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Why new Duke football head coach Manny Diaz might need pool balls in the locker room

Manny Diaz was a graduate assistant coach on Chuck Amato’s football staff at N.C. State in 2002 when the boss decided on a promotion.

Diaz would coach the Wolfpack linebackers, Amato decided. It would be Diaz’s first full-time assistant coaching job. And why not? He was young and he was ready.

But linebackers?

Diaz, then 28, was the youngest coach on the staff and the only assistant who had not played college football. He graduated from Florida State in 1995 with a communications degree, having spent some time working with ESPN and helping produce the “NFL Primetime” show.

“I thought he might be the next Bob Costas,” Diaz’s father, Manny Sr., said at the time.

Penn State defensive coordinator Manny Diaz grins as his unit comes to the sideline after creating a turnover late in the the second half of their game against Indiana at Beaver Stadium Oct. 28, 2023, in State College, Pa.
Penn State defensive coordinator Manny Diaz grins as his unit comes to the sideline after creating a turnover late in the the second half of their game against Indiana at Beaver Stadium Oct. 28, 2023, in State College, Pa.

But football would be his life’s profession. Now 49, Diaz has been named the next head coach at Duke, taking over a football program that former coach Mike Elko left on solid footing — as solid as a program can be in the portal age.

Diaz, a Miami native whose father once was Miami’s mayor, first met Amato at Florida State when Amato headed up the linebackers for defensive coordinator Mickey Andrews and served as assistant head coach for Bobby Bowden.

Diaz was first a volunteer coach at FSU, then a graduate assistant for the Seminoles. He would sit in on the defensive backs meetings, saying, “I just wanted to be a sponge.”

When Amato took over as head coach at N.C. State in 2000, he brought Diaz with him, calling him “one of the smartest individuals I’ve been around.” Diaz would be a graduate assistant for the Wolfpack the first two years, then linebackers coach before taking over the Pack’s safeties and special teams.

The players seemed to like Diaz, his methods and his enthusiasm in trying them.

“Manny, he’s cool,” Wolfpack defensive back Marcus Hudson said at the time. “He’s young, he’s creative, he can relate to us. He doesn’t sit in the film room and preach the same things over and over. He tries different things.”

Like using a pool table.

One day Diaz took his safeties to the players lounge at the Murphy Center, headed to the pool table and used pool balls to explain defensive and offensive sets.

As Diaz explained it in 2004, it went something like: “We have two balls rolling across the formation. Who does the 13-ball have now? The 8-ball goes in motion. Where does the 13-ball go now? Who does the 13-ball have now?”

Diaz called it a “different aspect of visual learning.” The players seemed to dig it and understood it. Who needs game film when you slide an 8-ball across the table?

“It was still learning,” Hudson said then. “Coach Diaz knows the game. He can teach us.”

For Diaz, the teaching continued. After leaving NCSU, he was on to Middle Tennessee State. He coached at Mississippi State and at Texas under Mack Brown, serving as defensive coordinator and linebackers coach.

UNC head coach Mack Brown, right, talks with Miami head coach Manny Diaz before North Carolinas game against Miami at Kenan Stadium in Chapel Hill, N.C., Saturday, October 16, 2021.
UNC head coach Mack Brown, right, talks with Miami head coach Manny Diaz before North Carolinas game against Miami at Kenan Stadium in Chapel Hill, N.C., Saturday, October 16, 2021.

His Texas stop did not end well. Brown fired him as DC in September 2013 after the Longhorns gave up 550 yards rushing to BYU.

There were other stops, and then Diaz’s first head coaching opportunity — at Temple. But two weeks after being named the Owls coach, he was offered the Miami job and quickly took it, apologizing to the Temple folks but moving on.

The Hurricanes went to two bowls in his three seasons before Miami decided on a coaching change in 2021. Diaz won five of his last six games at Miami — losing 31-28 at FSU — and beat Duke 47-10 in his final game. He was defensive coordinator and linebackers coach at Penn State when Elko left for Texas A&M and the Duke job opened.

The question now: Does Duke have a pool table?

(Staff writer Chip Alexander covered NC State when Diaz was an assistant coach)