Accompanied by rows of white foldable chairs adorning the astroturf and a giddy crowd of Blue Devil fans, the stage was set inside Pascal Field House Saturday morning. Then the lead actor arrived, and the show finally began. The Manny Diaz epoch of Duke football, officially, is here.
After brief addresses from Duke president Vincent Price as well as athletic director Nina King, the Blue Devils' 23rd head coach, announced by the program Thursday night, took the podium for his inaugural address to fans, current players and the media. It was a scene largely reminiscent of one from just under two years ago, when former head coach Mike Elko took the same stage to usher in his own brand of Blue Devil football. Diaz made clear that he intends to do something similar but distinct, with a hefty emphasis on team unity, grit and the need to build, not rest, on past successes.
"What a privilege and an honor to stand here on the stage, to stand in front of all of you, as Duke's head football coach," Diaz said. "The anticipation for this moment, over this last 24 hours, 48 hours, couple of weeks, to be here, to be in front of the team yesterday, it's been special. It's been everything that I thought it could be."
The first order of business, Diaz said, was sending the graduating seniors out with a win in the Birmingham Bowl in just under two weeks' time. The second is to preserve locker room culture and curate team chemistry.
To accomplish the first and build on the 16-9 record Duke compiled across the past two seasons, Diaz highlighted the importance of a rigid defense that "gets [opponents] to lose football games," something he did to great effect in two seasons as the defensive coordinator at Penn State. During his time in State College, Pa., Diaz helped curate the country's top-ranked total defense in 2023 as well as a combined 23-4 record across his tenure, capped by a Rose Bowl victory against Pac-12 champion Utah in 2022. He takes over a Blue Devil unit that finished the year 44th nationally in total defense and seventh in the ACC.
On the second point, Diaz stressed the importance of keeping as much of the 2023 group together heading into 2024. This will be difficult with a substantial quantity of the Blue Devils' top-performing talents already in the transfer portal — including starting quarterback Riley Leonard, running back Jaquez Moore, linebacker Dorian Mausi and safety Jaylen Stinson — but Diaz said he plans to meet one-on-one with every player to assess their future in Durham together.
"You've gotta believe in something that's bigger than yourself," he said. "It's not a one-man show. I know there's only one person talking right now, but this program is not going to be about me, this is going to be about us, starting in the locker room, and everybody else. In college football, alignment wins."
Looking ahead, though, Diaz also expressed that striking while the iron is hot is crucial in securing, and retaining, key recruits. As it stands, the Blue Devils hold the 36th-best class in the country, headlined by four-star quarterback Tyler Cherry out of Center Grove High School in Greenwood, Ind. Early signing day is a week from this coming Wednesday, and the incoming crop of recruits will be instrumental in maintaining momentum while also allowing for further improvement.
Amid his descriptions of why he took the job and what he plans to do, Diaz took a few minutes to thank those within the Nittany Lions' program and reflect on a winding coaching journey that took him from his alma mater of Florida State to N.C. State, Miami, Penn State and now, to Duke.
"As anyone who teaches knows, you get taught by the young men in the same way that you teach them," Diaz said of the players at Penn State. "They taught me so much. They aspired to be great. They viewed pressure as a privilege. They made it their abject purpose to be the number one defense in the country. And that's a big statement, but somebody's got to finish first."
Diaz said that he wants to instill the same level of competition and gridiron rigor in his new disciples in Durham, while also leaving ample room for his players and their fans to enjoy the special occasions that are fall football Saturdays.
"You want to root for a team that's resilient, you want to root for a team that's never out of the fight, you want to root for a team that never gives up," Diaz said. "It is hard to beat relentless. And then you want to root for a team, that, when the best is required, they step up — competitive excellence. And that's what's gonna define us."
Another defining trait, according to Diaz, will be the success of his relationships and ability to draw the talent and "greatness" out of players that they may not yet see in themselves. This contributes to what the new head coach said is his grander vision for his time at Duke, and that is to build. For all of Duke's successes over the past two seasons, Diaz proclaimed that his tenure is not to be one of stagnation or satisfaction, but of aspiration.
"We are not here to tear down what's been done," he said. "But at the same time, we're not here to sustain what's been done."
Diaz began his speech by recalling something current Duke associate director of sports performance David Feeley, who worked with Diaz during their time together at Miami, told him repeatedly over the phone:
"There's just something about Duke."
As for what that something is, Diaz said that after his inaugural meeting with the team, he tried to get as many players in his office as possible. What one player told him made that statement finally click.
"When we're on campus, we are surrounded by the best people in the world," Diaz recalls the player saying. "And we come back into our locker room, we think we have the best locker room in the world."
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Andrew Long is a Trinity junior and sports editor of The Chronicle's 119th volume.