The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

With Matt Canada back home, you might see a bunch of ‘central Indiana folks with Maryland gear’

Maryland interim coach Matt Canada will lead the Terrapins in their game against Indiana, his alma mater. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

Since Monday, David Wintin has been driving around New Palestine, Ind., a town that forces you to zoom in a few times on your phone screen before its name appears on the map, with Maryland magnets on his truck.

Wintin has Indiana season tickets, a state license plate with the school’s logo and an “Indiana room” in his house, but this week he will root for the visiting Terrapins because of Matt Canada, the man at the helm of the program.

As a middle-schooler, Canada would come to Wintin’s classroom while he was an office helper to talk with Wintin about the high school football team.

“So how are we going to stop this good running back we’re playing on Friday?” Canada would ask Wintin, an assistant coach at the high school. “How do you attack these things?”

A few years later, Canada became New Palestine’s quarterback. He says he was a good, not great, player. But from a young age, Canada understood and appreciated the game, becoming a student coach and then a graduate assistant at Indiana. He spent time at a couple smaller programs before returning to his alma mater from 2004 through 2010, earning his first Power Five offensive coordinator job there in 2007.

Canada will return to Bloomington on Saturday as Maryland’s interim coach, his team one win from becoming bowl-eligible, which would be a defining accomplishment in a chaotic season and could help make a case for his future at Maryland.

The college football games you need to watch this weekend

With the game 60 miles southwest of Canada’s hometown, Wintin expects a “strong contingent of central Indiana folks with Maryland gear on this Saturday.” Unlike some of his high school teammates, Canada’s job has caused him to move around the country, often spending just a year in various places, but Wintin said New Palestine remains a home base.

Canada’s parents and one of his brothers still live in the town, which lies eight miles outside the beltway of Indianapolis. But with just one stoplight, New Palestine (population 2,370) is more rural than suburban. Consider this: Al Cooper — who’s 12 years older than Canada and once lived on the same street — broke the Canada family’s basketball hoop, later became an assistant on Canada’s varsity football team and is now the high school’s athletic director. Until recently, Canada’s dad, Bob, still cooked pork burgers before every homecoming game, a tradition most believe started when Canada was in school and his dad spearheaded the effort.

“He’s proud of where he came from,” Cooper said of Canada. “He’s never big-timed anyone around here.”

That’s why there will be a group of New Palestine residents heading to Bloomington this weekend.

John Blackketter, a former linebacker at New Palestine, lives in Bloomington and still considers Canada his closest friend. Usually, he travels around the country to watch Canada’s teams play at least once a year, but this weekend, the game will come to him.

More than 30 of Canada’s friends and family members will gather outside Memorial Stadium for a tailgate before the noon kickoff, according to Blackketter, who helped Canada’s dad organize the effort by purchasing a dozen parking passes to distribute beforehand. The game has become an opportunity for everyone to get together, albeit in freezing temperatures expected for Saturday morning.

Canada has stayed close with a core group of high school teammates, including Blackketter, Scott Miller and Mike Wood, who will all bring their families to the game. Blackketter’s daughter plays volleyball with the daughter of Indiana Coach Tom Allen, but there’s no question which team Blackketter will support this weekend.

“It's been a long time coming for him, and he definitely deserves it,” Blackketter said of Canada. “I wouldn't think anything would make any of us happier than to watch him be able to continue on this role with Maryland or have an opportunity to be a head coach somewhere else.”

Through his two years as the starting quarterback, Canada guided New Palestine to a 20-3 record with 1,736 passing yards. Miller was the team’s leading receiver during Canada’s junior year. Miller wasn’t sure if Canada would become a coach, but he knew his friend would probably end up with a job that involved leadership.

After Friday night games, Canada’s friends would hang out in his basement, a football dad would bring doughnuts in the morning and then they’d watch film. Canada’s house was the natural choice because it was close to the school, and his parents were accommodating.

Canada’s teammates and coaches say he wasn’t a super athletic player — “probably wouldn’t call him the most mobile quarterback,” Blackketter said — but he had a solid arm and an even better mind for the game.

Cooper, who coached the freshman team, remembers a young Canada pitching the idea of folding the wingback inside to block the linebacker and running a counter play out of the backfield to make up for the not-so-good offensive line. The team tried it, the play worked and the varsity team started using it, too.

Canada had what Wintin calls “the greatest fumble in the history of New Palestine football” because Canada realized he would be tackled before converting a fourth down, so he popped the ball out past the chains. Within the rules at the time, all that mattered was who had the ball last and where it went out of bounds. New Palestine’s offense tied the game on that drive and won in overtime.

Indiana recruited Canada lightly, but he says, “I know now, as a guy who recruits players, I wasn’t quite good enough.” Canada played through a knee injury his senior year of high school, which he downplays because he doesn’t want to act like an injury is the only reason he didn’t play at the next level.

“We had a lot of fun,” Canada said of his high school career. “Things worked out as they should have.”

In the spring of his sophomore year at Indiana, Canada joined the team as a student coach because he had a relationship with Steve Stripling, who recruited him. Canada met with Coach Bill Mallory and said that “changed my life.” He knew he wanted to coach but wasn’t sure how it would work out. In his time as a student and during his later stint at the school, Canada said he was molded by the coaches he worked with. This week, though, he said “it’s not about me going back there.”

Blackketter and his son made the trip to Clemson, S.C., when Canada’s 2016 Pittsburgh offense upset the Tigers with a last-minute drive that ended with a game-winning field goal. Blackketter remembers Canada’s “How ‘bout that?!” greeting out of the tunnel, and he’s convinced that game propelled his friend to become a finalist for the Broyles Award, which is given to the nation’s top assistant.

This weekend, the circumstances are different, but the game still has significant weight. Canada will be welcomed by far more friends and family than usual after the game, and by the time he greets them, Maryland could be on its way to a bowl.

“Hopefully they win,” Miller said, “because he’s in a lot better mood if they do.”

Read more:

Week 11 kickoff: Let’s spin the ACC Coastal Wheel of Fortune

John Feinstein: The next Maryland football coach should be Navy offensive coordinator Ivin Jasper

Maryland fires athletic trainers who had been on leave in wake of Jordan McNair death

Maryland players embrace some normalcy as they prepare for Indiana

College football betting Week 11: If there’s a good time to fade Alabama, it might be Saturday