Matt Canada has never been a head coach during his nomadic two decades in college football, but he finally arrived at that position — albeit on an interim basis — in unforeseen circumstances Saturday evening after Maryland announced that it placed Coach DJ Durkin on administrative leave.
Canada, 46, had come to College Park just seven months ago to serve as Durkin’s offensive coordinator, looking for stability after coaching at seven schools over the past nine years and cultivating a reputation as a proven offensive mind.
“Every situation is different; there are circumstances. As you look at that, you would say it’s funny. But I don’t like change, and I don’t like moving,” Canada told reporters during Maryland’s spring practice in March. Now, about five months later, he is bracing for the most extreme change of his career. He will not be able to find immediate stability in College Park, not with Maryland’s program a shambles just three weeks away from the season opener against Texas at FedEx Field.
Canada will inherit a group of players still grieving the death of offensive lineman Jordan McNair following a workout, a group that must now finish camp amid the distractions of explosive news reports Friday that outlined a toxic culture within the program, which led to the school putting Durkin, strength coach Rick Court and head trainer Wes Robinson on leave. A fourth staff member, director of athletic training Steve Nordwall, also reportedly was put on leave.
Durkin led the Terrapins’ practice on Saturday before the school made its decision. The players were given the night off on Saturday and will return to the practice field Sunday under the direction of Canada, who makes sense as interim coach given that he is one of the newest members of the staff and had never coached alongside Durkin before arriving in College Park. They had some friends in common, though, and had crossed paths a few times over the years.
“I never spent a lot of time with coach, but we have some mutual friends who have always talked about him, and that was the draw for me,” Canada said in March.
That was enough for Canada after his lone, rocky season in 2017 as offensive coordinator at LSU, when he reportedly butted heads with Tigers Coach Ed Orgeron. Canada reportedly received a $1.7 million settlement after being forced out of Baton Rouge, and Durkin scooped him up after former offensive coordinator Walt Bell left for the same position at Florida State. It was clear that Durkin wanted to move away from Bell’s spread, up-tempo attack in favor of Canada’s multiple-offense system, built upon pre-snap movement. In Canada, Durkin saw a coach who could elevate an offense undercut by quarterback injuries and inconsistent play over his first two seasons.
“He is a dynamically talented coach, play caller; I think that part has been well proven everywhere he’s been. I think our personalities mesh,” Durkin said during Big Ten media days in July. “Matt has something to prove, and that’s him speaking, and that’s a good thing. I think he’s in a great spot to do it.”
That spot Durkin was referring to last month bears no resemblance to the one Canada now has.
Last spring, there were questions of less importance, such as how long Canada might stay in College Park after he inked a three-year, $1.5 million deal. His coaching path was all over the place, including one-season stints as offensive coordinator at Northern Illinois (2011) and Wisconsin (2012) before he took the same position at North Carolina State in 2013. He lasted three years in Raleigh and was fired after the 2015 season.
Canada then landed in 2016 as offensive coordinator at Pittsburgh, where he built a Panthers offense that set school records for points in a season (532) and points per game (40.9). That earned him a spot as a finalist for the Broyles Award — given to the country’s top assistant — and served as a springboard for his move to LSU. By that point, while Canada had earned a reputation for tailoring his offenses to the ability of the players on each roster, he had equally become known for adapting to new surroundings constantly.
“To me that falls under smart; I think he’s a smart coach,” said Big Ten Network analyst Gerry DiNardo, who brought Canada to Indiana when he was head coach of the Hoosiers in the 1990s, in an interview this summer. “He knows the game, and if a coach hires him and says, ‘I don’t want to change the entire system,’ he’s smart enough to do that and know how to do that.”
Now Canada must do more than implement his system. He must adapt as a first-time head coach during some of the darkest days in Maryland football’s history.