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To know Diaz, know his father

John Rivera/Icon SMI

The story of how Manny Diaz got to this point is well known.

From ESPN production assistant to graduate assistant stops at Florida State and N.C. State; from full-time coach with the Wolfpack to defensive coordinator jobs at Middle Tennessee State and Mississippi State, to his arrival as defensive coordinator at Texas.

But to really understand Diaz, you must first know his father, Manny Sr.

For some, the younger Diaz is still known as the son of the former two-term Miami mayor. But don't misinterpret it; neither Diaz was handed anything in life.

Manny Sr. emigrated from Cuba in 1961. He was a 19-year-old undergraduate at Florida International who had nothing when his son was born.

"But he didn't see me struggle," Diaz Sr. said.

The elder Diaz cared most about raising his son with the same work ethic, thirst for knowledge and willingness to sacrifice that he had.

Let it roll
Diaz Sr. still remembers his reaction when his son told him he was quitting his job to chase his dream.

"What? Coaching? Where did that come from?"

The younger Diaz's heart wasn't in the TV business. He wanted to be a coach. And while his father was quick to remind him of the opportunity he was leaving, there was no arguing with his son's desire to chase his dream.

"I can respect that his conclusion was based on a well-thought-out approach," Diaz Sr. said. "It made him happy."

Chuck Amato, the linebackers coach at Florida State at the time, gave Diaz a shot. But Amato had other ideas about testing Diaz's desire to break in to the coaching business.

"He couldn't have been any further down in the program," Amato said. "We needed to see how hungry you are, how hard you work and see if you do it right. And I tell you what, he was sharp from the first minute."

For Diaz, stuffing envelopes and picking up recruits for Amato and legendary defensive coordinator Mickey Andrews was preferable to his day job at the State of Florida's Child Support division.

But he did what he had to do. His wife Stephanie was expecting their first child.

It was that work ethic that made Andrews and Amato take a liking to the new guy in the office.

And there was another reason: Diaz listened.

"When I came there, I was a clean sheet of paper," Diaz said of his start at FSU. "I think that was part of my strength. I had no preconceived notion. No one needed to go into Florida State and tell them how to do anything."

There was his father's influence again. Diaz Sr. wanted him to be engaged in what he was doing and to be relentlessly curious.

For that, Amato turned to an old Joe Paterno adage: "You want to learn football? Turn on that film projector and let it roll."

Diaz loved the opportunities to cut up film as a graduate assistant. He did it with an intense attention to detail.

"He's a deep thinker and very analytical," Diaz Sr. said. "He's always in his mind, always looking for that new angle, that new defense, that new twist. Intellectually, that excites him a lot … The challenge really got him charged up."

Comfort and confidence
Florida State was 34-3 and played for two national titles in the three years Diaz was a graduate assistant there.

"It was every fan's dream just to be a fly on the wall in that room and be in some of the games we got to play in," Diaz said. "I didn't get sick and tired of playing in those national championship games."

But complacency wouldn't get him anywhere. To really be a coach, he had to leave Tallahassee.

When Amato left Florida State to become the head coach at N.C. State, he took Diaz with him.

Amato's faith and Diaz's five years of sacrificing time and money for football were finally paying off.

Diaz picked up more duties in his four years as an assistant, eventually coaching safeties and special teams and calling plays on defense. He thrived on the recruiting trail. He connected with his defenders and got them to play football the right way.

But it was facing failure that really taught Diaz how to coach.

Middle Tennessee State coach Rick Stockstill made the 31-year-old Diaz his defensive coordinator in 2006. For the first time, Diaz would mold his own defense.

"In some respects, he was still learning the profession and getting comfortable with his defense and what he wanted to do," Stockstill said. "You learned every day. As young as he was when he got this opportunity, I thought he did a good job of calling the game and making adjustments during the course of a game. But you only learn that by doing it."

In Diaz's second season, Middle Tennessee State won just five games and gave up 415 yards a game, nearly 90 more than the previous season. The setback season came with its fair share of beatdowns -- a top-10 Louisville squad put up 58 points and 723 yards against the Blue Raiders, followed by a 44-0 loss to LSU a week later.

Apparently, what Diaz was learning was how to take a beating. But he never called his dad to complain, and never wondered whether it was worth it. Amato taught him well enough for Diaz to know it was part of the process.

"He stuck with it," Amato said. "He's persistent, and he's really, really smart."

Diaz knew to be persistent with his players as well, and teach them to be accountable, as his father had taught him.

"Manny wants people to perform to their maximum potential and then some," Diaz Sr. said. "If they're not -- if they're lazy or pompous or aloof or don't care -- that's probably the one thing that gets to him more than anything."

'Can you do it?'
Maximizing potential and relentless energy have become themes of the Manny Diaz defensive game plan.

Stockstill likens the scheme to a spread attack on offense, in that opponents never know who's going to make a play. It attacks, it pressures and it plays with a fast tempo. Diaz's defense doesn't adjust to offenses. Opponents adjust to him.

"It has the appearance of a very sophisticated, hard-to-learn defense," Stockstill said. "There's constant movement and constant people coming from different directions and disguises. The perception when you look at it might be, 'Man, how do they get everything taught?' But it's not like that. It's a very player-friendly defense."

To Diaz, the scheme is simpler than that.

"You want to have a mentality as a team that they do not want to play you," he said. "I hope now when teams get done playing us, regardless of what is on the scoreboard, that they feel they do not want to play us again for 365 days."

When Diaz left MTSU in 2010 to become the co-defensive coordinator at Mississippi State, he had eight months to install the defensive scheme he'd worked on throughout his career. The Bulldogs gave up seven fewer points per game, recovered 15 of the 18 fumbles they forced and won four more games, including a 52-14 thrashing of Michigan in the Gator Bowl.

How did he do it? What was his secret? It was simple, really. Diaz's players realized how good they could be.

The improbable successes Diaz enjoyed in only his first season in the SEC surprised even his father.

"Sometimes we'd talk during the week and he'd say things like, 'I think I've got this defense set up to stop Cam Newton,' " Diaz Sr. said. "And I'm going, 'Yeah, great, but can you really do it?' "

Mississippi State held the prolific Heisman Trophy winner to a season-low 206 yards of total offense. Against every other opponent, Newton averaged 317 yards. Diaz made the same prediction about the Wolverines' Denard Robinson to his father before the Gator Bowl, and Robinson ran for a season-low 59 yards.

Now Diaz will face new challenges at Texas. A fifth-place finish might have been impressive in the SEC West, but it won't be celebrated in the Big 12.

Diaz has confidently said the right things in the months leading up to his burnt orange debut. He said his defense will create turnovers, stop the run and play angry. He said they're going to win.

And, what if they don't? What if Diaz's great backstory, and the coaches he has learned from and the defenses he has built haven't prepared him for the bright lights at Texas?

"How do you say when you're ready?" Amato said. "Has there ever been a president who's been ready? Manny believes in himself. He's a very confident individual."

His father taught him that.

Max Olson is a freelance writer.