The Return of Swag at the U

Manny Diaz is bringing the old attitude back to Miami with help from the transfer portal, the Turnover Chain and social media
photo of Michael  WeinrebMichael Weinreb@michaelweinrebFeatured ContributorMIAMIAugust 22, 2019

In his left hand, Manny Diaz clutches a comically massive Cuban-link chain necklace. In his right, he clings to another comically massive Cuban-link chain necklace. A local newspaper photographer's shutter snaps, again and again and again, until a relieved Diaz lays all that gold—roughly 13 pounds of gaudy South Florida bling, with green and gold sapphire pendants at the ends of each—on a table.

There's something about the pose that almost veers into self-parody, and Diaz, the 45-year-old first-year head coach of the Miami Hurricanes, is utterly aware of that. As he hurries down a hallway inside Miami's expanding football complex—past several lighted photos of a who's who of Hurricane alumni, from Ed Reed to Michael Irvin to Warren Sapp—he admits it still feels weird to be posing with these flamboyant creations of his, known as the Turnover Chains. It's not exactly his style, but it's part of a narrative, and there may be no coach who's more understanding of the power of a good story than Diaz.

Before the 2017 season, when he was the defensive coordinator at Miami under former coach Mark Richt, Diaz devised the idea for a Turnover Chain. He had one created with the assistance of a local jeweler—and the advising of former Miami nose tackle Vince Wilfork, who just happened to be in the store when the call came in from one of Diaz's defensive assistants. Maybe a rope-chain, the assistant said.

"Naw, man," Wilfork said. "We gotta do the Cuban link."

Wilfork understood the chain had to be over the top, a reflection of South Florida's Tony Montana-esque penchant for extravagance. It was meant to serve as a public reward for players who forced a fumble or interception on defense, but it was also an homage to the swaggering ethos of both this football program and this city. After it became the biggest off-field hit in college football in 2017, a new one was designed for the 2018 season.

Diaz insists he never imagined the Turnover Chain would immediately become such a glaring symbol, the most recognizable marketing tool for a program that is a generation removed from its heyday in the 1980s and 1990s. But at the same time, he understands the power of symbols, particularly in a day-glo city such as Miami, which has long embraced sweeping gestures and big personalities. Diaz's cheeky Twitter account reflects that, as did his grand entrance to Miami's spring tour with boosters on a $7 million yacht. "It gives you an avenue," Diaz says of social media, "where you can create and control narratives."

Manny Diaz @Coach_MannyDiaz

Congrats to @travishomer4 for joining the #ChainGang ⛓📙__📗⛓ #WellDeserved #Turnovers=Wins https://t.co/cxfiDcyFao

In terms of narratives, it's possible that no coach in Miami history has ever been tied in so deeply to the melting-pot image of this city as Diaz is. Not only did he grow up there as the grandson of a Cuban immigrant, but his father, Manny Diaz Sr., was an attorney who served as the mayor of Miami from 2001 until 2009.

Just as it is in politics, Manny Diaz Jr. knows that imagery is part of the process of coaching here. It's part of what he recently called "creating value" around the program. People expect a certain attitude to emanate from the Miami sideline, the way it did when the Hurricanes were regularly winning national championships and displaying the kind of swagger that prefigured the social media era. And the question surrounding the program since its last national championship in 2001 has been the same pretty much every year: When will Miami get that level of swagger back?

Alan Diaz/Associated Press

The answer to that question, for Diaz, begins by recapturing the pulse of the city itself.

"Miami is just a very unique place," Diaz says. "It's a place where people want to come visit so they can dance in the clubs and go to the beaches and listen to the music. And there's a specific way to win here that fits in well with the identity of this community. The way that those Miami teams played fit in exactly with the culture of this town."

It hasn't been easy to find a coach who could re-create that success at Miami. Three head coaches have passed through the university's palm-tree-lined Coral Gables campus since Larry Coker, the last one to win a national title, was fired in 2006. Two of them—Richt and Randy Shannon—were former Miami players who had moderate success (including an Orange Bowl bid for Richt in 2017) but never fully recaptured the bombast of the glory days. The other, Al Golden, was a Penn State graduate who tried to turn Miami into something more vanilla and wound up being disliked by his own alumni base.

Diaz is neither of those things. He didn't play college football at Miami; in fact, he didn't play college football at all. After growing up reading the local sports pages in Miami, he studied journalism at Florida State and got a job as a production assistant at ESPN for several years before taking an entry-level job under FSU defensive coordinator Mickey Andrews. His insight and intelligence allowed him to slowly work his way up the ladder, moving from NC State to Middle Tennessee State to Mississippi State.

Eventually, after a high-profile failure as defensive coordinator at Texas (he was fired following a disastrous game against BYU in 2013) and a successful stint as the defensive coordinator at Mississippi State, Diaz wound up back in his hometown. And after briefly taking the job as Temple's head coach following last season, he returned to Miami 18 days later, when Richt suddenly announced his retirement.

Diaz's unconventional path makes him the perfect coach for a program that doesn't fit into any of college football's typical boxes. This is a private university in a major city, two things that are each rare in the upper echelons of the sport. In fact, Miami's program was essentially an afterthought until the 1980s, when coach Howard Schnellenberger elbowed his way into the sport's elite by recruiting local talent, much of it from the city's hardscrabble neighborhoods. It's almost as if the Hurricanes became an extension of Miami's ego as it blossomed into a major American city. And Diaz saw it all unfold firsthand, which is why he's so cognizant of the program's image.

"He brings an awareness of this city that's like no other person I've been around," says Miami cornerbacks coach Mike Rumph, a South Florida native who played on Miami's last national championship team. "He knows what the city is going to react to and what they respect the most. Early on, when he became the head coach, people thought somebody else was running his Twitter. But this man is smart, and he's very witty. Everything he does is calculated, from pulling up on a yacht to the Turnover Chain to social media."

The tagline—the branding, if you want to call it that—Diaz has used with the local media is that he's going to create a "New Miami." That essentially means transitioning the "Old Miami" into the social media era. The players Miami is recruiting weren't even born the last time the Hurricanes won a national title—several current players told me they learned about the past by watching either the ESPN 30 for 30 on those teams or from clips on YouTube. Some of them, such as tight end Michael Irvin II—son of the Hall of Fame receiver—and cornerback Al Blades Jr., whose father and two uncles played for the Hurricanes, have been hearing the stories about those glory years for nearly their whole lives.

"Those Miami teams were relentless," Blades says. "And the thing is, a lot of the people that know those Miami teams don't even know who the coaches were. It was up to the players to run the team and become a championship team."

This is the backbone Diaz is hoping to establish to justify all the boisterousness. Over the years, he and others within the program like to point out, Miami won national championships under four different coaches—Schnellenberger, Jimmy Johnson, Dennis Erickson and Coker. To Diaz, that symbolizes what's long empowered this program to be as in-your-face as it's been: This was arguably the first college football team in the country that empowered its players to take command of the program—and yes, sometimes, that may have led to recruiting violations and excessiveness on the field, but so be it.

That's why so many high-profile alumni tend to come back and speak about the grueling workouts that drove them to win national championships in the first place. Even the Hurricanes locker room was paid for—and is named after—perhaps the most famous Miami alum of all: Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson.

Diaz has welcomed those alums, as well as the former coaches, back into the fold.

Jimmy Johnson @JimmyJohnson

Great time with Manny Diaz and his staff tonight..Best I have felt about the U in a long time! https://t.co/bTb3kek3eG

As a reward for players who achieve on and off the field, he sometimes allows them to wear tinted visors on their helmets during practice, the way late Miami safety Sean Taylor did. Former players regularly show up in the weight room and speak to the team; one current player recalled a tearful speech in the weight room from former linebacker Jonathan Vilma, who recounted how much Miami's competitive mentality shaped him as a person.

Diaz recognizes that, in order for the Hurricanes to truly recapture that swagger, the first thing they need to do is reinforce the player-driven work ethic that made the Hurricanes so utterly confident in the first place. To do that, of course, you need talent and depth. That's the primary reason Diaz says he relied so heavily on the newfangled contraption known as the transfer portal this year—among the players he lured in was Ohio State transfer Tate Martell, who recently lost out on the starting quarterback job to redshirt freshman Jarren Williams (Martell is reportedly working out as a wide receiver).

And it isn't just Martell. Eight of Miami's scholarship players are transfers, including former UCLA defender Jaelan Phillips, the top prospect in the country in 2017, as well as ex-USC safety Bubba Bolden and former Buffalo receiver K.J. Osborn, who served as one of the faces of the program at the ACC's media days this summer. Six of the top 22 players on 247Sports' transfer-portal rankings wound up at Miami, which allowed Diaz to make up for his late start on the job, the young roster he inherited and a recruiting class that ranked only 27th nationally.

That the transfer portal fits Miami's aggressive reputation, Diaz insists, was more of a coincidence than a strategy. But the idea of stockpiling the right kind of talent wherever you can find it fits into his larger ideal.

"When you really broaden things out to the entire program, it's not about the idea of 'Why can't we bring that swagger back?'" Diaz says. "It's like, 'What is the standard that was set here in the first place?' And the way to do that is often the work that's put in during the offseason and the nature of our guys competing in practice. It's that idea of knowing that if you went out for a day, someone might take your job. And you might never get it back."

That ability to understand both the big-picture narrative of Miami's image—"the 30,000-foot view," as co-defensive coordinator Ephraim Banda puts it—and the everyday narrative about what drives his players is what Diaz's longtime assistants say sets him apart. At times, they say, Diaz can almost seem aloof, but they insist that's usually because he's lost in thought about something. He's the opposite of brash; he thinks everything through, from the Power Point parables he shares with his team to the practice clips he shares with the fanbase.

MIAMI, FL - APRIL 13: Head coach Manny Diaz of the Miami Hurricanes coaching during the annual Spring Game at Nathaniel Traz-Powell Stadium on April 13, 2019 in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images)
Mark Brown/Getty Images

Those assistants also say it bothered Diaz tremendously to have backed out on the Temple job the way he did. Banda and his co-defensive coordinator, Blake Baker, have worked with Diaz dating back to his time at Texas, and both insist he's not the kind of coach who chases his ego from one job to the next. When Richt retired less than three weeks after Diaz took the Temple job, the latter found himself in an impossible position. Once Miami athletic director Blake James contacted Diaz, how could he turn down the one job he'd envisioned holding since he got into coaching?

"I know how hard it was for him, because I know how much he values people," Banda says. "There's a lot of people in this profession that aren't like that."

In order to take his dream job, Diaz was willing to take the hit to his reputation. And now that he's back, he plans to hold on to the job for as long as he can. That won't be easy. There is an unmistakable restlessness here: Despite being a former player and a Miami native himself, Randy Shannon was fired after three consecutive bowl appearances. Diaz has to quickly win football games while also portraying the right image. He has to find a way to marry the idea of the "New Miami" with the idea of the "Old Miami." That means connecting to the past while also allowing his players to find their own way.

"A lot of kids for years have talked about swag, and I always tell the team that we started the swag," says Rumph, the former cornerback-turned-coach. "They can't take that as their own. They have to create their own identity. It has to be unique."

What that looks like—and whether it ever happens—is yet to be seen, but there's little doubt Diaz has a carefully crafted vision for leading his team there. In February, a story spread online that Diaz had pulled an "Old Miami" move at a high school coaching clinic, distracting coaches from attending the Florida State staff's breakout sessions by offering them free beer in a separate room.

In a radio interview a few weeks afterward, Diaz didn't confirm or deny the story. Some of it, he said, was "internet lore," but in a social media-dominated world, maybe the lore is good enough for Manny Diaz and Miami to once again control the narrative of college football.