Head football coaches learn a lot from their first year in command of their program. I felt it took three and a half years for me to really be ready for the job. It’s a job that you do have to learn while performing the duties, much like a first time CEO or U.S. President. It’s hard to know what you’re in for without serving in the role first.
My lessons from my first year coaching were how important the three main arms of the program really were going to be to my success or failure: administration, community, parents. In the college football world that’s probably the same formula for success. A head coach needs an administration that will support them both in the media and with resources. A head coach needs a community of boosters, fans and media to give them the time to find success. And a head coach needs the parents, in this case of recruits, to buy in and be a positive influence on social media and around the program.
After year two I really learned the lessons of character being greater than talent, of the true meaning of discipline, and the importance of leadership in the locker room. Here is a look into the lessons that I hope Manny Diaz has learned since being named the head football coach at the University of Miami.
“Talent sets the floor, character sets the ceiling”
Through the 2019 off-season, Manny Diaz ignored Bill Belichick’s quote that, “Talent sets the floor, character sets the ceiling.” It was a true trial-and-error in establishing a positive locker room. Rumors floated throughout the season about the lack of discipline from players during games, practices, and in their personal lives.
Diaz’s first few decisions were a series of Second Chance U (sic) players like Jeff Thomas, Trevon Hill and even Jarren Williams. Thomas had to be suspended again, rumors floated about Hill’s attitude in the locker room and Williams skipped practices and is back in the transfer portal. All the while the ‘Canes went 6-7.
Wins Above Replacement, or WAR, became a famous saying via the sabermetrics folks in baseball. In 2013, my offensive coordinator and I decided that moving forward we too would use WAR to determine if an academic or discipline issue was going to create enough wins to be worth the headaches. Thomas, for instance, scored three touchdowns and his dropped catch and muffed punt return were detrimental aspects of the loss to the Florida Gators. Two of his three touchdowns came in a loss so his WAR was extremely limited.
Hill, a defensive end transfer from Virginia Tech who was kicked off the Hokies team, is another case for character. Hill only had a sack in two of Miami’s six wins (Central Michigan, Florida State). Jarren Williams is another story. Williams lacks maturity but without him behind center Miami is relying on freshmen, Tate Martell who was on and off the practice field, and N’Kosi Perry.
The 2020 recruiting and portal season showed Diaz using more patience and deliberation about who comes into the Miami locker room. Diaz focused harder on guys that wanted to be Hurricanes and some of the cancers that were brought in left for other locker rooms. Diaz also transferred in graduates who have solid reputations like D’Eriq King and Quincy Roche. King and Roche are guys where their amazing talent just sets the floor, but their high character sets the ceiling for Miami’s 2020 campaign.
Discipline is more than punishments
Character education lessons are only as effective as the character the head football coach displays. The same goes for discipline. Discipline in a locker room is far more than punishments. Discipline starts with the head coach and flows downhill to the coordinators, assistants, staff, and players. Hell, it starts in the offices of the administration, too.
There’s something to be said for a little mutual suffering bonding football players together, but mental toughness isn’t being able to jog out some 110’s or 300’s. Mental toughness is doing the right thing even when it’s hard. So what creates mental toughness? Discipline. What does discipline look like? It looks like setting program Standards of Performance (Bill Walsh’ism, read his book The Score Takes Care of Itself) and holding everyone accountable, including yourself as the head coach.
Recruiting departments have to scour over academic and discipline records of students and know what they’re looking for in order to ensure they’re getting a high character player that won’t drag down the locker room. But the coach also has to set the line and own the line along with his staff and roster. Head coaches can’t be late, leave early, be distracted or fail to be completely committed or their program will mirror their personality.
Do players need to be disciplined? Sure. If they violate team rules and Standards of Performance then yes, discipline. Do sprints work to discipline players? No. If an ACC football player can’t run a few stadiums or gassers then you need to fire your strength and conditioning staff. The quickest way to get to a player is to take away they thing they covet the most- playing time. It’s time to lose one game now in order to win 10 more later.
Locker room leadership
How did Dabo Swinney and Clemson create their powerhouse program? By passing on some of the more talented players for players they knew fit their program culture. Once a head coach has 70 or 80 players in the program that they can trust in the locker room, only then can a head coach start to bring in a risk or two. At that point, the head coach will assume the locker room culture will take care of that player either in forcing them to adapt or to transfer out. It’s not unlike The Patriot Way.
A head coach can build locker room leadership through acquisition, development and deployment. The head coach must recruit and sign high character student-athletes, develop their leadership skills, and deploy the best of the best as their leadership council and captains. One of the leadership programs out there to choose from is The Program (click here to buy the book). No, don’t picture Lattimer spitting into Mack’s mouth, instead picture our U.S. Marines leading in combat to protect our freedoms.
The Program is being utilized in college football programs all over the country, including at ACC programs like NC State and Georgia Tech. I firmly believe in the 10-80-10 Principle of a locker room. If the coaching staff sits down in the off-season and the Bell Curve of character isn’t present, meaning more than 10% of the program is resistant, a head coach’s career won’t be long for that role.
Again, leadership isn’t a ‘code red’ on the resistant- it’s convincing them to buy in and progress up the curve into being compliant, and for the compliant to progress up the curve to being the elite; and it’s the head coach’s job to facilitate this progress. I belive in this system both the locker room and the classroom. Without establishing a purpose students and student-athletes will be more inclined to flounder and walk aimlessly through life or a football career.
The kickoff of the Manny Diaz Era in 2019 was a yacht, a keg party, and a massive influx of both questionable characters and worthy signees (K.J. Osborne) through the transfer portal. The lessons learned there were rooted in character, discipline and leadership. Hurricanes fans can hope that what they have seen in 2020 is a sign that Diaz learned from his year one mistakes.
In 2020, Diaz has toned down the hype machine and WWE-like antics, while being more discerning in the portal. Sure Miami is still bringing talent in, but it’s high character talent like King and Roche. Diaz has also removed his stubborn assistant coaches for an Adapt or Die type in Rhett Lashlee who is looking to get back on top of the world.
Lashlee and King are hungry to prove they belong in the Power 5. Diaz is hungry to prove he was the right hire for The U. The new assistant coaches are much more in line to a spread, high tempo, modern offense. Here’s to hoping for a much improved 2020. But fans will continue to see disappointing seasons unless Diaz has learned character, real discipline, and leadership are the core of any great football program.