Ryan Manalac didn’t know what the future held when he decided to quit his new, licensed job in the mortgage industry to pursue coaching, but he certainly knew that he needed to be back on a football field.
It hadn’t been that long since he was cut by the Buffalo Bills following a standout collegiate career at Cincinnati, effectively ending his playing career, and he missed football and the purpose it gave his life. There was security in using his business degree in the real world, but he missed the passion and brotherhood in football.
So, he went to an Ohio high school coaching clinic that then-Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio was attending to ask about a graduate position. And Dantonio actually tried to talk him out of it.
“Because it’s a tough profession,” Manalac said after practice Tuesday. “You certainly have to have a family who understands, and my wife’s a rock. She gets it. But it’s not easy. Being able to handle the kind of constraints and understand that our players are like an extension of our family, I think it’s a lifestyle, so he wanted to make sure I understood that commitment and make sure I was truly all in before I took that step.”
Manalac couldn’t — wouldn’t — be swayed. He was certain in his conviction that he needed to be back on the football field, even if it meant working long hours as a low-level staffer. It was a dream just to be given the opportunity to serve under Dantonio.
It was a reunion with both Dantonio and then-Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi. Manalac spent the first two seasons of his college career as a walk-on linebacker at Cincinnati, serving as a depth linebacker over 24 games.
Dantonio and Narduzzi would eventually leave for Michigan State, but Manalac worked his way into a key starter in the Cincinnati defense over four seasons, earning a scholarship and helping lead the Bearcats to a 2008 Big East championship. But he arrived at Michigan State as a young coach who just wanted to help out.
He spent his first season in East Lansing, Michigan as a video assistant, doing whatever was asked of him by the Michigan State coaching staff, before he was elevated to a graduate assistant in 2012 — moving into a role directly below Narduzzi himself.
Narduzzi couldn’t have predicted that the 6-foot, 230-pound walk-on linebacker from Pickerington, Ohio was going to one day serve under him as a coach himself, but he knew from Day 1 that Manalac was someone who would get what he wanted in life.
“You don’t know what these guys are going to do, but he was going to be successful no matter what he did,” Narduzzi said at his weekly presser Monday. “I didn’t know he wanted to get into coaching back then, I don’t think he did either. He was just a football player that got around some good coaches and said, ‘I want to do that.’”
In fact, when Narduzzi first met Manalac during his freshman season at Cincinnati, all Narduzzi wanted to see was Manalac rise through the depth chart and earn a scholarship — which he did. Narduzzi saw a tough, smart, physical competitor on the field, and it’s carried over to the coaching ranks.
Narduzzi left for Pitt after the 2014 season, and while it would take a few more seasons for Manalac to join him at Pitt, he continued to make a name for himself at Michigan State. After one more season in East Lansing, serving as an operations assistant, he branched out to begin his coaching career.
He spent a season as the Valparaiso linebackers coach in 2016, two seasons as the Division II Ohio Dominican defensive coordinator in 2017-18 and two more seasons as the Bucknell defensive coordinator in 2019-20. And Pitt officially hired him to replace the outgoing Rob Harley on Jan. 26, 2021.
It took a bit of time to grow into his role as a linebackers coach at a Power Five program, but Manalac has grown into an underrated recruiter and leader of the linebacking corps. He helped SirVocea Dennis develop into an All-American and NFL Draft pick, and the linebacking corps as a whole is expected to make a leap this season.
And on the recruiting trail, Manalac has been big in landing commitments from four-star linebackers Jordan Bass and Cameron Lindsey, and three-star linebackers Braylan Lovelace, Rasheem Biles, Jeremiah Marcelin and Davin Brewton in the last two classes.
It’s only been two seasons, going on three now as Pitt gets into the swing of the 2023 season, but Pitt has been exactly what Manalac wanted when he quit his job and went to Dantonio for an opportunity over a decade ago. And Manalac is grateful for the opportunity every day.
“I guess at the time, I didn’t know I wanted to be a football coach, but in hindsight, it certainly makes sense,” Manalac said. “I love where I’m at. I’m certainly blessed to be surrounded by coach Duzz and the rest of the coaching staff. Great people and culture here. We’ve got great players, and I’m certainly blessed.”
He’s learned a lot from Narduzzi over the years, and Dantonio before him, and Manalac sees his head coach as the exact same person that he met as a freshman walk-on back in 2005. Narduzzi’s a passionate man who loves football, loves people and has made Manalac a better person — on and off the field.
And if he’s learned one thing from Narduzzi over the years, both as a player and as a coach, it’s been the way he’s able to show love to his players.
“It’s about treating people how you want to be treated but coaching them hard,” Manalac said. “I think first, it’s about building those relationships and making sure that they know that you care about them, but also understanding that you care about their goals and you’re not going to let them not fight for their goals.
“So, you’re coaching them with tough love and pushing them to get to where they want to get and where this team needs them to get.”
Manalac is completely focused on game-planning ways to stop Cincinnati quarterback Emory Jones and the Bearcats offense, coaching up a linebacking corps that dominated Wofford last weekend, and the Pitt coaching staff has every ounce of faith in him. But Narduzzi couldn’t help but joke with Manalac as the reunion nears.
“I told some of the offensive linemen yesterday as I talked to them in team meetings, I said, ‘You’ve got to get after coach Manalac and find out if we can trust him this week or not,’ just jokingly,” Narduzzi said.
Kickoff is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Saturday, and the last time Manalac took part in the River City Rivalry, he was on the Cincinnati side. This time, he’ll be coaching Pitt’s linebackers in an attempt to reclaim the series win.