COLLEGE PARK — Maryland interim coach and offensive coordinator Matt Canada does not seem to be the nostalgic type, much more wrapped up in the present than the past. Nor does he seem consumed with his uncertain future.
It has served him well throughout his coaching career, in particular this season as he has helped the Terps navigate through more tragedy than triumph, more turmoil in a matter of three months than many teams go through in a decade.
What some might think is a homecoming at Indiana —filled with memories about the roots of how the 46-year-old Canada decided to spend his adult life — is just another game, he said Tuesday.
Still, it is a very big game Saturday for Maryland, a team that finds itself one victory shy of bowl eligibility, and for Canada, who has put himself in position for his first full-time head coaching job — either with the Terps or at another school.
Big Ten studio analyst Gerry DiNardo, who hired Canada as his quarterbacks coach at Indiana for what turned out to be DiNardo’s last season of coaching in 2004, said that Canada’s unlikely audition at Maryland has helped his reputation.
“I don’t think there’s any question that he’s certainly a better head coaching candidate now than he was three or four months ago, no doubt,” DiNardo said Friday. “It’s invaluable experience. … Matt has made mistakes he won’t repeat, hopefully. He’s done good things he will repeat.
“The first time you become a head coach, you lay down in bed and you’re just overwhelmed that everybody is looking at you for leadership — people that are younger than you, people that are older than you. And they need leadership. If someone is not looking at him differently, they just don’t know the game.”
For his part, Canada has downplayed his homecoming to his alma mater, where he started his coaching career as a student assistant, continued as a graduate assistant and then spent seven years — the longest stint of his career — working for three different head coaches.
“Well it’s not about me going back there. To that part, there’s no part to it,” Canada said Tuesday. “One thing, I didn’t play. I was a student coach. I never played, just to clarify that.”
Yet Canada made connections during his undergraduate years in Bloomington, specifically with longtime Hoosiers coach Bill Mallory and members of his staff, that carried him through the first 15 years of his career.
“I met with Coach Mallory, and it changed my life,” said Canada, who grew up about 90 minutes north of Bloomington in New Palestine, a square-mile hamlet with a population of around 2,000.
After Canada spent the 2004 season as Indiana’s quarterbacks coach, DiNardo was about to promote him to offensive coordinator when Steve Addazio, now the coach at Boston College, left to go to Florida.
DiNardo met with the athletic director to talk about his staff, not realizing he was about to be fired.
“He wanted intel for the next guy,” DiNardo said. “As I was explaining the situation to him, I told him I wanted to make Matt Canada my offensive coordinator. I had that much confidence in him after being together three or four months.”
Terry Hoeppner, who replaced DiNardo, hired Canada as the offensive coordinator.
“There was two coaches there that have both passed — Coach Hoeppner and Coach Mallory — who were very close to me and very instrumental in my life, and Coach DiNardo hired me back there, too,” Canada said. “In our profession, the people you’re around do mold you. … I was very, very fortunate as a young coach to be around great coaches.”
While some of those memories might return when Canada walks into Memorial Stadium on Saturday, the only focus appears to be an Indiana team that will try to break its four-game losing streak and a bunch of Terps unhappy about the way they played in last week’s 24-3 home loss to Michigan State.
As much as some are speculating about the chances Canada has of turning the interim title into a full-time position — as athletic director Damon Evans, who gave Canada his shot, did in succeeding Kevin Anderson — Canada said he is simply thinking about the next game rather than the next move.
DiNardo said the job Canada has done has been remarkable under the circumstances.
“Most times coaches are in situations, they typically call someone else who’s been in the same situation,” DiNardo said. “Not many people have been in the situation Matt has been in, so I’m not sure there’s a resource there. He’s kind of going day by day.
“I think he’s minimized the distraction by turning the defense over and not being a defensive expert. He’s deflected losses on himself. The best contribution he can do in this situation is be the best offensive coordinator he possibly can be, because that gives the kids the chance to have a bowl season in a year when the unthinkable has happened to this team. Having the death of a teammate, that’s overwhelming, obviously.”
While conceding the topic of a full-time coaching job with the Terps has come up among himself and his players, especially after DJ Durkin went from being on administrative leave in August to being terminated last week, Canada wants them just to think about Indiana.
After then he wants them to think about Ohio State.
And then Penn State.
“We’ve had a great season of learning how to be together,” Canada said. “We’ve had some challenges. We’ve had some ups, we’ve had some downs. We’ve won some, we’ve lost some. Like every other season.
“But right now we’re focused on Indiana and I can genuinely say that’s exactly what we talked about as a team [this week]. We’re focused on each other and we’re not going to look past where we are right now.”
While Canada has been more critical of the job he has done with the team’s wildly inconsistent offense than what he has done to keep his players from fracturing into two different camps — essentially those who wanted Durkin back and those who didn’t — he has gained the reputation of a players’ coach.
“It’s a give and take situation. Coach Canada has done a phenomenal job,” senior running back Ty Johnson said after practice Tuesday. “He came when Coach Durkin was put on administrative leave and he took that job without any hesitation. He’s done a great job coaching us, bringing us together as a team. We as a team respect Coach Canada. We love him.”
Johnson won’t be affected by whether or not Canada gets the full-time job, but he is supportive of his candidacy.
“I would love to see him get it so when I come back [to visit] and everything, but it’s ultimately not my decision,” Johnson said.
Senior outside linebacker Jesse Aniebonam, who was publicly supportive of Durkin returning to the team in August, said Tuesday that Canada “took on the leadership role head on and he didn’t hesitate. I appreciate him for that. His biggest thing was keeping everyone together and focused on the right things. He’s done a tremendous job of relaying that message week to week.”
Asked if he has faced new challenges in his current situation, Canada chuckled.
“Presented with a few things, I guess, that I wasn’t expecting,” he said. “Calling from the field has been a different challenge. Getting to know the defense better. Try to find the good in everything. There’s been a lot of good.”
There’s some irony in the fact that Maryland’s defense has carried the team at times more than the offense. The defense ranks fourth in the Big Ten in yards allowed and leads the country with 16 interceptions. The offense ranks last in the Big Ten in passing and is the fifth worst in the Football Bowl Subdivision, ahead of just four triple-option teams.
Canada said he has spoken to others who have taken on the head coaching responsibility and play-calling with a lot more success than he has, including Oklahoma’s Lincoln Riley, who was put in a similar situation when Bob Stoops suddenly retired three months before the start of the 2017 season.
Not only was Canada relatively new to Durkin’s staff and didn’t really know many defensive players, he also had just three weeks to acclimate himself to being in charge. Even now that Durkin is no longer Maryland’s coach, Canada downplays the significance.
Yet some of what Riley told him resonated with Canada.
“Just stick to doing what you’re supposed to do,” Canada said. “I’m supposed to be the offensive coordinator, so that’s what I’ve done. So I’ve tried to be around the players, make sure they knew I was there.
“I’ve focused on being the quarterback coach and the offensive coordinator. Again, some games I’ve done OK and some games I haven’t done very good at all. That’s my biggest issue with how this has all gone. I just want to play better and I want to win more.”
A win Saturday would be significant for Maryland, and possibly for Canada.