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The Embattled Coach’s Playbook

When things get tough, this is how a struggling coach can save his job. At least for a little while.

Virginia Tech v Miami Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

So, this is the piece that I was gonna write last year about Mark Richt (and previously about Al Golden) but he retired (and Golden was fired) before I had the chance to do so.

And yes, I said I was gonna do it after the early signing period (because DEAR LORD I have a metric ton of content for that to be working on), but the situation has continued to deteriorate to the point where I wrote that Manny Diaz is on the hot seat NOW, so this piece got moved up to RIGHT NOW.

In an earlier piece this season, I embedded this video. And I’m doing it again. Because it fits, and it’s part of the forthcoming conversation.

Throughout the nearly year-long duration of Diaz’s tenure at Miami, he’s done a good job of referencing “the first letter”, placing blame (even implicitly) on last year’s staff, the way things were, the nebulous “culture” he’s trying to cure to move forward. That’s the good and smart play.

But now instead of talking about what needs fixing, it’s time to ACTUALLY FIX IT! Or, Diaz is gonna be a on a quick trip back to his office to write that “second letter” and pack his stuff.

Now, I said that I thought about writing this piece (or similar) in each of the last 2 coaching regimes, and that’s true. This isn’t specific to Miami. This is just about the way the coaching industry works, and how a coach, with good sense and an enterprising spirit, can do things to both fix what’s broken and save his job in the process. And, for comparison’s sake, I’ll go down what both Golden and Richt should have done at every step of the playbook as well.

Play 1: Own The Failures

This seems small, but this is key. Every coach has to admit that something is wrong. If it’s going wrong — you’re giving up 600 yards to the opposition, you’re losing games, etc — that will be clear to everyone, both inside and outside of the program. But the first play in the playbook is honestly, openly admitting that. Yes, that means statements like “it starts with me”, or “we’re not where we need to be, but we’ll get it fixed” are par for the course.

But you HAVE TO go in front of people — at press conferences, on your weekly radio show, meet and greet events — and own the fact that the performance isn’t good enough. Again, this is key. You can’t hide or be silent when your team is failing in public.

Golden stuck to the “it starts with me” and “trust the process” party lines.

Richt made similar statements.

Diaz, to his credit, is saying the right things when they need to be said. But he’ll need to do what needs to be done to right the ship and keep his job.

Play 2: Fire assistant coach(es) and change scheme

Here is where things get tough. But it’s entirely necessary. In the first play, the coach admitted that things aren’t going the right way. With the definition of insanity being “doing the same thing repeatedly but expecting different results”, things need to change, and that will likely, understandably, include changing an assistant coach or 3.

Why is this tough? Because generally people hire their friends, or people they’re at least friendly with. So, there’s a built in relationship that you’re going against to fire them and bring in a different person for that coaching assignment. It’s never easy to fire your friends, but nobody ever said being a CFB head coach was easy.

For Golden, this was clear: his absolute refusal to fire defensive coordinator Mark D’Onofrio was his ultimate undoing. Under D’Onofrio’s direction, Miami’s defense allowed 400+ yards on 22 times, 500+ yards 11 times, and 600+ yards once.

While giving up yards is bad, giving up points is worse. D’Onofrio’s defense did that too. Miami allowed 30+ points 15 times, 40+ points 7 times, and 50+ times twice, including the 58-0 shellacking at the hands of Clemson in 2015 that cost Al Golden his job.

For Richt, it was his refusal was more variegated than Golden’s, which was a single-source issue. Richt needed to relinquish play calling duties, fire his son Jon from the QB coach role, likely fire Thomas Browns as OC/RB coach, and fire Stacy Searels from the OL coach role in the pursuit of an updated, spread offensive scheme.

Most OCs double as QB coaches, and Jon was woefully unqualified for his job, so that’s why that move would have been needed. The OC in name only, Brown never had playcalling duties before, and likely wouldn’t have been granted such a responsibility. And, he probably wouldn’t have taken a direct demotion here, so he would have had to go. And Miami’s offensive line was just flat out bad in terms of recruiting, player development, and performance and that’s why Searels needed to go, too.

For whatever reason, Richt didn’t have the passion for the game any longer after coaching 30+ years to do what needed to be done — and make no mistake about it: it ALL needed to be done — and he retired abruptly last December. But, the path to changing things was clear.

For Diaz, the situation is similar to Richt. Miami’s offense was pedestrian under the previous staff, but it’s stuck in mud and immobile now. Diaz was quick to distance himself and the performance of the defense under the Richt regime (Diaz was DC then for those who may not know that) and fired the entire offensive staff with one fell swoop. Funny thing happened though: Miami’s offense got WORSE this year.

So, if the offense was so bad that it necessitated firing the entire offensive staff last year — a move I did not agree with because there were a couple good coaches and recruiters I would have kept on that side of the ball — then how can you keep this year’s staff intact when the record and statistics are WORSE now than they were when you made a show of firing everyone?

I’ve said it for years and I ‘m saying it again: Miami needs to move to a spread offense. Pace and space. Nearly every HSFB program in South Florida — Miami’s main recruiting base — plays in a spread. And, moreover, the talent on the Hurricanes’ roster is perfectly suited to such a system. Miami has some of the best skill position talent of any team in the country. So, instead of going slow, and running tons of slow-developing play action passes, how about we get them in space and let them make plays?

For Diaz, that means doing now what Richt failed to do last year: firing his offensive coordinator and bringing in someone who will run a true spread scheme. And there are many versions of spread, so those of you thinking this means “throw 70 times a game” are mistaken. There are plenty of “spread-to-run” systems which use the space created by spreading receivers out to run for big yards while also throwing effectively.

The thing for Diaz is this: does he have the foresight to cut bait on his preferred offensive system and make the necessary change after only a year? This is his first ever head coaching job, so maybe he’ll be a little stubborn and try to wait it out so his ideal system works. But, with a season of proven offensive ineptitude already in the books, he may not have time to continue the experiment with Dan Enos and the pro-style offense for another year.

Play 3: Show improved performance with the new scheme and WIN

I’ll keep this quick: you can’t make change for change’s sake. You have to make change to upgrade the previously-lacking performance. And with that upgrade, you should, ideally, start winning the games that you were previously losing.

Golden never fired D’Onofrio and never changed the defensive scheme so he lost his job.

Richt never fired the multiple offensive coaches he needed to let go and instead of digging in to make the necessary changes, he retired.

For Diaz, he need only look to LSU. Ed Orgeron’s group was good but not great, a dominant defense with a middling offense stacked with skill talent but not doing much with it. So what’d he do? Completely overhaul the offense, brought in Joe Brady from the New Orleans Saints as passing game coordinator and now has arguably the most explosive offense in the country. With a still-stellar defense, the Tigers are ranked #1 in the country heading into the SEC championship game.

This step is obviously dependent on the previous one, and if Diaz refuses to make any of the staff or scheme changes, then his job is on the line like Golden’s was. It’s incumbent upon him to make the necessary changes to fix the problems that are readily apparent with this team. And, ultimately, Diaz will be judged on his ability to WIN GAMES. And, to this point, the way in which he’s endeavored to have the Canes do that has failed.

So things have to change. Clearly.

Play 4: Continued prosperity

So you’ve already acknowledged and owned the issues facing your team. You’ve already made the necessary staff and scheme changes to take advantage of the strengths of the roster. And, you’ve started winning.

Now, you prosper.

Keep winning. Keep recruiting to a high level. Keep continually evaluating the process. Replace assistants when they leave for new jobs (a necessary evil when you win). And you keep things rolling.

Golden and Richt refused to make the necessary changes in plays 2 and 3 to get here, so there’s no comparison from a Miami coach. But there are plenty of examples elsewhere. LSU. Oklahoma. Georgia (now, not under Richt). Oregon.

But, before you get to the good times, you have to go through the tough work of plays 2 and 3. And make no mistake about it, that’s tough work. But that’s why they pay you the big bucks.

In general, a coach will buy themselves between 1-3 years of time when they enact play 2 and begin down the path of play 3. Obviously the amount of winning necessary to keep the heat off varies per school/coaching job, but admitting things weren’t going right and taking big, public moves to fix things is huge.

And that’s not to be overlooked: you have to make some moves in public. Your team is losing games in public, on television for everyone to see. So some of the moves you make, changing scheme, firing failing coaches, has to be public as well.

Yes, the WORK will then be done behind closed doors. But making the changes listed above are to be done, or announced, in public as a show to everyone that there are real, tangible changes being made to fix what obviously ails a given team and program.

So there you have it. The 4 play playbook for an embattled coach to save his job.

Manny Diaz is good on play 1 already. Now we’ll see if he’ll call the other plays needed, or if he’ll double down on a staff and offensive scheme that isn’t working and hasn’t worked and doesn’t utilize his players to their full potential.

Go Canes