It’s hard to come up with a more definitive statement. It provides no wiggle room or opportunity for a counterpoint. It is the end. Fin.
But not for Matt Canada.
The torn knee that ended any aspiration he had of becoming college football player instead became a career-starting injury.
After his would-be catastrophic turning point, Canada didn’t morph into a guy who sadly rehashed his high school glory days 20 years down the line a la Uncle Rico in Napoleon Dynamite. Instead, he ended up on a coaching fast-track that led him from the cornfields of small-town Central Indiana to his place as LSU’s newest offensive coordinator.
‘I don’t know how in the hell he graduated’
One of the core principles of Indiana football is this: You take all the help you can get.
The Hoosiers have not beaten the titans of Big Ten football, Michigan and Ohio State, since the late Ronald Reagan lived in the White House.
Of course, that streak was not nearly as futile circa 1991. That’s probably because Bill Mallory, the winningest coach in Indiana history, knew a good thing when he saw it. And in Canada, a sophomore student he had once recruited as a player out of tiny New Palestine, Ind., he saw potential.
Canada joined the team as an undergraduate assistant coach, a position that was as far from glory — or pay — as possible. Yet Mallory’s defensive coordinator, Joe Novak, immediately took notice of the kid.
“You’d think he was a full-time coach,” Novak said. “He was there every day. I don’t know how in the hell he graduated.”
Undergraduate assistants are useful. But being unpaid college students, they also can be unreliable. Such was not the case with Canada.
“There are not a lot (like him). A few. But the thing with Matt was, you’d see the others show up for practice at 3 and leave at 5:30,” Novak said. “With Matt, when he was free, he was in the football office. Other guys will say it, but the only time you see them is at practice. He was there all the time.”
By Indiana’s arid standards, it was a glorious time to be around the football office.
During Canada’s senior year, the Hoosiers were ranked for seven straight weeks. (They’ve spent a total of one week in the Top 25 in the 23 years since). IU reached the Independence Bowl, which would mark the school’s only postseason appearance for the next 14 years.
“He was so bright. I knew he’d be a good coach,” Novak said. “It’s a real advantage for a kid like that who doesn’t play. While (the other guys are) playing, he’s absorbing in those meetings. It’s an advantage for someone who doesn’t play who is that serious about being a coach.”
Following Novak to Northern Illinois
Being a defensive coordinator, Novak was never directly in charge of Canada while they were together in Bloomington. Canada always helped with the offense. But it was obvious to him that the kid had potential.
In his third season as head coach at Northern Illinois, Novak added Canada to his staff as running backs coach in 1998.
It was hardly a position of security. Novak’s record at NIU was 1-21 when Canada joined the staff. But it was a chance to move up from Division I-AA Butler. Canada was named Butler’s offensive coordinator just two years after earning his graduate degree from Indiana.
At the age of 31, he earned the same responsibility at NIU when the Huskies’ offensive coordinator was hired by Illinois.
“Matt was the youngest OC I had,” Novak said. “But I’d been around him six years at Indiana and five at Northern. When he got that job, I was confident he’d do a good job.”
Novak’s intuition was correct.
NIU had its breakthrough season, beating Maryland and Alabama — both ranked at the time — and climbing all the way to No. 12 in the polls before finishing with a 10-2 record.
“It was (Mike) Shula’s first year so Alabama was in a little disarray, but they were still Alabama talented,” Novak said of NIU’s 19-16 win over the Tide. “We looked at tape and I said ‘I don’t think we’ll be able to run the ball against them.’ That was a heck of a feat. It’s still probably the greatest victory in NIU history.”
Canada demonstrated a trait that would become commonplace throughout his coaching career: Finding a way to get the ball to his best players. That year it was running back Michael Turner, who had 310 carries for 1,648 yards and 14 touchdowns, and wide receiver P.J. Fleck (now the coach at Western Michigan), who had 77 catches for 1,028 yards and 6 touchdowns.
Most of all, it was good enough for Indiana to call him home.
‘A tough time’
Coincidentally, it was a former LSU coach, Gerry DiNardo, who brought Canada back to Indiana as quarterbacks coach.
However, DiNardo did not get much use out of him. After a 2-0 start that included a stunning win at Oregon, the Hoosiers finished 3-8 and DiNardo was fired after a 63-24 humiliation to rival Purdue.
But new coach Terry Hoeppner, who helped developed Ben Roethlisberger into a star at Miami (Ohio), saw enough in Canada to retain him on the staff.
Unfortunately, it took a tragedy for Canada to earn his promotion to offensive coordinator.
Hoeppner, stricken with brain cancer, died in June 2007 after finally getting the program on stable footing. Offensive coordinator Bill Lynch took over as Indiana’s interim coach and promoted Canada to take his old role.
“It was a tough time,” Lynch said. “First of all, ‘Hep’ was such a great guy and having such an impact on IU. When I was OC, I relied on Matt for a lot. When I took over, I totally turned the offense over to Matt.”
In Canada’s first year running the offense, the Hoosiers responded by reaching their first bowl game since he was helping Bill Mallory as a student in 1993. His most impressive game as a coordinator was a 38-20 win over an Iowa defense that ranked 12th in the country that season.
“Xs and Os, he’s cutting edge,” Lynch said. “Certainly he was with us.”
That trait is a necessity to survive at Indiana, where the talent deficit is pronounced compared to most Big Ten foes.
By 2010, Canada made a 3,000-yard passer out of senior quarterback Ben Chappell. But the Hoosiers lost three games by a touchdown or less in a 5-7 season, and an 83-20 thrashing at the hands of Wisconsin sealed the fate of Lynch’s coaching staff.
Though Lynch was done in major college football — he’s currently at Division III DePauw University in Indiana — he knew his protégé would not be.
“Going all the way back, you could tell he was going to be a really good football coach,” said Lynch, who was also on Mallory’s staff with Novak. “He’s a worker. You could tell he had a great future.”
Moving back up (and around) the ladder
One year back at Northern Illinois produced a 3,000-yard passer/1,000-yard runner in quarterback Chandler Harnish. That was enough to impress Wisconsin’s Bret Bielema, who hired Canada despite his being on the wrong end of that 63-point deficit against Bielema two years prior.
When Bielema unexpectedly left for Arkansas in 2013, Canada was left in the lurch until Northern Illinois coach Dave Doeren ended up at North Carolina State.
Canada finally got the Wolfpack offense moving under transfer quarterback Jacoby Brissett in 2015, finishing third in the ACC in scoring. But with a delusional fanbase swimming around his boat after a 7-6 finish last year, Doeren unexpectedly cut Canada loose.
That brought Canada to Pittsburgh, where fellow former NIU assistant Pat Narduzzi was happy to have him. The Panthers were 10th in the FBS in scoring this season, and Ed Orgeron liked what he saw enough to give Canada his biggest assignment yet.
From bad knee to beautiful mind
So does Canada have what it takes to succeed in the SEC?
The coaches who gave him his first two big breaks, Novak and Lynch, certainly believe that to be true.
Novak thinks Canada’s best work has come under defensive-minded coaches who chose not to meddle in the offense.
“I think the good thing for Matt is Ed’s a defensive guy. Narduzzi was. I was,” Novak said. “Defensive head coaches will let a guy like Matt do his thing and not get in his way. That’s when he’s operated his best.”
Lynch lauds Canada’s motivational skills, which would seem to fit in well in an Orgeron-led operation.
“Players enjoy playing for him,” Lynch said. “He challenges them. Coaches them hard. But he cares for them, and they respond.”
To Novak, Canada’s success hinges on his ability to simplify the complex.
“He’s multiple. You’ll see something (different) every week,” Novak said. “But while he’s multiple, they execute very well.
“A lot of times when you see a lot of things, the kids don’t execute them well. He’s got a way of teaching his players to execute. A lot of guys have great ideas, but they can’t get the kids to execute. He makes it simple enough that kids don’t make a lot of mistakes.”
In other words, it seems that Canada’s bad knee from all those years ago gave birth to a beautiful mind.