From his start as an unknown rookie assistant coach in 1978 to his status as a legendary head coach in 2023, Guillermo “Willie” Diaz has had plenty of ups and downs in his 43 years on the hardcourt.
Hundreds of players have been coached by Diaz in his high school coaching career. He retired in June 2023, and he left behind a legacy of coaching that may never be replicated in Miami-Dade County.
He ended his career with 453 wins and 487 losses, and three district titles.
His winning percentage may not be the highest, but statistics were not his No. 1 goal. What mattered most was teaching young adults to respect the game, and he earned accolades in that category.
For 43 years, Diaz taught players with words and actions, whether it was guidance shouted from the sideline to the way he dressed for games. In 2023, he was the only coach who wore a dress shirt and tie to games.
Diaz started coaching as an assistant at Miami Coral Park High in 1978. He moved to Coral Gables High in 1979 to be the head coach of the junior varsity team and the lead assistant coach of the varsity team.
Those five years at Gables and Coral Park were learning years, Diaz said, and important as he formed his own coaching philosophy.
“The coach at Coral Park when I got there was Denis Bono, and Bill Sullivan at Coral Gables. I learned from them, and my college coaches that I played ball for,” Diaz said. “That was when I started to learn about different philosophies and what I wanted to do.”
In fall 1983, Diaz landed the head coach job at Southridge High School, and transformed the Southridge basketball program in his first three seasons from a sometimes undisciplined group to a well-respected team that won two district titles.
Gary Bess, 50, played for Diaz during the district championship years.
“We had a teammate miss a class, he missed an assignment, and coach Diaz said we had to hold our fellow peers accountable,” said Bess. “If you don’t hold your brother accountable, then what are you? That is what he always said. So he was a father figure.”
Bess said that Diaz treated his players like family.
“He was a father away from home,” Bess said.
After Southridge won its first district title in 1986, Diaz cried, Bess said.
“He was like. ‘Man, I told you we could do it!’”
Diaz’s teams won two district titles in 13 years during his time at Southridge, a turnaround for a school that never saw success in its basketball program.
After his 13 years at Southridge, Diaz left for a new school, G Holmes Braddock Senior High. He stayed for 27 years.
“It was another challenging situation at Braddock, just like it was at Southridge. For me it was coming in and building another program because I saw Braddock from afar,” Diaz said. “I was going through some personal stuff in my life. I was going through a divorce, hip replacements, so you know, I wanted to start off fresh in a new school. Build a program, and Braddock was a good fit.”
Between 1996 and 2019, some of Diaz’s players went on to play college ball, but Braddock never won a district title.
That changed in the 2019-2020 season. After a 24-year drought, Braddock won the district championship that Diaz sought since he accepted the job.
“It was quite an emotional ride. It was something that we wanted to do, wanted to reach, and get, and we finally got it,” said Diaz.
Eduardo Perez, 21, was the senior captain of that title-winning team.
“It is hard to put into words but happiness above all,” said Perez on winning the title. “Expectations were low for us. And to add fuel to the fire, we lost our senior night in a last minute collapse by our team. But that fuel was what we needed.
“I was very proud of our team and coach Diaz for never doubting our abilities to win the district title. Diaz did things the right way, and I’m glad he was able to make history for the school.”
Perez remembered the same lesson from Diaz:
“He sat me down one day and explained to me the importance of remaining focused throughout the season and trusting the team we have,” said Perez. “Diaz told me to hold everyone accountable and lead by example.”
After winning the 2020 district title, Diaz was awarded with the Miami Herald Lifetime Achievement Award for his dedication to coaching in Miami-Dade County.
When the 2022-2023 season came to a close, Diaz said, he knew it was time to end his coaching career.
“No regrets,’’ he said. “I am at peace with my decision to leave the game for good.”
Reporter Pablo Hernandez is among the hundreds of high school players coached by Willie Diaz.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified Gary Bess.