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Published: Thursday, 12/30/2010

Manny Diaz took a winding path to Mississippi State job

JACKSONVILLE -- Some big wig TV news station executive in Laredo, Texas, did Manny Diaz a big favor by not hiring him in the mid-1990s.

Diaz, in that post-college period of his life, aspired to be an on-air personality in a sports department. Any sports department would do. So Diaz, a behind-the-scenes production assistant for ESPN at the time, compiled a resume tape and shipped it to small market stations everywhere.

He got lucky. No one wanted him.

Had things turned out differently, perhaps Diaz would be reporting on Saturday's Gator Bowl from the sidelines at EverBank Field. Instead, he'll be cooking up ways to stop Denard Robinson and Michigan's powerful offense.

Mississippi State's first year defensive coordinator learned something valuable while working on ESPN's Sunday morning NFL shows. The most satisfying aspect of his job wasn't piecing together film clips but the conversations he had with network analysts about schemes and formations.

"I was an x's and o's junkie and it was hard to get information on x's and o's," said Diaz, 36.

Former NFL star Sterling Sharpe, an ESPN analyst at the time, said something to Diaz that may have precipitated the career move. If Sharpe ever got into coaching, he wanted Diaz to come with him. Diaz took that as a sign that he may be in the wrong profession.

"Eventually I just realized that's what I had to do," Diaz said Wednesday after the Bulldogs' wrapped up practice at nearby University of North Florida. "Instead of wanting to do it, I had to do it."

Mississippi State has progressed markedly under Diaz, improving from 26.8 points allowed per game in 2009 with then-coordinator Carl Torbush to 20.3 in 2010. The Bulldogs have recorded higher numbers in tackles for loss, sacks, turnovers, and pass breakups.

"He's definitely got a fiery personality," linebacker Chris White said. "He always wants us to attack the offense. That's just how he plays. He's a great DC. He schemes up well."

Cornerback Corey Broomfield said Diaz has the energy of head coach Dan Mullen "times 10."

"He's a real character," Broomfield said. "He doesn't like the [opposing] team to get any yards."

MSU (8-4, 4-4 SEC) will play in its first January bowl since the 1998 season. It was that same season Diaz began a job in a new profession. A Florida State alumnus, he accepted a gig at his alma mater as a defensive graduate assistant, learning under two college football icons -- head coach Bobby Bowden and defensive coordinator Mickey Andrews.

The late 90s were some of the best times for the Seminoles, who were national runner-up in Diaz's first year and champions a year later.

"I think the part that was great to me is when I came into the game, I was like a blank notebook," Diaz said. "You don't know what you don't know. Because I had no preconceived notions, I was like a sponge."

In 2000, Diaz accepted an offer from FSU assistant Chuck Amato to coach at North Carolina State where Amato had been named head coach. Diaz stayed there through 2005 before accepting the defensive coordinator job at Middle Tennessee State of the Sun Belt Conference.

Diaz's career path took another turn in October, 2009, when his Blue Raiders lost 27-6 to Mullen and Mississippi State. Apparently impressed with Diaz's defense, Mullen hired him a couple of months later even though the two had no previous relationship.

"I didn't realize it was a job interview, but I guess we made it tough on them," Diaz said.

Diaz is getting good at this job interview thing.

Contact Ryan Autullo at: rautullo@theblade.com or 419-724-6160.



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