While Canada, 46, has said he doesn’t like change, his career has been defined by it. Nothing, however, is like his current situation. Hired in January at the offensive coordinator at Maryland, Canada has been thrown into an environment of chaos and controversy. He will begin the season Saturday against No. 23 Texas as the interim head coach.
He has led the team for three weeks, after Coach DJ Durkin and three other team staffers were placed on administrative leave in the wake of the June death of offensive lineman Jordan McNair and reports that alleged an abusive team environment. One of those assistants, strength and conditioning coach Rick Court, has resigned, and the status of Durkin and other officials is in doubt.
But Canada, his former colleagues say, carries a strength from his past: adaptability.
“Anytime you [move to a new job], you grow as a coach,” said Joe Novak, who was the head coach at Northern Illinois when Canada spent six years of his early career there. “You take the good and the bad from every one of those. I think if you stay at one spot as a coach, you tend to get stagnant. The fact that he has moved around, he’s experienced different people, different locations. That always makes you stronger as a coach.”
The constant through Canada’s coaching career has been the players he works with. He has almost always guided quarterbacks since first becoming a position coach more than two decades ago; this is his 11th season as a Power Five offensive coordinator.
Lately, Canada has been known for creative offenses that feature pre-snap movement and shifts, and his ideas continue to evolve. Ben Chappell, who played quarterback under Canada at Indiana from 2007 to 2010, said he will watch his former coach’s team and see some strategies and game plans he doesn’t recognize.
“He does a great job of making it difficult for the defense to know what’s coming,” Novak said, “but still where it’s simple enough so his kids can play and execute well.”
As Maryland’s spring practice kicked off and topics of conversations centered on how Canada would run this offense — rather than how he plans to lead a program in the wake of two external investigations, a head coach on leave and players grieving the death of teammate — Canada had a straightforward vision.
“Score points,” Canada said in March. “It’s a silly answer, but that’s the answer. I think everywhere we’ve been we’ve done it a little bit different. . . . We take pride in finding what our players do well and maximizing the talents of the players we have at that time.”
Chappell described himself as not the most athletic quarterback, so his Indiana offense thrived on quick reads and passes. That team, Chappell said, “threw the ball all around the yard” because that’s what fit his group’s skill set.
Former Northern Illinois quarterback Josh Haldi was part of a pro-style offense and appreciated how Canada knew when he needed to be pushed and how he responded to certain coaching styles.
The last three of Canada’s starting quarterbacks — Danny Etling at LSU, Nathan Peterman at Pittsburgh and Jacoby Brissett at N.C. State — are in the NFL.
Curt Mallory, the head coach at Indiana State, worked with Canada at Indiana, first when he was a graduate assistant and again when they were both position coaches. Mallory faced Canada’s offenses when he worked at Ball State and Canada was at Northern Illinois and also when he was at Illinois and Canada was with Indiana. Coaching against Canada was not as enjoyable, Mallory said.
Canada’s offense “keeps you unbalanced, with the motion and shifting,” said Mallory, who always worked with the defense before becoming a head coach. “You have to be very disciplined as a defense to defend him. It’s not something that you can just do the week of. You’re either a disciplined defense or you’re not.”
Canada and Mallory have stayed in touch and come from the same coaching tree. When Mallory became a head coach, he leaned on Canada for offensive guidance. Mallory’s late father, Bill, brought Canada on as a student assistant at Indiana and later recommended him to Gerry DiNardo, the Indiana head coach who hired Canada to coach quarterbacks in 2004.
Most assistants aspire to become head coaches, and Canada is no different, according to Mallory. But now that he’s in that role, even if it is on an interim basis, Canada said he doesn’t see it as an audition for future positions. It’s different, he said, because every piece of the chaotic situation points back to the death of McNair. Plus, the status of Durkin remains uncertain.
Canada has repeatedly said he will continue to view himself as an offensive coordinator. In preparation for his role, he has talked to head coaches who also have served as the team’s play caller.
In the past, Canada led offenses under many defensive-minded coaches, including Novak, Dave Doeren, Bret Bielema and Pat Narduzzi. Those situations, Novak said, help prepare Canada for what he’s stepping into at Maryland because he’s accustomed to having a significant amount of responsibility.
After spending about seven months at Maryland, Canada has been thrust into the top role for the first time in his career. But those who have worked with him or played for him saw a head coaching position as a natural fit — a hypothesis that will now be tested in what Canada frequently describes as a “challenging situation.” Even as a young graduate assistant, Canada had the confidence to command rooms, and players gravitated toward his passion, Mallory said.
“Just being a leader and getting guys to buy into what he’s selling, so to say,” Chappell said, “I think is always the biggest thing with a head coach — getting the Titanic moving in the right direction.”
Jesse Dougherty contributed to this report.