the sideline at a Canes practice or when he sees his own son playing baseball on the fields at Country Day, where Diaz used to play. That's what makes this project worthwhile.
"It certainly makes for some good dad storytelling," Diaz said.
Diaz hates the idea of being a "rah-rah guy," as he calls it. It's fake, and he's anything but.
That's a concern this offseason. How do you take a defense that turned around so dramatically, that played so well, that's still so young -- how do you tell that group it needs to get better?
"It's like a dream. You pinch yourself. Who would have thought the little boy who was running around cheering for the Canes would grow up to do this?"Manny Diaz Sr.
A year ago, Diaz had five freshmen he planned to play in the front seven -- partly due to talent, partly necessity. He didn't give them any grand speeches about overcoming the odds. He just told them about Miami's history, about what it meant to play here, about the standard that was set. He told them it had nothing to do with scheme. It was all about energy and desire and physicality. Just play harder, he told his guys, and it worked.
Now, a year later, Diaz is hoping to instill something bigger without taking away that fundamental belief that effort wins the day. So he shows film. Here's a play. It was a fine play. It could've been better. How do we make it better? How do we get back to those old Miami days when everything was better?
"We try to make it real and tangible and prove it with statistics or show it to them on video," Diaz said. "When we came in and analyzed ourselves from a year ago, there's no doubt that we did well, but there are a lot of things we can get much, much better on. You can show players those plays and say, 'Forget about the results from a year ago. Look at all these plays we can do better.' And they see it. You can present it without acting like it's a Hollywood coaching speech."
Richt insists he liked Diaz when they first met, way back in 1998. Diaz was a graduate assistant. Richt was one of the most successful offensive play callers in the country. Diaz remembers it a little differently.
"I would've just been another guy," Diaz said.
Regardless, when Richt arrived at Miami, Diaz wasn't immediately on his radar. It was only after he starting giving the job some consideration that the picture became clear. Who was he looking for? A coach who could tell a story, sell recruits. A coach who understood scheme and could be innovative and thoughtful. A guy who meshed well with others and wanted to work with the best of the best. A guy who could preach fundamentals and turn a defense plagued by mistakes into one that looked like the Miami of old. The more Richt considered it, the more it all sounded like Manny Diaz.
And so it came to pass that Diaz came home, that he inherited a defense that was among the worst in the country on third down, at generating pressure, at stopping the run. And a year later, voila. Miami, with three freshmen linebackers and a freshman edge rusher and a group of under-appreciated defensive backs, turned into one of the most fundamentally sound units in the country.
Now, here they are. The Hurricanes' young defenders are the No. 1 reason the college football world is finally beginning to take Miami seriously again, why this -- after years and years and years of struggles -- feels like it could be the season things finally turn around.
"It's like a dream," Manny Sr. said. "You pinch yourself. Who would have thought the little boy who was running around cheering for the Canes would grow up to do this? It's incredible."
Maybe that's why Diaz can preach so authentically. He's not grandstanding. These aren't rah-rah speeches. It's just what he's always known of Miami football, what he wants his players to understand. It's bigger than them. It's about family and community and showing the rest of the world that South Florida is just better than anywhere else on the globe at churning out football talent.
"He's at a premier place in the country, a place he knows and loves," Richt said. "This job, it's different for him."
It was 1986, and Vinny Testaverde was the QB. That's Diaz's story. Everyone in Miami has one. He was at the old Orange Bowl with his dad. So was the rest of the city. When Florida State or Florida or even Notre Dame would come to town, they brought their fans with them. This game, against top-ranked Oklahoma, was different.
"It might have been the most Hurricane fans in the stadium at any one time," Diaz said.
A year earlier, Miami had turned the power structure of college football on its head, knocking off an undefeated Oklahoma team in Norman. Now, the Sooners were in South Florida, the two best teams in the country going head to head. Diaz was just a kid, but the significance of the moment was obvious. Testaverde threw four TDs. One that landed in the hands of Michael Irvin ended with a celebration among the crowd.
"The place was so electric, and the connection between the team and the fans," Diaz said, "It was just one of those days."
Diaz now tells the kids he's recruiting about that day. They don't know much about it. Most weren't born when Miami last made a serious run at a national title. But their parents remember. Their aunts and uncles and grandparents remember, too. Invariably, they'll interrupt Diaz's recollection with a story of their own, and before long, everyone in the room understands what's at stake.
"From a recruiting standpoint, it's the connection the university has with the city," Diaz said. "There's a pride in knowing that if they all go to the same school, you can beat anybody in the country.
For Diaz, the city and football and family and culture, it's all interwoven. And that's what he's selling now, and he wants the kids to understand the magnitude of it all the way he did that day in the stands of the old Orange Bowl
"Everybody gets to try on the jersey when they're getting recruited," Diaz said. "But do they really want everything that comes with wearing the jersey? It's a heavy jersey. There's a standard that's set, and it's your responsibility."
That's the thing about Miami, the thing Diaz understands and has embraced. There's history here, a big history. It's a history that, for the past decade-and-a-half has overwhelmed the program. But Diaz remembers better days, remembers what it feels like when things are really rolling.
It's cultural. It's family. It's Miami.
"The University of Miami was always our university. It carries the city's name," Manny Sr. said. "To have the city come back like it has over the past decade, and now it's his turn to bring back the Hurricanes. I did my job as mayor and now it's his turn."
A year ago, Diaz turned a moribund defense into a powerhouse. Now his story has helped corral the top-rated recruiting class in the country. The momentum is building. The tide has turned. The excitement is palpable. This is Miami as he remembers it. This is home.
"It's still, at its core, the same place," Diaz said. "It's grown up in a lot of different ways but the essence and the soul of Miami, it's still the same."