It was a humiliating end to what was a promising season for the Hurricanes. Miami was drummed to the tune of a 35-3 loss, with no positive momentum entering a long offseason. For former Hurricanes’ defensive coordinator Manny Diaz, it was a bitter end in what was supposed to be his final game in Orange and Green. Steadfast in his resolve to coach the Miami defense a final time, days after being introduced as the head coach at Temple University, the result didn’t mirror the level of production that he had instilled since his arrival in 2016. As he walked off the field at Yankee Stadium, suffering the second consecutive bowl loss at the hands of the Wisconsin Badgers, Diaz had to wonder if this was truly how his career at UM would conclude.
Nine months later, Diaz is the head coach of UM Football, tasked with making sure that outcomes similar to the Pinstripe Bowl become a footnote in his UM tenure. His responsibilities and obligations have grown ten-fold — glad-handing with boosters, fans and supporters wherever he goes, answering never-ending queries about the popularity of the Turnover Chain among his responses on how to return Hurricanes Football to the glory years of National Championships past. Diaz is in the midst of receiving a baptism by fire as the leader of the Canes. It’s a lesson that the man he’ll faceoff against on Saturday knows all too well.
For North Carolina head coach Mack Brown, the extracurriculars that come with the job are nothing new. Before spending the past five years in a TV studio watching college football on screens, Brown was one of the most respected coaches in the country. From his debut head coaching job with Appalachian State to his first stint as North Carolina’s head honcho, Brown displays the midas touch when it comes to improving the fortunes of programs under his watch. Well, the ‘Mack is back’ in 2019, returning to Chapel Hill to wrap up some unfinished business. Before embarking on a comeback tour this season, Mack Brown’s career was highlighted by his tenure as the head coach at the University of Texas from 1998 to 2013. From winning one of the most thrilling national championships in the sport’s history in the 2006 edition of the Rose Bow to dominating the recruiting trail, Brown had the Longhorns charging at the front of the pack in college football. Those early years in Austin, Texas, will be fondly remembered by the former boss. However, the decline of the Texas Longhorns serves as a stark reminder that all good runs have an expiration date.
Diaz’s tenure as the Hurricanes’ defensive coordinator went much better than his time serving in the same role under head coach Mack Brown in Austin, Texas.
The Hook ‘Em Era
Manny Diaz arrived at the University of Texas having forged a reputation as an up-and-coming defensive coordinator at Middle Tennessee and Mississippi State. The latter of the two jobs saw Miss St. stifle SEC powers such as Auburn and QB Cam Newton and Michigan and QB Denard Robinson. That penchant for taking away an offense’s best options continued upon his arrival at UT in 2011. SB Nation national college football writer Ian Boyd summarized the first year of Diaz’s term with the Longhorns as:
It was very, very successful. He was hailed as a wünderkind defensive coach. They were not good on offense that first year. They won seven games mostly by virtue of playing defense. And they beat Texas A&M in the final game between those two teams, thanks to shutting down Ryan Tannehill [Texas A&M QB] and getting four turnovers. They were top 10 in S&P+ in their first year.
The early reviews were positive, but in the world of college football, all that matters is what you’ve done lately.
All the goodwill that Mack Brown had built up over his time in Texas had grown thin with the bulk of the Longhorn support base. The 2012 season saw the Longhorns struggle on both offense as well as defense. “They had two senior linebackers, a senior nose tackle, and a senior free safety that had graduated,” Ian Boyd points out regarding the decline of the defense. The Longhorns finished 9-4, yet many were upset about the atmosphere within the program. UT ranked 90th in total defense with an average of 191.3 YPG in 2012 compared with their 7th best yard-per-game average (96.2) in 2011. Coordinators left, and the blame game seeped from outside the program to within the coaching staff as fingers started pointing to various explanations for the play of the defense.
Basically like when things start to go wrong, Mack was like ‘hey Manny, what’s happening? Why isn’t this working? Maybe you are blitzing too much and you’re giving things away. There was a lot of attempts at accountability without much actual understanding from Mack Brown to know what the issues were.
With the defense having lost many of it’s stars from the years past, Diaz was left to make the best of situation that was unravelling around him. Disagreements between the staff and the strength and conditioning program surfaced. UT was looking for answers, but a solution to their woes didn’t surface. The lack of quick fix put Coach Diaz in a vulnerable position.
The Longhorn head coach wasn’t about to wait too long to see if Diaz would be able to turn the program’s fortunes around entering the 2013 season. Texas would announce the hire of Greg Robinson — a good friend of Brown and former co-defensive coordinator at Texas in 2004. Bringing in Robinson as a member of the player personnel department fueled the notion that Diaz was on a short leash. Ian sums up the situation pointing out that, “Everybody was speculating that if 2013 doesn’t start off very well is he just going to pull Diaz out and put Greg Robinson in charge. And that’s exactly what happened.” The catalyst to Diaz’s demise occurred after Texas surrendered a record 550 rushing yards — 259 of those yards to QB Taysom Hill. Following the game, Diaz was marched to the guillotine, replaced by Robinson for the remainder of the 2013 season. Mack Brown announced his resignation after the Horns went 8-5, capped by a 30-7 blowout at the hands of Oregon in the Alamo Bowl.
This Ain’t Texas Anymore
Almost six years later, Manny and Mack will walk to the middle of the field during pre-game warm up, shake hands and share a couple of words before the Miami Hurricanes and North Carolina Tar Heels do battle at Kenan Memorial Stadium. The September 7th matchup pits two men familiar with one another in a contest that is fueled by redemption… for both sides.
Mack Brown was the legendary coach of THE most illustrious program in a football-hungry state. As head coach of the Texas Longhorns, Brown amassed a 134-34 record overseeing the program. Under his watch, UT won two Big 12 titles and of course the 2006 Rose Bowl which still lives on as one of the best college football games in the history of the sport. However, the end of the Mack Brown era at Texas is a moment in time that fans of the Burnt Orange would like to remain buried.
I posed this question to SB Nation’s Ian Boyd, who had this to say about the downfall of Mack Brown. “He kind of lost his vision at Texas and started dabbling in things. Like trying to be a power-run game and defense kind of team. Once he went down that track it started to go south.” Finger-pointing and playing the blame game became all-too-common for the Longhorns. Just two seasons after playing Alabama for the 2008 National Championship, the program found itself at a crossroads.
Neither coach is living in the past, choosing instead to move forward from their time in Austin. Yet, the lessons from their time in Burnt Orange remains with each as they try to establish a winning culture. “I think one of [Diaz’s] big takeaways was that if I’m in a position like that, everything is pointed in the same direction or else all of our extra resources are going to work against us,” Boyd said of Diaz’s direction as he embarks on his first season as head coach of the Hurricanes. Applying that logic, it makes sense why a day after being named Miami’s coach, Diaz gutted the entire offensive staff and placed his trust in Dan Enos to be his solution for the Canes on offense.
Driving Down Redemption Road
The landscape for both programs are vastly different after falling flat in 2018. The Hurricanes were riding high, before skidding their way into the offseason, dropping five of their last seven games to close out 2018. In Chapel Hill, the Tar Heels were decimated by injuries. Tasked with charging a young roster to carry the load for them throughout the season, the program struggled to find any sort of footing that season. After the Heels missed out on a bowl game for a second consecutive year, Larry Fedora was promptly relieved of duty.
Given Fedora’s tenure at UNC, the school opted to go with a familiar name rather than that of a young up-and-comer. Brown, who served as UNC head coach from 1988 to 1997 before leaving for UT, helped transform the Heels from laughing stock to contenders in the ACC during the early nineties. When asked at ACC Media Day about why he wanted to make his return to college football after spending five seasons in the ABC Studios as an analyst on ESPN College Football, Brown responded by saying this:
Walking out of the building at North Carolina in August of last year (2018), Sally [Mack’s wife] said there’s two things you better not tell a kid as a coach. Number one you better not tell a kid something as a coach unless you mean it, because he’s gonna remember it. And number two there’s a void in your life and you love mentoring young people and you can’t do that right now on TV. I understand that now. And it’s such a blessing for us. I hated to see Larry [Fedora] go, but when Bubba [UNC AD Lawarence Cunningham] called us and asked us to come [...] it was the only place I had permission to coach number one. It’s a place that we love, we have unfinished business, we’re really excited to go back and we’ve had a wonderful eight months.
— Mack Brown (2019 ACC Media Day)
From 1992 to 1997, the Heels would make six consecutive bowl games after struggling to post a .500 record in a given season. With so much success, it wasn’t a surprise that other programs wanted to poach Brown to revitalize their programs as well.
If you ask Hurricanes fans, Manny Diaz has already pumped plenty of life into the program since his hire on December 30th of last year. Under the umbrella of his “The New Miami” (or #TNM), the Hurricanes have generated plenty of buzz. The program has enjoyed triumphs on the recruiting trail, transformed the roster into a viable conference contender and performed a complete overhaul on the offensive side of the ball after an underwhelming 2018 output — not to mention the drastic changes being made by David Feeley and UM’s nutrition program. While those victories and changes are great, many want to see if they translate to real results in those key games.
At ACC Media Days, Diaz echoed a similar mantra that he’s been touting since his brief departure to Temple:
We have to stop being known as a team that has talented guys. Cause sitting around and talking about how talented we are doesn’t win us any games. We gotta go back to being a bunch of hard working guys. This is not my opinion, this is how Miami won in the past. All the greats that own the program, have told us how you win at Miami. You win at recruiting your footprint and then outworking everyone else.
The battle between mentor and protege see both Miami and North Carolina working towards capturing the ACC Coastal crown. No Coastal team has won the ACC Championship since Virginia Tech defeated Florida State in 2010. For the Hurricanes, the next ACC Championship would be the program’s first. A conference championship would end a title drought that dates back to 1980 for the Tar Heels. For the coaches, winning a championship would serve as the exclamation to their campaign to cultivate a winning culture.
That new car smell always fades away — even if you buy it in a bottle. Mack Brown knows this too well, having amassed an impressive resume before working as an analyst in his four-year absence from the game. If this is the final stop in his illustrious career, there’s no reason why Brown wouldn’t want to turn the fortunes of North Carolina around for a second time.
We know that Manny Diaz is one of the best defensive coordinators in the country. However, who will he be now that he’s at the front of the tunnel running out with the team? The cameras linger a bit longer on his sideline cameos. Each sentence and statement is dissected and scrutinized more than any time in his past. It’s been so far so good for Diaz, with his offseason success and one game into ‘The New Miami’ era. With renewed vigor on the recruiting trail, emphasizing competition throughout the roster, many are welcoming the culture reset within the program.
Whether Diaz is able to fulfill the dreams of Canes fans remains to be seen. For now, he has program faithful enamored with promise.
Turning Potential into Reality
Brown and Diaz won’t be the only two parties that will have a bit of history entering this context, either. As you may know, Ephraim Banda also served on Brown’s Texas staff as a graduate assistant at the beginning of the 2013 season. While Diaz and Banda created a rapport, Diaz was sacrificed as the problems mounted within UT. In an interview with ESPN staff writer Andrea Adelson, Banda outlined the difficulties in the final year with Mack Brown. “The last Mack Brown year was tough,” Banda said. “It was hard fighting through that and not having coach [Diaz] there was hard for me. There were a lot of long nights and some struggles.” Banda is now the co-defensive coordinator and safeties coach for the Hurricanes.
Stacy Searles has served as an offensive line coach for Miami (2016-2018), Texas (2011-13) and now North Carolina. The offensive line coach received blame for the Hurricanes’ struggles along the offensive line during his tenure. It would be a significant measure of revenge for the former coach if Tar Heels came away with the win, who was among those fired by Diaz.
I doubt that revenge will play a factor in Saturday’s tilt. The new Miami boss is too smart and measured to let a personal vendetta distract from the team’s mission. Not to mention a group of 18-20 year olds — who were way too young to even know or care — just want to get on the field and win their conference opener. Fighting against ghosts of Texan days past won’t take priority.
For each program, it’s about shaping the identity of their future. “We’re not what we were when we left off the field in New York. What team we are, I’m not really sure yet. Our focus is to learn how to be a team defined by our toughness and our level of competition. Which is really, what the University of Miami has always been founded on.”
IT’S ALWAYS ABOUT THE U!