The staggered, battered, knocked-down fighter got up off of the canvas here Saturday night.
It was this Miami Hurricanes football season. It was head coach Manny Diaz.
They’d both been counted out, but the fight is still on.
And this was the round both had to have.
The Canes and their embattled coach showed the fight left in them in a 31-30 home upset of No. 18 North Carolina State at Hard Rock Stadium. Desperate UM played like it had nothing to lose when closer to everything was at stake.
“Great to see a lockerroom of guys cherish a victory after what we’ve been through the last couple of weeks,” said a palpably relieved Diaz afterward. “The fight is special in that team. They just hadn’t seen the reward. So proud, so happy for them, that they got the reward they deserved.”
Freshman Miami quarterback Tyler Van Dyke passed for 325 yards and four touchdowns, two of them to Charleston Rambo, to lead by far the Canes’ biggest victory of this beleaguered season before 43,293 nervous-turned-buoyant fans.
Miami still is only 3-4, and 1-2 in the ACC. Diaz still is only 17-14 two and a half seasons in. Miami still must win at least three of its last five games just to scrounge a minor bowl invite. And even that may not be enough to save Diaz’s job.
But Saturday was a respite that felt like oxygen. The season and Diaz are breathing where the gasping was, for another week, at least.
Next the Canes travel to play a ranked Pitt, which just beat Clemson. The result will be another signature win ... or another reason to doubt Diaz’s future here.
UM athletics director Blake James’ comments earlier this week on Diaz’s job status amounted to less than a tepid endorsement. James’ AD-speak was closer to a ringing noncommittal.
It was about as meaningful as Dolphins coach Brian Flores, in the midst of persisting rumors about a Deshaun Watson trade, again saying, “Tua is our quarterback” — when only the addition of “...for now” would give it the ring of actual truth.
“Obviously, this is a disappointing season,” James understated. “Right now, we’re not winning enough.”
Said Diaz this week: “No one is happy about the way this year’s gone. But the noise outside can’t be any more upset than what’s going on in here.”
Diaz parried a question about Blake’s comments after the game.
Said the receiver Rambo of his coach: “He’s doing his job. We gotta do our job and be there for him.”
“He’s our guy,” said running back Jaylan Knighton of Diaz. “We got his back.”
One win, even this one, doesn’t shift all of the gloom in reverse. But, oh, how it helps. And, after Miami lost its first two ACC games on last-play, heartbreakers, this one felt like medicine. Like healing.
Miami had lost six of its previous eight games dating to late last season. That’s how big Saturday night was.
Van Dyke this week raised eyebrows in Raleigh when he brushed off an N.C. State defense ranked 11th nationally.
“It’s the same guys we faced last year and we put up 44,” Van Dyke said this week, of a 44-41 UM win with now-injured D’Eriq King at QB.
Wolfpack players were trash-talking Van Dyke in pregame warmups. But the strong-armed kid impressively backed up what he said by humbling that highly ranked defense.
“Tyler’s comments could have gone one of two directions,” Diaz said. “You don’t hardly see a quarterback with two career starts saying that. Since we lost D’Eriq, we were lacking a leader, lacking a star. We doubled down on what he said. We followed what he said. We needed something. That’s what Tyler did [for us].”
Said Knighton: “TVD [Van Dyke] didn’t tell no lies.”
Van Dyke: “They were saying stuff, but our team is a confident team. There’s a lot of fight in this team”.
Diaz was, and likely still is, on the hot seat not just for his win-loss ledger, but because Miami’s recruiting class, ranked 11th in the nation for 2021 by ESPN, is showing a dramatic falloff and currently ranks 38th overall and seventh in the conference for 2022.
UM honored its 2001 national championship team (The U’s last of five) at halftime, to remind a disgruntled fan base that hardly needed reminding — that the current and recent Canes have failed to live up to the glory days or create new ones.
Diaz inherited that burden
Unexpected losses and a sharp decline in recruiting can be a deadly combination for the comfort and job security of a head coach. Especially when that season began with a No. 14 national poll ranking. And when said coach has been put in charge of restoring the glory and shine of a pedigreed program.
Saturday helps a little, that’s all.
Chances are Miami after this season will decide it can do better than Diaz, who got hired without a national search when Mark Richt’s retirement was abrupt and ill-timed. And whose results have suggested he may be a natural defensive coach over his head as the main main.
But here’s the thing: Who would be next? There is little doubt Miami can do better. There is serious doubt UM, a private university, will suddenly decide to spend much more than it is used to with the idea “you get what you pay” sort of makes sense.
This call is over James’ head — James, who may be out, too, if Diaz is.
It will be up to UM President Julio Frenk and the Board of Trustees to compete financially with the big boys of college football if they are serious about that long-elusive sixth national title.
Diaz’s five-year contract runs through 2023. He is to make an average of $4 million over the next two years, but likely less unless all incentives are met. That ranks in the modest neighborhood of 40th or so nationally.
Now let’s say Miami wanted to try and sign — totally random example here! — Mario Cristobal, the coach of No. 10 Oregon. Who is born and raised Miami. And a national champion Canes player from 1989 and ‘91. And who prior to Oregon got the golden Nick Saban stamp as a prominent Alabama assistant.
Cristobal is making $4.4 million this season, rising to $5 million-plus with bonuses. That’s a bargain. To get him, UM likely would have to pay him a good bit more — and a $15 million buyout to Oregon to free him from his remaining contract.
Your move, Miami. You want a top tier, coach? Spend!
The economics of all this may be one reason why Diaz still has a fighting chance to keep his job.
Saturday night’s huge win was another one.