Manny Diaz - "I knew I was enamored with sports, football in particular. If I couldn't play at the highest level, I decided I wanted to do the next best thing. And from an early age I knew that was going to be a newspaper writer covering sports or on tv covering sports. That is what brought me to ESPN.
"I had interned there while I was in college. Then, when I got out of college, I got a full-time job with them. I had been there for about two years when we were in New Orleans for the Packers-Patriots Super Bowl game. We had an interview scheduled early in the morning with Bill Parcels. I had no duties in that interview. I just wanted to be in the room with Bill Parcels and listen to him. During the interview, I sort of had this defining moment. On one side of the table was someone who was working for ESPN, which, to me, was the industry standard. On the other side of the table with the man who was coaching his team in the Super Bowl, which, to me, is the industry standard in the NFL. You can't get any better than bringing a pro team to the Super Bowl. You are almost looking at the top of the mountain in both. And I ask myself which man would I prefer being. And it wasn't even close. I wanted to be the guy answering the questions. I love the job of the guy asking the questions, but it's not quite as great as the other guy. From that moment on, I knew that was where my passion was. And if I didn't do that, then, in a way, I wouldn't have been doing what I am really passionate about.
What did you decide to do after that?
"I knew it was time to make my move. I was 23-years-old, married with a child on the way. And if I had stayed at ESPN another year I would probably still be there. But I had no idea how the GA system worked. I was completely naive. We didn't have a plan. I just knew that we were going back to Tallahassee and get into graduate school. But I didn't realize a college could only have two GAs.
What happened once you got to Florida State?
"I went there and tried to meet with (Florida State associate head coach) Chuck Amato. I finally had an interview with him just before two-a-days. He said everything sounded great about me, but he said I was in graduate school and that I couldn't help in the football office because there were only two GAs. My plan didn't look so good, then.
"Then, someone called from the football office the next day and said I could help in the recruiting office. So, what I did that year was volunteer in the recruiting office. I also had a part-time job in the morning from 8 to 12. I would grab some lunch, then go to the football office and work throughout the afternoon. I was also in graduate school and took classes at night.
"Ironically, the internet was just starting to get into recruiting at that time. That was 1997. That was the year when recruiting news was starting to break on the internet. Then, when the season ended and we got into recruiting, I knew something about recruiting. I knew the players, where they came from. So, I became helpful.
"Then we go into the spring semester and I started observing the defensive coaches and sitting in the meetings. I wasn't really doing anything other than being a fly on the wall and learning and observing.
"That summer, their film GA left. I got that job and did it for two years. During those two years, we went to the Fiesta Bowl and lost to Tennessee. The next year, 1999, we won all of our games and won the national championship.
"The next year (2000), Chuck Amato got the NC State head coaching job and I went with him."
How did the transition from graduate assistant to defensive coach happen?
"I've been blessed to work with really good defensive coaches. I look back at it now and sort of joke that I was getting my Masters in defense at Florida State under Mickey Andrews in the late '90's. They were the industry standard at that time.
"Then, when we went to Raleigh, North Carolina, we tried to bring the pillars of the Florida State defense with us. Chuck was a defensive guy and the head coach there. A big point was bringing in Reggie Herring. He had been at Clemson for a long time and a couple of years in the NFL. He was with us for a year and I learned a lot from him. I was there for six years, then (Middle Tennessee State head coach) Rick Stockstill called."
Before we talk about your time at Middle Tennessee State, I want to talk a little more about your coaching days at North Carolina State. I've heard that despite not being the defensive coordinator you had a lot of input on defense.
"I've had a bizarre career track. My first game as an actual full-time assistant coach I was calling defenses. Our first two years at NC State Buddy Green was our defensive coordinator. Then, he went to Navy where he is today. Chuck really wanted it done the way we did it at Florida State so we didn't have a defensive coordinator the next year (2002) because he didn't want to have one. So, myself - I became a linebacker coach that year - and our secondary coach alternated play-calling duties."
That team won 11 games and defeated Notre Dame in the Gator Bowl. That's not too bad your first year as an unofficial co-defensive coordinator.
"It was a good year. The next year we weren't as good on defense. I think we won eight games. We were starting to suffer from not having a coordinator. Our strategy was still good but our problem was there was no leader. That's when Reggie (Herring) came in.
"What I learned from Reggie is you have to lead and unite a team so that you can get them to play at a level of effort that is much more important than deciding if you want to play 3-4, 4-3, play zone, play man, blitz, don't blitz. That was the year (2004) we were number one in total defense."
Your defenses at Middle Tennessee were known as very aggressive. How did you develop your aggressive style of defense?
"There were a couple of things that shaped my philosophy. One was when Reggie Herring came to NC State. We were young on the defensive line. He didn't think we were great that first spring. He thought we were average talent-wise. And he had brought a lot of blitz and movement that he has picked up in the NFL. And we majored in that that year. We were hard to block. And I saw the pressure that it put on the offense. At Florida State we were a pressure team but we didn't do it with blitzing because we were so talented on defensive line.
"The second thing was after Reggie Herring left we hired another defensive coordinator named Steve Dunlap. And we had our entire defensive line coming back. Four of those guys were picked in the first round of the (NFL) draft. Our head coach said, because of that, we don't need to do a lot of stunting and blitzing, we should beat them straight up. When Mario Williams came out after his junior year to go to the NFL the big knock on him was that he didn't have any sacks his first six games of his junior year and eight in the second half of the season. The people on the NFL network and ESPN were saying that his production was uneven and he didn't show up in some games early in the year. What they didn't know was we changed our style the first six games of the year. Anybody can block anybody if they know where they are going to be at all times.
"I like to use a boxing reference. If I know where your chin is and you don't move it. even if you are bigger and stronger than I am, I can still knock you out. Someone can sucker punch you at anytime if they know where you are going to be at all times. What a great boxer does is move his chin. So, when I go to punch you I can't punch you with a knockout punch because you have moved your chin. When you miss, you have sort of exposed yourself. That is sort of my thought process.
"Those things were what shaped our philosophy."
You developed your defensive philosophy and then was hired by Middle Tennessee. How did you use that philosophy while at Middle Tennessee?
"When I got to Middle I knew we wouldn't have the caliber of players that we had at NC State at the end of my time there. I knew they wouldn't be as big, strong and fast. And the biggest thing I found out is their football IQ wasn't the same as it was at NC State. They simply didn't play the game naturally. What we found after the first spring the best thing that we did was blitz. The reason for that was we forced aggression. If kids are unsure what to do, the game doesn't come natural to them and they are having to make decisions. When they do that it slows them down on the field. So, we decided to make all the decisions for them.
You should have more talent here at Mississippi State and also have players with good football IQs.
"Here's the thing about that - what happens if you do that and they also have football knowledge?"
Sometimes a blitzing team gives up some big plays.
"Everything we do is sound. We aren't a sale-the-farm unit. Our number one goal is to not give up big plays. We don't want to give up big plays and we want the offense to make negative plays."
Don't you need lock down cornerbacks if you play an aggressive style of defense?
"I spent a week this past summer with the New York Jets at their camp. I've always admired Baltimore's defense and those guys went to New York. I have a friend that coaches there and he invited me up there. The New York Jets may have the best corner in football, but they don't have pro bowlers. Their best defensive player is their noseguard, Chris Jenkins. And he got hurt midway through the year.
"What makes them special is their attitude, their aggression. How can a team walk into the playoffs 9-7 and say they are the favorites to win? They can say that because they play with a chip on their shoulder.
"You know better than I do that the best days here (at Mississippi State) defensively that same thing was going on. Nobody wanted to tangle with this defense back then. I'm not saying when that is going to happen, but that is the number one thing that we want to do. We want to be a defense that people just don't want to play against. We are going to be on the attack. That is just what we are."
When you say attack, what do you mean by that?
"That might mean bringing the extra rusher 40% of the time or bring the extra rusher 25% of the time. Or it may just be the threat of bringing the extra rusher without actually bringing him. They'll never know where we will be coming from or even if we are coming. We want the possibility of that threat to be in the back of the mind of the offense."
Is your defense similar to former MSU defensive coordinator Joe Lee Dunn's?
"We are a lot more multiple in our coverages than they were when Joe Lee (Dunn) was here. Our defense is not the type where you leave the corners out there one-on-one. I grew up in the cover-one defense. That is one-on-one with one guy in center field. That's what they majored in when Joe Lee was here. When Carl Torbush was at North Carolina, they were kings at that. When we were at Florida State in the late 90's that was our trump card. But because I started in that defense that's good for me because I learned the evolution of it. I understand that people have learned to attack it better."