CORAL GABLES – When trying to illustrate the best way to tell his family’s story the day his son was introduced as the Miami Hurricanes next football coach, the elder Manny Diaz thought about four generations.

His mom, Elisa, who in 1961 fled Cuba on the Freedom Flights with her 6-year-old son and 10 cents in her pocket.

Manny, that little boy now 64 who as much as anybody is the living embodiment of the immigrants’ dream, having risen to political power and serving as the mayor of Miami from 2001-09.

His son, Manny Diaz II, the newly minted Hurricanes football coach, who chased his dream and after eight stops in seven states now finds himself in the most prominent position in college athletics in South Florida.

The UM coach's three sons – Colin, Gavin, Manny III – one in college, one in high school, one in middle school and all with such personal examples of how hard work and persistence does have its rewards.

“It was like, ‘This is it, this is America, this is Miami, this is the immigrant story,’ ” the elder Diaz said. “Here’s a woman who came over under these conditions and her son grows up to be mayor and her grandson is now the head coach of the city’s university.”

Manuel Alberto Diaz II, the 25th coach to lead the Hurricanes football program, is pure Miami. The son of an immigrant who rose to become the most powerful man in the city, Diaz, 44, also rose to power in the sports world, finally achieving his dream job Dec. 30 when Hurricanes athletic director Blake James chose him to succeed Mark Richt, who had retired earlier that day.

Diaz’s story is one that can especially be appreciated in a diverse city that is a cultural melting pot and became a safe haven for Cubans fleeing their country. And now, he is the first Cuban-American to serve as head coach for that city’s signature university.

“The University of Miami should reflect the city of Miami,” Diaz said the day he was introduced as coach. “It should reflect it in our style of play. We should reflect it in the way we carry ourselves throughout the community. And we should hopefully reflect it in the way that we win.

“Me being here today is just a part of that. But I get my job right now is to make sure I'm the best man for the job and I'm pretty sure Blake putting his faith in me, regardless of where I'm from. ... but it does mean a lot for me to be able to represent my community to lead the Miami Hurricanes."

And James made it clear that Manny Diaz is not leading the Hurricanes football program because of his family’s history in the city, or because of his success as a defensive coordinator, or because the choice was seamless.

“Manny Diaz is our new head coach because he’s the right man at the right time and he has the vision to build upon what Mark Richt built,” James said.

10 cents in her pocket

The Diaz’s story begins with the Cuban Revolution. When Fidel Castro came into power 60 years ago, the former mayor’s father, Manuel Domingo Diaz, was working for the Cuban power company. He and his co-workers went on strike and were arrested.

Several of Diaz’s co-workers were executed and when Elisa, now 87, went to visit her husband they would make her, and the other wives, walk through the blood of those who were slain. Elisa's husband told her to take their son and leave the country. At first, she resisted.

“My dad (said) ‘I don’t want my son here, this is not going to get any better so get him out of here,’ ” Diaz said. “My mom did not want to leave because it’s her husband. He finally said ‘Look, if you don’t leave and take my son I’m going to divorce you. Get him out of here and we’ll figure out hopefully someday how to get together.’ ”

They boarded a Freedom Flight plane and hoped to be united with Elisa’s brother, who was living in Miami.

“She said to me, ‘We’re going on summer vacation to visit your cousins,’ ” he said. “I was like, ‘Hey, that’s pretty cool, let’s go visit the cousins in Miami for the summer.’

“And … still here. That was a long vacation.”

While boarding, one of Castro's soldiers sold Manny’s seat. Elisa begged him to let them both leave and he finally did, but only if Manny sat on Elisa’s lap.

“Literally, she really did have a dime in her pocket,” Diaz said. “The dime that was necessary for her to call her brother to tell him we are here and he picked us up.”

Elisa’s husband was fortunate. He was spared execution because one of the judges during his trial was a boyhood friend, according to his son. He then bribed his way out of jail, was allowed to leave the county and joined his family two years later. He died in 1999 at 72.

Diaz met his first wife, Patricia, they were married in 1973 and settled in Miami Beach. He re-married in 1995. Diaz pursued a career in law, graduating from FIU and the UM School of Law. That came after his most notable athletic feat: Scoring the first touchdown in Belen Jesuit Prep history.

Diaz’s popularity spiked when he represented the Miami relatives of Elian Gonzalez, the Cuban boy who was the central figure in an international custody and immigration case involving the United States and Cuba, and his family members in Miami and Cuba. Soon after, in 2001, Diaz was elected mayor and served two terms.

“Very, very proud,” he said. “The classic story. I’m the first in my family to attend and graduate from college.”

 A media rising star

Manny and Patricia's first child, Manny, was born in 1974. Manny II was not the biggest kid but he was the kid others looked up to. He attended Miami Country Day where he played football, basketball and baseball.

“He was always a natural leader, a real thinker, a good listener, a good learner,” the elder Diaz said. “Had the respect of people he dealt with.”

At Country Day, Diaz was primarily a defensive back. But this was not one of those large schools with a 7 or 8 before its classification. This is a high-quality private school that houses pre-K to 12th grade and where some of the class sizes today range from eight to 24.

“If you want the full embarrassing story, we were so small on offense I played left tackle and on defense I played cornerback,” Manny II said. “Very creative two-way player.”

Diaz and his dad were fixtures at Hurricanes and Dolphins home games. Manny II absorbed all he could about sports and became infatuated with the sports page. He could cite names, ages, heights, weights, statistics. He was like a little computer, which would serve him well when he decided to take the plunge into coaching.

But when would that be? Even Diaz was not sure, which is why he applied to, and was accepted into, the Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University before realizing he could not afford the tuition and headed to Florida State.

“I had always thought about it, but I didn’t even know what that meant and how you did that,” Diaz said about coaching.

“That’s why I got into journalism because I wanted to do the next best thing once I realized the NBA or NFL wouldn’t be calling me, and I thought that was doing your job,” Diaz said to a group of reporters. “I think what you do is awesome. But all of a sudden as I went on and I realized – this coaching thing, there might be something to this.”

Diaz wound up at ESPN as a production assistant after graduation and was considered a rising star. His dad had local media members look at his demo tapes.

“They’re all like, ‘Oh my God, as soon as he's done with that, if he moves back to Miami we want to hire him.’

“If I may say so myself, I think he’s a pretty handsome guy. And has good appearance, good persona about him. I thought, in this field he’s going to make it big.”

Diaz was working on the "Monday Night Countdown" show and Sterling Sharpe was an analyst. The two often dined together and Sharpe would tell Diaz that one day he was going to be the head coach at South Carolina, his alma mater, and he'd take Diaz with him.

“That kind of set the bug in the ear,” Diaz said.

Is this guy crazy?

Sharpe called Chuck Amato, an assistant on Bobby Bowden’s staff at Florida State, told him he knew an FSU grad who wanted to get into coaching and he should find a way to get him on the staff.

“I said, ‘He wants to become a coach? He needs to take a urine test. What are you kidding me?’ ” Amato said from his home in Raleigh, N.C.

Diaz welcomed the chance to return to FSU, where he received his degree in media communications (he minored in journalism at Florida A&M), was an editor for the student newspaper and, most importantly, met his wife, Stephanie.

But not all the memories were pleasant.

“I go to Florida State, I was like, ‘Okay, I’m going to be a Florida State fan’ and year one and year two is Wide Right I and Wide Right II,” Diaz said. “That was like a kick in the gut as a transformed Hurricanes fan.”

Making that decision, though, was stressful. Diaz was leaving a full-time job for an uncertain future with Stephanie pregnant with their first child, Colin, who now is an embedded Hurricanes fan attending Florida State. He would be a graduate assistant, which meant no income.

“That’s where Stephanie is the star of the story,” Diaz said. “We were two years in at ESPN, we were pregnant and that was the moment of truth of stick or stay. It was one of those deals if I was at ESPN for four more months I probably would have still been there or fired like half the people at ESPN.

“She was the one that was really like, ‘Let’s go do this. Let’s go follow this dream.’ ”

But Stephanie also was anxious to get back Tallahassee to further her education.

“He just really was enticed by how much he was learning through film,” said Stephanie, who also started graduate school and now has a PhD in sports management. She has taught sports administration and was a coach and athletic director.

“He was so inspired and so passionate about what he was begging to understand. He just had a change of heart in what he wanted to do. I was ready to go, too. It was just an opportunity to change direction.”

Amato, now retired, saw the potential in the young Diaz, who impressed the FSU staff with his computer skills. He had Diaz breaking down film of future opponents, to the minutest detail.

“The other (coaches) had to do that film five times before they got it right,” Amato said. “Manny got it right the first time.”

Then came Diaz's first big break. Amato was leaving FSU to take over at N.C. State and offered Diaz a job. He told him he would start him as a GA but promised he would be promoted the first time a full-time assistant left. Two years later, in 2002, Diaz was coaching linebackers and three years later, though not the defensive coordinator, he was helping call plays.

“He’s just so smart,” said Amato, who added whenever he would recommend Diaz for a job he’d tell the coach, "if you don’t hire him, you’re nuts.”

Diaz left N.C. State for his first official coordinator job at Middle Tennessee. Then it was onto Mississippi State and Texas, where he got his first dose of a job that he describes as “a great occupation,” and “a horrendous profession.”

After 28 games as the defensive coordinator, Diaz was fired by Texas coach Mack Brown after the Longhorns allowed 40 points to BYU in the second game of the 2013 season.

Diaz was the scapegoat. The Longhorns allowed 23.5 points in the two games under Diaz, 26.3 in the 11 after he left.

“Mack Brown kind of tore him down,” Amato said. “(He said) the reason they were losing was because of the defense.

“No, no, no Mackie boy, not at all. It’s because they didn’t have a quarterback.”

Said the elder Diaz: "It was difficult because it was so unfair. He’s very introspective. He was really, throughout that process, sort of taking it all in and soaking it all in as part of a life’s lesson and particularly a lesson in his profession.”

Going back to Miami

After 20 years, Manny Diaz II was coming home. Having returned to Mississippi State for a second stint in 2015, he would last one year before Richt called to ask him to fix the Hurricanes defense.

Diaz, who has been up for the Broyles Award as the nation’s top assistant coach five times, had the Hurricanes defense ranked No. 2 in the nation (it was 69th in total defense the year before he arrived) when, on Dec. 13, he was being introduced as the new head coach at Temple.

“We all had mixed feelings because now he’s leaving again,” the elder Diaz said when his son got the Temple job. “When he left to go to school at Florida State, he had never returned.”

On Dec. 27, the day the Hurricanes were playing Wisconsin in the Pinstripe Bowl in New York, Temple and Duke played earlier in the Independence Bowl. With Diaz having returned to coach for what he thought was one last time at UM in the bowl after starting his duties at Temple, the elder Diaz, his current wife, Robin; and Manny II's sisters Natalie and Elisa and their boyfriends headed to the Temple watch party at a restaurant in Manhattan.

They were feted like kings, taking pictures with fans and given caps and waving pompoms.

But three days later, those pictures likely were deleted. That’s when Richt’s sudden retirement set the wheels in motion and later that day, Diaz was back again, this time as the Hurricanes’ head coach.

“It would be hard to explain if you came back in a time machine,” he said. “But somehow it fits. After the initial shock of this whole thing happening, I feel very confident I’m in the right spot.”

Back when Manny and Stephanie were in graduate school, they jotted down their goals in a journal. Stephanie found that journal when they moved to Miami three years ago.

“Four of them came to fruition that day,” she said about the day her husband was named coach.

“Miami is his first love.”

 tom_dangelo@pbpost.com

@tomdangelo44