April 19, 2012
ATHENS, Ga. --- Georgia’s Manuel Diaz is in his 24th season as the head coach of the Bulldogs after serving as an assistant coach and as a student-athlete. He is one of only two active head coaches – along with USC’s Peter Smith – with multiple NCAA championships, leading the Bulldogs to the national title in 1999, 2001, 2007 and 2008. This season Diaz and Georgia will host the tournament in Athens for the 30th time, and in this Q&A he discusses everything from his memories of playing NCAAs, what it means to win in front of the home crowd, and what it will take the 2012 team to win it all.
Georgiadogs.com: You’ve been on the other side of things, having played in the NCAA Tournament when it’s held in Athens in front of thousands of people. What’s that like?
Manuel Diaz: I have some great memories. It’s one of the highlights of my career. As a freshman coming in, I didn’t know what NCAAs were like at all. I was lucky to have qualified for it by winning some challenge matches, because back then it was just an individual tournament. Each team got four players in, and I had played six all year, so I had to beat some of my teammates for a spot. To see the magnitude of the tournament, all the teams represented there, and all the fanfare attached to it and seeing all the guys I had looked up to was pretty special. Some of the players from that field went on to great professional careers – Roscoe Tanner, Bryan Godfrey, Dick Stockton, Eddie Dibbs, Harold Solomon, [Fred] McNair, who went on to be No. 1 in the world in doubles. It was a phenomenal year as far as college tennis was concerned and I was happy to be a part of that field.
GD: Three of your four championships have been won in Athens. What does that mean to you?
MD: It’s always great to win at home, because you get to share it with people that love the University of Georgia and are really strong followers of our program and are proud of what we accomplished. It feels like a big party. I’ll say, though, it’s very special to win away from Athens, as well. We had never done that before until 2008, and it was something I felt was missing and wanted to accomplish. We had opportunities and never quite got it done, like in 2002. And it was special.”
GD: The current format pretty much includes two weeks of tennis, sometimes having to play on back-to-back days. What’s that like?
MD: For the competitors, I think one of the best things we did was combining the men’s and women’s tournaments. I think it has made the student-athlete experience much better. Both groups are really excited, and I know it has brought a lot to the championships. As far as the organization, it’s much tougher, it’s longer, and you have a lot more to worry about. More work is involved, but it’s worth it.”
MD: They talk about it on a regular basis. It’s something they’re looking forward to. On my side, I’m waiting to address it. If I talk about it now, they’ll forget by then anyway. It’s something we’ll prepare for after the SEC Tournament this week and as we start gearing up for the first and second rounds and how important they are – and how we can’t look past anybody. Then we’ll talk about things like all the calls and texts they’ll get, people wanting tickets, family coming into town. There’s a lot to deal with when you play at home. It’s not as bad when you’re on the road. Even when we’re in Athens we stay in a hotel for the team portion so we can get away a little bit. It gets the guys’ attention and helps us stay focused a little better.”
GD: Last week Wil Spencer told a reporter he has been looking forward to playing in Athens since he watched the tournament here in 2010 before he transferred. Hernus Pieters said he still doesn’t know what to expect. How do you think different players will handle everything differently?
MD: The main thing is that some people thrive on that, and they’ll get more engaged and the energy will come up, and other people have to deal with the big stage. I think big time athletes know that as a competitor you need to learn to thrive in that environment and we just need to get them pointed in the right direction.”
GD: You’ve had many different rosters in your 24 seasons – some teams that weren’t favored to win won, and some that should’ve didn’t win. How do you assess this group and where they are heading into the postseason?
MD: I think we have a team that will compete for a national championship. I think in order for us to be as effective and to play as well as we are capable of playing, we need to be relaxed, be assertive and aggressive at the right times , and stay well composed. We need to play with a sense of destiny about us, where we don’t walk around on our tippy toes and try to be too careful. If we can just let it rip a little bit and have fun – I think those are the two things that we need to accomplish as a group in order to be as successful as we can be.”