Shortly after his responsibilities unexpectedly and drastically increased, Matt Canada called Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley, searching for advice.
Hired in January to be Maryland football’s offensive coordinator, Canada was named interim head coach in August after DJ Durkin was put on leave. He wasn’t sure how to run an offense while also leading a team in a perilous position following the death of offensive lineman Jordan McNair and its fallout.
Like Canada, Riley calls the plays on offense in addition to serving as head coach. So Canada wanted to hear how his Sooners counterpart handled the added duties when he received the same promotion in 2017.
“Just stick to doing what you’re supposed to do,” Canada recalls Riley saying.
Amid a season full of outside pressure, reinstatements, firings, external reviews and endless questions probing how Canada and his squad have dealt with the turmoil, Canada has taken Riley’s advice to heart. His players have echoed a similar sentiment: focusing on progressing day-by-day, game-by-game.
That emphasis finds the Terps one win away from bowl eligibility. They travel to Indiana this weekend for their best shot at a sixth victory, with Ohio State and Penn State looming in the final two weeks.
But as the season-long turbulence finally seemed to taper off, Maryland has still preached a sort of tunnel vision that’s been required to take the field and compete since August.
“It’s the biggest game of the season because it’s the next one,” defensive lineman Jesse Aniebonam said. “But, at the same time, we have things to accomplish. We want to make it to a bowl game. We want to win the rest of the season.”
By this point last week, Durkin had been reinstated, then fired. It sent shockwaves through an already reeling program. A drab showing against Michigan State a few days later concluded the week and left Maryland at the five-win mark.
This week, there’s been a return to normalcy — or, at least, the new normal. After Tuesday’s practice, scores of television cameras and media who don’t normally cover the Terps asked prying questions of Aniebonam and running back Ty Johnson, the first players made available since Durkin’s firing.
As seniors, Johnson and Aniebonam are among the last remaining recruits of Randy Edsall. They played for Durkin and now Canada, and they’ve worked through the departures of positional coaches and coordinators in the past. But none of those changes compared to the turnover this season.
Canada didn’t know many of the defensive players’ names before he became interim head coach, and he remains the “cheerleader for the defense,” as he often says.
“These things happen,” Aniebonam said. “It’s on us, at that point, to really show our maturity.”
Meanwhile, his leadership has apparently remained unquestioned by the players. Despite distancing himself from the head coach title, that’s what Canada looks like when he steps onto the practice field.
When asked Tuesday about the prospect of becoming Maryland’s permanent head coach next year, Canada quickly steered the topic back to the three guaranteed games remaining on his team’s schedule — and the drive to secure a fourth.
“He came in when Coach Durkin was, you know, put on administrative leave, and he took that job without any hesitation,” Johnson said. “He’s done a great job coaching us, bringing us together as a team. And, you know, we as a team respect Coach Canada. We love him.”
Johnson won’t be here next season, but he said he’d love Canada to return to College Park, though Johnson didn’t specify in what capacity he envisions Canada holding.
And as last week’s commotion settles down into the organized chaos of old, Canada still draws on the advice Riley gave him at the beginning of this unexpected journey.
“I’m supposed to be the offensive coordinator,” Canada said. “So that’s what I’ve done.”