Towers’ Take: Dogs’ Diaz still competing as he enters Hall of Fame

Georgia tennis coach Manuel Diaz (second from left), here with his 90-year-old father, Manuel Sr., and his mother Avelina, is being inducted into the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame tonight in Macon.

ATHENS — Manny Diaz will be turning the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame in Macon into his own personal family reunion this weekend.

Diaz, the Georgia Bulldogs’ tennis coach for 29 years, is being enshrined tonight along with seven other individuals during the black-tie induction ceremony. Actually, festivities have been going on all weekend. And while Diaz is enjoying the personal attention and being recognized for his considerable accomplishments, it’s the chance to hang out with the whole Diaz clan that really has him jacked.

Particularly exciting for Diaz is the presence of his parents, Manuel Sr. and Avelina Diaz of Guaynobo, Puerto Rico.

“I get to see my parents, who are 90 and 86, and they both came up from Puerto Rico,” Diaz said. “My brother came up from Columbia, my sister’s coming from Puerto Rico as well. So we have the whole family here. Along with my wife we get to share a special long weekend in Macon, you may call it.”

There will be plenty of familiar faces around besides. Diaz is going into the Hall in the same class as three other Bulldogs. Former football star Garrison Hearst and golf Laura Coble are also being inducted tonight. Liz Murphey, the longtime women’s athletics administrator at UGA, is being inducted posthumously.

Most of the time these Hall of Fame nominations and designations come after the inductees have completed their careers. But Diaz, a former UGA tennis star himself, is still going strong.

The fact that Diaz can even be at the ceremony right in the middle of the tennis season is a stroke of luck.

“It’s incredible but this just happened to fall on the only off weekend that I have from January to June,” Diaz said in a telephone interview. “It was just serendipity to fall in this weekend that we didn’t have a tournament or a match.”

Diaz still marvels at his own story. He came to UGA from Puerto Rico in 1971 at the urging of legendary Georgia tennis coach Dan Magill with the intention only of playing a few years of collegiate tennis, then earning his millions on the pro tennis circuit.

As fate would have it, injuries derailed Diaz’s playing career. Then, after a stint working as a club tennis pro, Magill encouraged Diaz to return to his alma mater as his assistant coach. After six years serving as Magill’s top aide, Diaz succeeded Magill as Georgia’s head men’s coach in 1989. Since then, Diaz’s level of success and accomplishment has surpassed even that established by his beloved mentor.

“He’s beaming,” Diaz said of Magill, who died in 2014 at the age of 93. “It’s a natural progression of where our program was. I’m just happy to be able to do my part to continue to advance the program the way we’ve been able to do. But I wouldn’t have been able to do it without his tutelage and becoming a good student when I was here as his assistant for six years. I’m just happy to be a part of this great legacy here that he began.”

Diaz has guided the Bulldogs to six national championships (four outdoor, two indoor), 26 SEC titles and 19 top 5 finishes. Georgia is coming off its fourth straight SEC championship after logging a perfect record in conference play last season.

But the Bulldogs have been struggling in this one. They lost five in a row between the Pac-12 Showdown and the ITA National Indoors tournaments and stand at 4-5 overall at this point early in the 2017 campaign.

“We’ve played a very, very tough schedule and we have a very young team,” Diaz said. “Right now five of our starters in singles are freshmen or sophomores. One of our top juniors (Paul Oosterban) has been injured all year and has been out of the lineup all year. Hopefully we can get him back in a couple of weeks.”

The 6-foot-7 Oosterban is recovering from a torn ligament in his wrist and tennis elbow but is expected back in a week or 10 days.

Meanwhile, UGA is hosting the NCAA Tennis Championships yet again in May. Usually the Bulldogs contend for the title when that tournament is competed in the intimidating confines of the Dan Magill Tennis Complex.

Diaz is not convinced that they won’t.

“I absolutely think we can,” he said. “We definitely haven’t had the results I was hoping for, but I think we’ve been in every match against the top teams in the nation that we’ve played. It hasn’t gone our way but I’m hoping we’re turning the corner already.”

As his Hall of Fame career attests, it’s never a good idea to count out the Dogs under Diaz.

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