Oh, Canada: New Pal native heading to LSU

Matt Canada’s cellphone has tested its limit the past 24 hours. Once news broke of his hiring as the new offensive coordinator at LSU on Wednesday, the text messages and calls poured in faster than the Tweets on social media.

While he hasn’t had much time to address them all, with different obligations pulling him in every direction, he made sure to respond to those he valued most, especially those from his native New Palestine.

“When I texted him today, he responded back in 60 seconds,” New Palestine athletics director Al Cooper said. “That meant a lot to me. He’s probably doing that a thousand times today, but to get back to me that fast, that shows who he is.”

Humbled is how he describes himself since receiving a phone call from LSU head coach Ed Oregeron on Monday. Oregeron contacted Canada, 44, about the position shortly after once rumored candidate Lane Kiffin accepted a job as head coach at Florida Atlantic.

Catapulting himself atop Orgeron’s target list with his productivity as offensive coordinator at Pittsburgh this season, Canada was one of five finalists for this year’s Broyles Award, an annual honor given to college football’s top assistant coaches. He was the only offensive coach up for the distinction.

That recognition along with Pittsburgh’s ranking among the nation’s best in multiple statistical categories made him an ideal choice.

“When I first sat down with Joe Alleva (LSU athletics director) and we mapped out a plan for LSU football, we agreed that we were going to demand excellence on both sides of the ball,” Orgeron said in a statement. “We want a defense that’s impenetrable and an offense that’s exciting and unstoppable. Anyone who wants to play football at the highest level is going to want to play at LSU.”

Canada, who has 25 years of coaching experience with stints as offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at Pittsburgh (2016), North Carolina State (2013-15), Wisconsin (2012), Northern Illinois (1998-2003; 2011) and Indiana (2004-10), fit the bill.

At Pittsburgh this year, the Panthers ranked 10th in scoring offense (42.3 points per game) and 42nd in total offense (447.5 yards per game). In just one season with Canada running the offense, Pittsburgh motored up from 56th (5.76) in the nation in yards per play to 16th (6.67).

The Panthers scored 76 points in a win against Syracuse to end the regular season and the program beat Big Ten champion Penn State, 42-39, while also defeating No. 2 Clemson, 43-42. Pittsburgh scored at least 28 points in every game this year en route to an 8-4 record and an invitation to the Pinstripe Bowl on Dec. 28 against Northwestern at Yankee Stadium.

“It’s been a whirlwind since Coach O called me,” Canada said. “It’s been an amazing few days, and it’s been a full day. It’s a very humbling day as well, and I’m very honored to be part of one of the top programs in the nation.”

Despite a Wednesday news conference to address the national media and having the opportunity meet his future players at LSU, Canada also is preparing to guide the Panthers’ offense one more time during their bowl game.

In between, correspondences have occupied his time.

“Cooper lived two doors down from me when I was younger. He actually broke my basketball goal,” Canada joked. “He dunked on my basketball goal and broke it.

“He was a coach for me and a mentor. There were a lot of those guys as I’m sitting here as a coach who influenced me and did a lot for me growing up. I became a coach because of my father (Bob) and his love for sports and his ability to allow me to chase the ball around. Those junior high and high school guys were certainly important to where I am.”

Cooper remembers the first time he met Matt Canada. He was 15 years old at the time while the local neighborhood kid was 11 years younger.

Even then, Cooper says, Canada was fiery, savvy and motivated, despite his age. He knew Canada was going places.

Oddly enough, Cooper later coached Canada as a quarterback on the freshman team for the Dragons in the 1980s. As Canada moved up the ranks, playing for legendary New Palestine football coach Marvin Shepler, Cooper watched as he led the Dragons to an undefeated regular season in 1988 and a Big Blue River Conference title as he passed for 1,068 yards as a junior.

As a senior, Canada and the Dragons won a sectional title before heading off to Indiana University to play for head coach Bill Mallory, the winningest coach in IU football history.

While his playing career was cut short by injuries, he became a graduate assistant coach for two years at IU (1994-95) and coached at Butler University from 1996-97.

From there he skyrocketed through the college game while utilizing numerous systems, including the pro-style (NIU), a pass-centric attack (IU), the no-huddle (NIU), a power-run (Wisconsin) and up-tempo at N.C. State.

He coached running backs at NIU under coach Joe Novak, a former Mallory assistant, in 1998, and the Huskies won the Mid-American Conference title in 2011.

In 2003, as offensive coordinator at NIU, the Huskies won 10 games and knocked off No. 21 Alabama, which pushed his stock as a coach.

At Wisconsin, the Badgers won the 2012 Big Ten Championship and earned a trip to the Rose Bowl. Wisconsin defeated Nebraska 70-31 in the Big Ten title game at Lucas Oil Stadium.

At North Carolina State, the Wolfpack won back-to-back bowl games in 2014 and 2015 and were third in the ACC in scoring with 33.5 points per game.

“I think his hiring at LSU means anything is possible. He’s always dreamed of being, I think, a big-time football coach,” Cooper said. “He’s done it his way with success. He does a great job of balancing everything.

“He’s as balanced as they come, and he runs that fun style offense where he has to use the talent and ability of his kids and put them in the best situations. That’s not rocket science, that’s just being commonsensical about your approach with the talent you have. Matt has always been like that and has been successful everywhere he’s been.”

Now, he’s at LSU with Orgeron, who served as interim head coach this season after the firing of Les Miles in September. Canada replaces Steve Ensminger, who filled in when Cam Cameron was let go along with Miles as offensive coordinator.

The LSU Tigers ranked 60th nationally in total offense (425.7 yards per game) and 67th in scoring (28.3 points per game) this season.

While content at Pittsburgh with head coach Pat Narduzzi, the opportunity to coach in the SEC was too difficult to pass up. Canada’s deal at LSU is estimated at three years worth more than $1 million per season, pending approval from the LSU Board of Supervisors.

“In our business there’s not a lot of pursuing. If you’re fortunate enough that somebody recommends you or thinks highly of you, that’s how you get jobs. I was very happy where I was and had a great job with a great man and we had some success,” Canada said. “The fact that coach ‘O’ reached out had an interest in me was very humbling.

“I always wanted to be a coach. I wasn’t really much of a player. In high school, I certainly loved playing, but I always enjoyed the coaching aspect. I’ve been very blessed to get the chances to do it.”

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Rich Torres is sports editor at the Greenfield Daily Reporter. He can be reached at rtorres@greenfieldreporter.com or 317-477-3227.