“The Bricks,” as they’re called at Independence Community College in Kansas, are accurately named. The cinderblock dorm rooms with a brick exterior are not warm or inviting or anything other than a functional place for a person to live for as short a time as possible. The transitory reality of junior-college football is baked in to the accommodations. Nobody is planning to be there for very long.
That makes Frank Diaz’s short tour of his living space one of the realest moments of the third season of Netflix’s “Last Chance U,” a show devoted to depicting the realities of that world one season at a time.
“I didn’t bring much with me,” Diaz says in the fourth episode. “I have my two suitcases that are ready to go just in case I get fired. Coach Brown might fire me one day and I need to be ready to roll.”
Working and playing for Jason Brown, the volatile head coach of the Pirates, is like that. A former junior-college quarterback himself, Brown appears to have no qualms about cutting a player or firing a coach mid-season. He swears. A lot. Even for a football coach.
But Diaz kept going to work. Each day last season the native Californian rolled out of his version of a “California King” bed, two dorm beds pushed together, went to practice, broke down film, did class and curfew checks and, in a key storyline in the new season, tried to connect with quarterback Malik Henry, a talented Florida State transfer who, by the quarterback’s own admission in the series, struggles to control his temper.
Diaz does all of this for no pay, just a bland, beige room in “The Bricks” and cafeteria meals.
“You might say, ‘why?’ Well, I love football,” Diaz says on the show. “A lot of coaches here, it’s sort of their last chance, too.”
A season at Independence wasn’t Diaz’s last chance, but it still stands in stark contrast to his first chance to coach football. That came at the perfect time and perfect place for a young man hoping to break into today’s coaching profession –– Chip Kelly’s Oregon where Diaz was tasked with assisting Scott Frost, then the Ducks’ wide receivers coach.
Coming out of high school Diaz went to Oregon hoping to make the roster as a walk-on.
“God had different plans for me and I luckily had a good head on my shoulders and I asked Coach Kelly if I could learn how to coach,” Diaz said in an interview with Hail Varsity. “He gave me an opportunity to be on staff as an undergraduate assistant and basically work right underneath Coach Frost.”
Diaz spent two-and-a-half seasons as an undergraduate assistant at Oregon. He broke down film with Frost as the two looked for ways to improve an offense that was already averaging nearly 50 points a game. Still a college student, Diaz prepared scouting reports with Frost, too, taking note of how the future head coach would analyze the upcoming opponent’s defensive tendencies. But the biggest lesson Diaz took from Frost had nothing to do with what drills to run, how to cut up film or which blitzes Stanford liked to run in third-and-long situations.
It had to do with how to care for the players under a coach’s direction.
“It was phenomenal,” Diaz said of his two seasons at Oregon. “Coach Frost is a calm and collected guy. He doesn’t show very much emotion or even discomfort. He’s a levelheaded guy and I appreciate him a lot for showing me how to coach and how to be a player’s coach. It’s very important to get guys to play their butts off for you, and the amount of respect he showed his players is amazing.”
Another lesson Diaz took from Frost: There’s only one way to earn that level of respect and that’s to be a genuine person who takes a genuine interest in his players as people first.
“You take it beyond football,” Diaz said. “At the end of the day, it’s more than football. It becomes a brotherhood. It essentially becomes a family.”
At Oregon it was a family that won a lot of football games. Diaz was part of the 2010 that played for a national title and the 2011 team that won the first Pac-12 championship and beat Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl. He was also there for the arrival of freshman quarterback Marcus Mariota. Some Oregon administrators would occasionally mistake Diaz for the future Heisman winner in the football offices.
“I was like, ‘No, Marcus is 6-3.’”
Diaz’s crash course in the Oregon way led to his first full-time coaching job at age 22 as the quarterbacks coach at West Los Angeles College, a California junior college. After five seasons there he made the jump to Independence in 2017.
There was no Netflix show when Diaz made the move, just rumors that Independence was one of the schools in the running. Diaz saw a team with a ton of talent and a chance to win a title. But he also had a feeling that Brown’s larger-than-life coaching style would be tough to ignore for television producers hungry for drama.
“I had a feeling they were going to go with Coach Brown,” Diaz said. “There’s no way they can skip out on a guy like that.”
Netflix didn’t skip out on Independence, filming all of the highs and lows of what would be a historic season for the Pirates. Diaz left Independence in December, but the work he did last fall in a small town in southeastern Kansas has now found a worldwide audience with the premiere of the new season of “Last Chance U,” a strange experience but one Diaz is ultimately grateful to have had.
“It’s an awesome deal for me at the end of the day and it’s a blessing in disguise because now I have a big platform to tell my story,” Diaz said. “But it’s not just my story, it’s thousands of other coaches that are probably doing the same thing that I’m doing, and I get a chance to speak out for those coaches as well.”
Diaz is now on to the next step in his coaching journey. He will spend the 2018 season as the assistant head coach and offensive coordinator at Santa Monica High School under former Nevada safeties coach Matt Kirk.
“I thought it would be a good idea because Chip Kelly’s right down the street at UCLA,” Diaz said.
His goal is to one day be back with a Division I football program. Having the Oregon imprimatur, direct connections to arguably the two biggest college football hires last December and, now, the exposure of a hit television show won’t hurt.
For now Diaz is happy to be back doing the thing he loves most, coaching football. He’s finding his own way in a cutthroat industry while drawing on what he already learned during a one-of-a-kind apprenticeship under two coaches on the cutting edge of where football was going nearly a decade ago.
And those coaches, of course, stood on the shoulders of the coaches they learned under, something Diaz noted when remembering his time together with Frost.
“I was grateful to be coached by him. I could obviously hear the coaching points from Coach Osborne that are in him and that’s something that we as coaches take, we take those coaching points with us. It was great to hear a little bit of Tom Osborne in what Frost was teaching.
“Now you guys have got yourself one helluva ball coach at the University of Nebraska. He’s a great guy, man. He knows exactly what he’s doing.”