You can forgive me for being sky-high about Manny Diaz last August.
I'm an optimist by nature, and Texas' defensive coordinator had provided a laundry list of reasons to believe that the Longhorns had dodged the bullet that was Will Muschamp's departure. In his first season directing the defense in Austin, Diaz's charges were by and large outstanding; whether measured by a traditional stat like yards per play allowed or an advanced metric like S&P+, the Texas defense was a Top 10 defensive unit.
At the end of the day, performance is all that matters, but on top of the on-field success, there was something deeply appealing to the way that Manny Diaz produced his results. First of all, there was his biography, which wasn't a whole lot different than if one day a college football coach who enjoyed my football analysis on my blog had offered me a grad assistant job, and I'd parlayed that foot in the door to a meteoric rise to UT defensive coordinator. If that sounds improbable, well... yeah, it is. But does it sound any more probable happening to a video assistant for ESPN's NFL Primetime? Not really, but that was Diaz.
His unique background provided him with, it seemed, a unique perspective, unburdening him from the strictures of conventional coaching and liberating him to look at defense through a wholly different lens. Moreover, the data in Diaz's limited but non-trivial career suggested that his philosophically radical approach managed that rarely found sweet spot of being bold and aggressive, without being reckless.
Diaz also represented a triumph of sorts for intellectualism. In a sport dominated by a region of the country that is openly hostile to intellectualism, Diaz was a breath of fresh air -- Revenge of the Nerds, come to life. In an interview with Bruce Feldman, Manny Diaz not only confessed his love for advanced metrics, which isn't all that remarkable, but openly citing... blogs, as Diaz did? If "stats are for losers," one can only guess what blogs are for. Heretics and heathens? Heathenous heretics?
Heading into that second season in Austin, all of that made Diaz an extraordinarily appealing football coach. Some of us liked him more than others, but at a minimum everyone recognized his undeniable potential. The things to like about Diaz simply overwhelmed what few warning signs there were from 2011's highly effective defense.
Now, just fifteen games later, Diaz is gone, fired only two games into the 2013 season. How could things go that wrong, that quickly?
After a dominant performance over Cal in the 2011 Holiday Bowl, in which the Texas defense held the Golden Bears to just 195 total yards at a rate of 2.8 yards per play, right from the beginning of the 2012 season, there were signs that things were amiss with Diaz's defense. An average Wyoming team managed nearly 6.0 yards per play, and there were clear signs of trouble in Oxford in the Longhorns' 66-31 rout at Ole Miss, where the outcome was not in doubt but the defense ceded an uncomfortable 6.2 yards per play.
And then the wheels came off. A frightening 8.6 yards per play allowed in Stillwater. Then a disheartening first loss of the season to West Virginia, who torched Texas for 275 yards on the ground while averaging 6.0 yards per play. The Red River Shootout was a Red River Massacre, and though both the offense and defense were miserable, Diaz's unit continued an ugly trend, allowing the Sooners over 7.5 yards per play, and OU played scrubs for most of the second half A week later versus Baylor, more of the same, as Texas' offense managed to get us a win, but the defense was once again a disaster, allowing the Bears 7.1 yards per play.
The numbers improved a bit as the quality of the offenses declined down the back end of the schedule, but they were far from heartening, and when it was all said and done, the 2012 defense sported the worst statistical profile of any Longhorns defense in program history: nearly 2,500 yards allowed on the ground, more than 2,750 ceded through the air, for a staggeringly high 5,244 total yards allowed, at an unfathomable 5.9 yards per play.
Unfortunately for Diaz, the trend continued into this year, and whether or not a head coach in his decline phase unfairly set him up to fail in 2013... fail Manny Diaz and the Texas defense did, last week's horrific performance in Provo being the final nail in a coffin that for all intents and purposes was six feet under by mid-October of last year.
It remains something of a mystery how a coordinator who enjoyed as much success as Diaz did prior to 2012 could fail as spectacularly as he did thereafter, but by the time last week's debacle mercifully came to an end, there was no mystery about the fact that the Texas defense was a hopelessly broken unit.
Perhaps Manny Diaz's schemes were workable with players who had already been taught the fundamentals of defensive football, which would plausibly explain why he thrived with the unit he inherited from Muschamp, but struggled as the core of that group moved on. That seemed to be Charlie Weis's problem at Notre Dame, where his "decided schematic advantage" proved to be empty boasting absent any "basic grasp of fundamentals." Perhaps Diaz will latch on somewhere in the pros as a behind-the-scenes assistant, where his ideas can inform useful deployment of the best trained, most highly skilled players on the planet. Or perhaps his early success was just an example of a small sample size and catching lightning in a bottle.
I like to think that Diaz will vindicate himself with time -- that he will prove to be a competent, useful contributor to coaching defense in football. And despite his failures at Texas, I still want to believe that he will. Maybe it's experience or perspective or something else that he needs before he's able to put it all together, but one of the things that I loved most about Manny Diaz was that he was a student -- of life, of himself, of his craft.
Nobody is perfect, and history is littered with examples of successful people who stumbled before they hit their stride. And a good many of them share some of those same qualities that made many of us so excited about Manny Diaz.
I have to believe Diaz is the type who won't let a setback keep him down forever, and assuming he gets back on his feet, there are still plenty of reasons to root for him, and to think he'll find success. Though I'm sorry it didn't happen here at Texas, I'll be happy for him if he does.
Good luck, Manny Diaz. I'll remember you for everything you did well, and wish you the best on your journey.