In­terim coach leads Ter­rap­ins to 2-0 af­ter LSU de­ba­cle

USA TODAY US Edition - - SPORTS - Dan Wolken Colum­nist

When things ended the way they did at LSU, no­body would have blamed Matt Canada for fight­ing back.

Just one sea­son into a guar­an­teed three-year deal that made Canada the high­est-paid as­sis­tant coach in the coun­try, he was look­ing for a new job — again — be­cause some­body had to be the scape­goat for the dys­func­tion on Ed Org­eron’s watch.

Not that any­one should have felt sorry for Canada. By the stan­dards of the fickle coach­ing busi­ness, land­ing at Mary­land with a $650,000 salary af­ter pock­et­ing $1.7 mil­lion in buy­out money from LSU isn’t the worst out­come in the world.

Still, Mary­land was Canada’s fourth em­ployer in four years and sev­enth coach­ing stop in nine sea­sons. Though ev­ery move was unique, go­ing from LSU to Mary­land meant Canada’s rep­u­ta­tion as a play caller was no longer in as­cent.

Rather than try to ex­plain or fight against that nar­ra­tive, Canada just fo­cused on his work, de­clin­ing to take shots at LSU or Org­eron, who called the de­ci­sion to hire him a “mis­take.”

So far, the job Canada has done at Mary­land is say­ing way more than his words ever could.

Given the in­terim head coach­ing job when DJ Durkin was sus­pended, Canada has Mary­land at a sur­pris­ing 2-0 en­ter­ing this week­end’s game against Tem­ple and might end up hot­ter than ever on the coach­ing mar­ket by sea­son’s end, whether it’s at Mary­land or some­where else.

“It’s a crazy busi­ness,” said DePauw coach Bill Lynch, who made Canada his of­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor at In­di­ana in 2007 when he took over head coach­ing du­ties from Terry Hoepp­ner. “When you’re a co­or­di­na­tor like he’s been, new op­por­tu­ni­ties come along that are ex­cit­ing and a lot of guys through the years who be­came out­stand­ing head coaches they had to make a lot of stops along the way and build the ré­sumé.

“It’s tough to get into the Mary­land sit­u­a­tion be­cause I don’t know enough about it, but talk­ing about Matt, there’s no ques­tion in my mind that he will be an out­stand­ing head foot­ball coach.”

Given the cir­cum­stances, the early re­turns on that pre­dic­tion have been im­pres­sive. With the Mary­land pro­gram seem­ingly in chaos af­ter the heat­stroke-re­lated death of of­fen­sive line­man Jor­dan McNair and an ex­plo­sive ESPN re­port de­tail­ing a toxic cul­ture un­der Durkin, Canada has kept things to­gether im­pres­sively with a big sea­son-open­ing upset of Texas and a busi­nesslike 45-14 win at Bowl­ing Green.

With win­less Tem­ple com­ing into Col­lege Park this week­end and Min­nesota the fol­low­ing week, the Ter­rap­ins could con­ceiv­ably be 4-0 com­ing out of Septem­ber, which would rank among the more in­spir­ing sto­ries in re­cent mem­ory given the cir­cum­stances.

“I don’t think any­one can ques­tion how hard our team is play­ing right now,” Canada said Tues­day at his weekly news con­fer­ence. “I think it’s a credit to our play­ers. There’s no magic for­mula for any­thing like this. We’ve said it over and over. All the things that have oc­curred have been unique. Grief is some­thing we all deal with very dif­fer­ently. We con­tinue to honor Jor­dan as a foot­ball team in our own way.”

The day be­fore the Min­nesota game, the Mary­land board of re­gents will be briefed on the in­ves­ti­ga­tion into McNair’s death, which could pro­vide fur­ther clar­ity on Durkin’s fu­ture. Re­gard­less of when that de­ci­sion is made, Canada get­ting Mary­land to play this well early is draw­ing no­tice within the coach­ing in­dus­try.

On one hand, he’d be the log­i­cal fa­vorite to re­place Durkin if he can get the Ter­rap­ins to a bowl game, which will be­gin to look quite re­al­is­tic if they beat Tem­ple. But even if the school de­cides to clean house en­tirely, Canada could emerge as a head coach­ing prospect else­where, which would be quite a turn from the way things ended at LSU.

“I’m still tak­ing it a day at a time,” Canada said. “That’s the only way to do it right now. I’m ex­cited about the way our play- ers are play­ing. I’m fo­cused on that.”

It would be hard for Canada to take any other ap­proach given how un­cer­tain ev­ery­thing is at Mary­land, all the way up to whether Pres­i­dent Wal­lace Loh and ath­let­ics di­rec­tor Da­mon Evans will re­main in their jobs.

But un­cer­tainty has sort of been the norm for Canada, rather un­in­ten­tion­ally, de­spite the fact his of­fenses have con­sis­tently pro­duced at a high level.

Be­cause of how much he’s moved around lately, it’s prac­ti­cally for­got­ten that Canada spent seven years at In­di­ana be­fore go­ing to work for Dave Do­eren at North­ern Illi­nois in

2011 where his of­fense av­er­aged

38.3 points for a team that won the Mid-Amer­i­can Con­fer­ence ti­tle. That got him an op­por­tu­nity at Wis­con­sin the fol­low­ing year un­der Bret Bielema, who turned around and left for Arkansas a year later.

Canada then re­united with Do­eren at North Carolina State, where he had some suc­cess of­fen­sively with Ja­coby Bris­sett at quar­ter­back (43 touch­downs to 11 in­ter­cep­tions over two years). But af­ter a dis­ap­point­ing 7-6 sea­son, Do­eren fired him, a move that took Canada by sur­prise and forced him to restart at Pitts­burgh. His of­fense took off there in 2016, av­er­ag­ing 446 yards with Nathan Peter­man at quar­ter­back and James Con­ner at run­ning back. In the fi­nal three games of that reg­u­lar sea­son, Pitt upset even­tual na­tional cham­pion Clem­son 43-42, scored 56 against Duke and 76 against Syra­cuse.

That run of bril­liance earned Canada all kinds of praise for an of­fen­sive sys­tem that had some spread prin­ci­ples but couldn’t re­ally be pi­geon­holed be­cause of the mul­ti­ple for­ma­tions and va­ri­ety of pre-snap mo­tions he used, mak­ing his teams tough to pre­pare for.

“He’s very, very cre­ative,” Lynch said. “In some sit­u­a­tions, you have to give your­self an ad­van­tage. You may not have the same play­ers your op­po­nent has and you have to find a way to move the foot­ball and score points, and Matt was al­ways look­ing for new ideas.”

The prospect of match­ing that cre­ativ­ity with LSU-level play­ers was tan­ta­liz­ing for Org­eron, who of­fered him $1.5 mil­lion an­nu­ally to leave Pitt.

But even though LSU went 9-4 last year, it was ob­vi­ous that ten­sion had de­vel­oped be­tween Canada and Org­eron, who ini­tially said he wouldn’t med­dle in the of­fense. That prom­ise went out the win­dow in late Septem­ber when Canada’s pre-snap mo­tions were mys­te­ri­ously deleted from the play­book dur­ing a 24-21 loss to Troy.

From that mo­ment on, a di­vorce was in­evitable. But rather than com­plain or point fingers pub­licly, Canada sim­ply found a new op­por­tu­nity. It might turn out to be the most fruit­ful one yet.


Matt Canada also was on staff at North­ern Illi­nois, In­di­ana, Wis­con­sin, N.C. State, Pitt and LSU.


De­fen­sive back An­toine Brooks Jr. cel­e­brates with Matt Canada af­ter Mary­land upset Texas.

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