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Smeltzer: Time, Chance Right for Manny Diaz to Leave Penn State

ANN ARBOR, MI - OCTOBER 15: Penn State Nittany Lions defensive coordinator Manny Diaz reacts during a college football game against the Michigan Wolverines on October 15, 2022 at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor, Michigan. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Icon Sportswire)

One of my favorite sayings is “don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened,” and that’s how Penn State fans should look at Manny Diaz’s departure.

Before Penn State, Diaz was established as one of college football’s best defensive minds. He earned that reputation at the University of Miami.

Because he’s so good at what he does, the marriage between Diaz and Penn State football was never going to be long.

Fans who expected Diaz to be in Happy Valley for the long haul, well, they were just setting themselves up for disappointment.

Diaz’s predecessor as PSU defensive coordinator, Brent Pry, was in the role for six seasons before moving on to become Virginia Tech’s head coach.

Penn State would have been lucky to have Diaz for half that time. As it turns out, it didn’t. After two wonderful defensive seasons at Penn State Diaz will be moving on as well, becoming the boss at Duke.

As expected, Penn State’s fanbase is taking the news in a variety of ways.

To me, the most rational fans are the ones that knew all along that Diaz wouldn’t be in Happy Valley for the long haul and have accepted that this was inevitable.

The slightly less reasonable are saying things along the lines of “ok, I knew he’d leave eventually, but why Duke?”

Then there’a the totally unreasonable.

The bottom line is that Diaz had nothing left to prove at Penn State. He made it the No. 1 total defense in America. You can’t do better than No. 1, so the timing was right for him to leave.

The opportunity was also right.

Now, could Diaz have held out for a bigger head coaching gig than Duke? Sure.

But who knows how well that would have worked?

Head coaching positions are a crapshoot every year.

It’s impossible to predict what jobs are going to be open. Some years, there’s more than one big-time opportunity. An example is the end of 2021 when both the LSU and USC jobs were available. Then there are cycles like this offseason, where it’s relatively quiet.

The biggest job opening this December was Texas A&M, and A&M hired a guy not named Manny Diaz.

Instead, they hired Mike Elko. Elko was previously the head coach at… wait for it… Duke.

With or without Diaz, Penn State’s defense, statistically, has nowhere to go but down.

There are so many variables— injuries, opponents, players just not being good enough etc.— that could make the 2024 defense significantly worse than 2023. That wouldn’t have helped Diaz’s job prospects.

The only way Diaz could have realistically done that would be to win a national title. Yeah, that isn’t a sure thing.

As a head coach, he has something to prove.

As good as Diaz is, his head coaching experience— 21-15 over three seasons at Miami— is limited. Having a 10-win season at Duke down the line is a better resume builder than continuing to run great defenses at Penn State, which Diaz has already proven he can do twice over.

I know that there are Penn State fans who thinking winning 10 games at Duke is impossible, and 15 years ago, they would have been right.

But times have changed.

Duke won nine games last season.

This season, even with star QB Riley Leonard missing almost half the season due to injury, Duke has a chance to win eight. Here are some more recent records:

No, Duke is not a football powerhouse and probably never will be.

But who says it has to become one for Diaz to get a lot out of this job?

Elko was good enough at Duke to get a 6-year, $42 million contract at A&M.

Elko’s predecessor, David Cutcliffe, reportedly had an offer to be Tennessee’s head coach and turned it down to stay at Duke. If Diaz’s path turns out like Elko’s— who got one of the “big” jobs Penn State fans reference, or Cutcliffe, who found stability and stayed at Duke for 14 seasons, it would be a win.

Don’t dismiss the second scenario.

Although Diaz is more than qualified to one day coach at one of America’s premier programs, maybe he doesn’t necessarily want that.

Not counting a remarkably brief tenure as Temple’s head coach, Diaz has spent the past eight seasons at two of college football’s giants: Miami (2016-21) and Penn State (2022-23). To coach at one of those programs, let alone both, is big time stuff, but also comes with big-time pressure.

Maybe Diaz wants to get away from that for a bit, or longer than a bit?

Could Diaz settle down going at a basketball-first school that doesn’t have nearly as much pressure as Miami or Penn State?

Hey, it’s worked pretty well for Kentucky’s Mark Stoops, who turned down the A&M job, which led to Elko leaving Duke and Diaz coming in.

At the end of the day, Diaz’s time at Penn State was going to be brief. But, boy, did it serve its purpose. One way or another, I’ll bet that Diaz going to Duke turns out to be the right decision.

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