05 Jan ‘Only in America, only in Miami:’ Hurricanes coach Manny Diaz’s family revels in historic moment
January 5, 2018
As her son — the former mayor of Miami — answered questions and her grandson — the new football coach of the Hurricanes — posed for pictures, Elisa Diaz soaked in the scene around her.
She wanted to stay at somewhat of a distance, at least for a bit. She knew all too well what would happen if she dared approach her 44-year-old grandson Manny Diaz — UM’s first Cuban-American head football coach — in that incredible, improbable, historic moment.
“I haven’t even gone up to him because if I go give him a kiss right now, I’ll start crying,” Elisa Diaz said. “Those of us who are older, we’re more sentimental about these kinds of things. … I just want him to do things the right way and do what he needs to do so everyone can see that he’s a great coach. He’s worked so hard for this moment.”
That moment may have come late Sunday when Miami athletic director Blake James offered Manny Diaz the chance to become the 25th coach in Hurricanes history, but it was decades in the making for both Diaz and his family, who like so many Cuban exiles fled the Communist island seeking freedom and a better life in the United States.
For Elisa Diaz, the decision to leave in 1961 wasn’t easy. Her husband was in jail, a political prisoner of Fidel Castro’s regime. Every day, it was Elisa who would bring him food and updates on how the family — including a then 6-year-old Manny Diaz Sr. — was faring in his absence.
For two years, she worked on her own to take care of their family before it was reunited. Even then, the hard work, she says, continued. The Diazes’ primary focus became making sure both of their sons could eventually go to college and create lives for themselves the family felt they wouldn’t have been able to have in their homeland.
“We never traveled, we didn’t do things like that. We just worked so both of our sons could grow up and graduate from college,” Elisa Diaz said. “The goal is always to push your children forward and give them opportunities. Because we know in this country, if you don’t study, if you don’t work, you won’t be successful.”
Success, it turns out, came in spades for the Diaz family.
Manny Sr. would eventually graduate from Miami’s Belen Jesuit High and earn an undergraduate degree at FIU. He attended law school at Miami and would, in 2001, be elected mayor of the City of Miami. He served two terms, received multiple awards for his efforts as mayor, served as the president of the United States Conference of Mayors and in 2008, spoke at the Democratic National Convention.
Manny Diaz, meanwhile, followed a different path, away from politics.
The little boy who spent every morning poring over the sports pages of the Miami Herald and eventually played defensive back at Miami Country Day, pursued a career in sports journalism before realizing that coaching football was a dream he wanted to chase.
And so, after graduating from Florida State and working briefly at ESPN, Diaz set out to become a coach, returning to his alma mater in Tallahassee as a graduate assistant in 1998. From there, there would be stints at North Carolina State, Middle Tennessee State, Mississippi State, Texas, Louisiana Tech, a second stint at Mississippi State and finally, Miami.
Diaz returned home three years ago to serve as former coach Mark Richt’s defensive coordinator and in his time with the Hurricanes helped reshape Miami’s defense into a national force, the kind of defense he says he remembered watching play at the Orange Bowl as a child.
It was, Diaz said, the opportunity of a lifetime.
It was, for his family, a moment they couldn’t help but celebrate.
“It’s just very special,” Manny Diaz Sr. said. “You can get to America with 10 cents in your pocket, your son grows up to be mayor and your grandson is a head coach. That’s Miami. That’s the American story. … It represents Miami. It represents who we are and like I said earlier, it’s the immigrant story. It’s about Miami.”
Said his son, the new coach, “You’ve heard me say it plenty of times. This is Miami’s program. The University of Miami should reflect the city of Miami. It should reflect it in our style of play. We should reflect it in the way we carry ourselves throughout the community. And we should hopefully reflect it in the way that we win.
“Me being here today is just a part of that. I get [that] my job right now is to make sure I’m the best man for the job and I’m pretty sure Blake [is] putting his faith in me regardless of where I’m from. But it does mean a lot for me to be able to represent my community [and] to lead the Miami Hurricanes.”