PITTSBURGH — Pitt offensive coordinator Matt Canada is one of five finalists for the Broyles Award as the nation’s top assistant coach.
The award, which will be given out Dec. 6 in Little Rock, Arkansas, is typically considered a stepping stone to bigger and better things in the coaching world. Of the previous 20 winners, 14 have gone on to become college football head coaches and Canada should be imminently familiar with that process, as his boss Pat Narduzzi won the award in 2013 — two years before accepting his first head coaching job at Pitt.
Of the five coaches nominated for the award, Canada is the only offensive coordinator. In that way, you could already say that he’s the best in his field. There’s also boatloads of empirical evidence, as well.
The Panthers have scored more than 28 points in every game this season, they have the highest-scoring team in Pitt football history and are No. 10 in the nation in points. In the red zone, their 82.7 percent touchdown rate is No. 1 in the country.
The combination of statistical success and national recognition might make it tough for the Panthers to keep Canada around. Top-flight offensive coordinators are highly sought after as head coaches and Canada, with nine years of power-five experience, is probably close to making that jump.
At that point, the reasons coaches stay or go usually comes down to two things: comfort and fit. If the jobs that are available are a perfect fit, sometimes coaches leave right away. But if they aren’t, and the coach is comfortable in his current situation, they may wait it out. That’s what Narduzzi did at Michigan State, when he rebuffed several overtures for head coaching jobs before finally giving in to Pitt.
“I know the business we’re in, if people look and see where you are and what you’re doing and like it, people are going to come get your guys,” Narduzzi said. “When you’ve got a great staff, people are going to try to go get them and poach them, but we’re going to do what we can do to make sure Matt stays here for a while. … It’s not all about the money. If it were about the money, I’d have been gone from Michigan State a long time ago, but if it’s about the money then maybe you’ve got the wrong guy.”
On that front, Canada seems pretty comfortable in his surroundings with the Panthers. He and Narduzzi are old friends from their days at Northern Illinois. The relationship they forged is what first brought Canada to Pittsburgh and he’s appreciated the freedom he has working for an old friend. After all, not every head coach would be OK with passes to — and from — offensive linemen finding their way into the playbook.
“I’m very fortunate to work for Duzz,” Canada said. “Duzz said find a way to score points. That’s certainly a positive for us to be able to do that. … I really enjoy our players. They work very hard. From day one, they’ve been very excited and they’ve done a great job of embracing what we want to do. It’s fun to coach guys that want to learn and want to do better. That part’s really fun.”
Canada hinted that he hasn’t always had the amount of freedom and that there have been stops in his 22-year career where didn’t — or shouldn’t — have trusted those he was working for as much as he did. Canada was fired from North Carolina State one year after signing a three-year contract just before coming to Pitt, something he called a “challenging time” in his life.
“When you have kids, that part’s hard,” Canada said. “That part of our business is hard. That’s the positive of being with somebody you trust. If they tell you something, it’s going to be the truth. That’s a big deal. I’ve made a lot of decisions that weren’t based on money, they were based on what was best for my children. I’ve been misled at times and not done something for a lot of different reasons. That’s when it’s frustrating. … You have to hope someone is honest with you so that they don’t use your family against you.”
Canada certainly has ambitions of being a head coach, and in his own way, he doesn’t shy away from them.
“If I’m not ever a head coach, I’m not going to think I’m a failure, but that’s an aspiration,” he said. “I’m a young guy. We all have that goal. I love what I do. I love scheming and figuring out what we’re going to do to attack somebody.”
While he acknowledges — begrudgingly — those aspirations, for the most part, Canada is partially unwilling to take a compliment. He deflects most praise to his players and wouldn’t even go as far as to call his offense creative. (I did for him, though.)
Part of that comes from his humble beginnings. After getting his start as a graduate assistant at Indiana, Canada set out to get his first full-time coaching job, and he did, after a fashion. He landed a job coaching quarterbacks and wide receivers at close-to-home Butler. There was a catch, though. It paid just $5,000 per year.
“That first W2 is laying in my nightstand right now,” Canada said. “That was it. If you wanted to be a coach, you had to find a way to do it. … I’ve come a long way and that’s part of it.”
Taking on the around-the-clock life of an assistant coach for next-to-no pay shows the kind of work ethic that now leads him to stay in his office late at night — “too late,” according to tackle Adam Bisnowaty.
But that’s where the creation happens.