“I’m the offensive coordinator. I’m still an assistant coach. We’re working through this process,” said Terps' Interim football coach Matt Canada about the transition in the absence of DJ Durkin. (Kevin Richardson / Baltimore Sun video)
If anyone on the Maryland football coaching staff understands the task of helping a team get through the emotional struggle of offensive lineman Jordan McNair’s death from heatstroke, it is new offensive coordinator and current interim head coach Matt Canada.
Canada, 46, has been part of one staff at Northern Illinois that had to prepare a team for a season while mourning the death of a player, and part of another staff at Indiana that had its head coach diagnosed with and eventually succumb to cancer.
Since third-year coach DJ Durkin was placed on administrative leave Aug. 11, Canada has been in charge. It means not only helping prepare the Terps for Saturday’s season opener against No. 23 Texas at FedEx Field, but trying to find the balance between going forward without forgetting what happened.
“We’ve been dealing with this for a couple of months and it’s been a very up-and-down situation,” Canada said Tuesday. “We deal with grief differently. Every player does, every person does, every family does. We’re never going to be done with that. It’s not like it’s ever going to go away and we’re not asking it to go away.
“But we do try to play football and I think our players did a great job last week talking about how they want to honor Jordan. When our players play, they want to play well. They want to play well for each other, they want to play well for Jordan. That’s important to them. They’re kind of separate. It’s always there.”
He was part of coach Joe Novak’s staff when Northern Illinois was reeling from the death of Shea Fitzgerald, a rising sophomore football player who was one of 13 people who died when a three-story porch collapsed at his older brother’s Chicago apartment in June 2003.
“I’ve leaned on that [situation at Northern Illinois] quite a bit through the summer, and that grieving process for our players losing a teammate,” Canada said. “[Fitzgerald] was a very good player, an important player, a loved player.”
Though Canada said the “circumstances are different,” there are some eerie similarities. Like the 6-foot-4, 325-pound McNair, the 6-8, 300-pound Fitzgerald was a 19-year-old offensive lineman. Like McNair, Fitzgerald was a player who was popular with his teammates.
In fact, Canada was the one who informed Novak, then returning from a vacation in Hawaii, of Fitzgerald’s death. Fueled by the emotion of Fitzgerald’s death, Northern Illinois beat No. 14 Maryland in both teams’ 2003 season opener, 20-13, in overtime.
Asked if his team was playing on its emotions, Novak said Thursday, “Maybe to a degree, to be honest with you. Once those kids get out on the field and they start hitting each other, they’re thinking about football. It’s certainly a motivating factor, but once the game started that really gets minimized with all due respect.”
Novak, who retired after the 2007 season, said an experienced head coach is usually not prepared for guiding his team through the death of a player.
“There’s never a class you take, there’s never an experience you have until something like that happens,” Novak said. “It’s difficult. There’s no recall. You just have to do it as best you can. You have to understand that you have over 100 people that are all hurting, especially with somebody that young. It’s such a shock. You just have to use your best judgment and honor the youngster as best you can.”
Three years after what happened at Northern Illinois, Canada was in a different situation involving a team dealing with pain.
As quarterbacks coach and passing game coordinator in 2006 at Indiana, his alma mater, Canada was on Terry Hoeppner’s staff when the second-year head coach was undergoing treatment for brain cancer. He died the the following year.
Bill Lynch, who like Canada had coached under Bill Mallory at Indiana in the 1990s, was head coach at Butler, Ball State and Division III DePauw before joining Hoeppner in Bloomington, Ind. The first year, in 2005, the Hoosiers started 4-1 before losing their last six games.
Hoeppner was diagnosed with brain cancer after the season. Surgery in September 2006 caused him to miss two games, with Lynch taking over in an interim role and Canada calling plays. Hoeppner was scheduled to take medical leave for the 2007 season, but died in June.
“The situation now [at Maryland] and losing Hoep, and the kind of interim staff — you look at some of the things we did there and how Bill handled it,” Canada said. “I talked to a couple of those guys. But this is so different, this is such a day-to-day process.”
Lynch, who served as Indiana head coach from 2007-10 and returned to DePauw after getting fired, said Wednesday that while Maryland’s current situation is “unique," the role he had in Bloomington as interim coach has an important similarity to Canada’s role with the Terps.
“You have a bunch of wounded kids,” Lynch said. “Following Terry was difficult, but we were all following him together — the staff. We really stuck together and relied on one another. I had been the [offensive] coordinator, but I knew there was so much going on I couldn’t do both.”
That Canada plans to remain the play caller for Maryland shouldn’t be a problem, Lynch said.
“It’s very doable,” Lynch said. “All the years I was at Butler and Ball State, I was the head coach and play caller. I don’t think it’s that uncommon. The one thing, he's a great play caller. He’s a real smart guy. He’s very creative. He really had good ideas, really sound ideas. ... He really is in tune and he’s got a good feel for what defenses are doing and he’s confident.”
This marks Canada’s first chance to be in charge of a team. After Lynch was fired, Canada’s nomadic journey of six schools in eight years began.
Canada left Wisconsin after one season in 2012, and after a three-year stay at North Carolina State, he had just a one year stay at Pittsburgh in 2016. His one-year stay at LSU last season ended with Canada receiving a $1.7 million buyout.
Asked if he looks at the Maryland job as a showcase for another head coaching position, either at Maryland or elsewhere, Canada said, “I look at it completely different. … This is a unique situation. Obviously it’s a challenging situation. Ultimately it’s about Jordan.
“That’s why we’re here and all these things have occurred. We’re sticking together as a staff. I want to do the best job I can. I certainly have pride in that. I want to do the best job I can in the situation we’re in. We all as a staff are picking up a little extra weight here and there to make sure we can go, to allow our players to play fast and loose and have a good one Saturday.”
The setting of playing in an NFL stadium against a top-25 team doesn’t seem to be too much for Canada, who seems to be primed for the moment. From the wide brim straw hat he has worn at practice, where he seems less frenetic than Durkin was during his first two years, Canada seems more Southeastern Conference than Big Ten.
“I’ve been in a lot of big games,” he said. “My entire career and our staff, we’ve all been part of big games. I’ve been very blessed. My career has been very blessed with the people I’ve worked with, the places I’ve been, the people we’ve played, the players I’ve coached.“
When the decision was made to place Durkin on administrative leave, athletic director Damon Evans and university president Wallace Loh had several options.
Many thought the choice might be associate head coach Chris Beatty, who coaches the wide receivers and is considered the team’s top recruiter. Going with Canada was an indication Maryland officials wanted someone who had not been on Durkin’s staff when many of the allegations of a “toxic” football culture took place.
Evans said in an interview Tuesday that it had mostly to do with Canada’s track record, including being a 2016 finalist for the Frank Broyles Award that goes to the nation’s top assistant. Evans said it had nothing to do with the fact that Canada got to Maryland later than all but one member of Durkin’s staff.
“I selected Matt because of his credentials and his ability,” Evans said. “He’s had some good stops along the way, whether it’s N.C. State, Wisconsin, Pittsburgh. He’s someone who comes with a good background, a good understanding of offense and he’s got great scheme. He’s had success at the highest level.”
Novak said he believes Canada has the ability to be a successful head coach, but understands this is a tough way to prove himself.
“You want to do a good job, you want to be the head coach when you’re in that position, but you don’t know if it’s going to end in an hour, tomorrow, next week, next month, or you might get the thing permanently,” Novak said. “Sure it’s difficult. You want to have an imprint, you want to be a factor, but in this case he doesn’t want to infringe on Durkin’s position either. I’m sure it’s very difficult to be in a position like that. All you can do is do your job with the kids, coaching them as best you can without trying to overstep your bounds and hope a solution comes about.”