How a year off and a beach house helped prepare Matt Canada for new start with Steelers

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PITTSBURGH -- RISING EACH morning with a view of the Atlantic Ocean from his home at North Topsail Beach, North Carolina, Matt Canada's days in 2019 were almost always structured the same way.

But for the first time since 1993, he didn't have a job coaching college football.

He didn't have any job at all.

Still a creature of structure and habit, he kept a daily routine. He fired up his treadmill desk in an office-turned-workout room each morning and put on video from football games played the weekend before. Sometimes he started out with college games. Other times, it was NFL contests. Then, a break for lunch and a walk on the beach, and then another hours-long study session on the treadmill.

"I tried to stay in the game," Canada told ESPN, "but also be away from it."

He was months removed from his first head coaching job. Canada became the interim head coach at Maryland in August 2018 after offensive lineman Jordan McNair died from heatstroke during a football workout, and the staff was put on administrative leave weeks before the season. Canada didn't get the permanent head coaching job after the season.

Matt Canada, once one of college football's most sought after and highest paid assistants, was in limbo.

But limbo isn't a bad place to be when its headquarters are beachfront.

"You spend a year off, to be able to have a home and be at the beach," Canada said, "it's a nice way to do it.

"It's always been a dream, a goal, to have a place where you woke up looking at the water. That's something I always hoped to have. Fortunate enough to be able to get that."

He wouldn't return to coaching until January 2020, not as a hotshot college coordinator, but as the Pittsburgh Steelers quarterbacks' coach tasked with guiding a future Hall of Famer and developing the men who hoped to one day follow in Ben Roethlisberger's steps.

After one season as the Steelers' quarterbacks coach, Canada is now the coordinator and in control of the offense from the coaches' box high above Heinz Field. He's one of the most important members of the 2021 Steelers organization, and it's his job to infuse a once predictable offense with the college concepts that made him a commodity and shot him up the coaching ranks.

It's also his job to maximize the abilities of the 39-year-old Roethlisberger, playing with a reconstructed right elbow. He has to overhaul the offense enough to correct the errors of last season's late slide, one in which the Steelers lost five of their last six en route to another first-round playoff exit, while also keeping the quarterback -- entering his 18th season -- comfortable in a new system.

It's a daunting task, one that comes with scrutiny and the highest of stakes.

But it's also one Canada uniquely prepared for during his year away from football.

THE THREE-STORY, light blue-gray house that rises behind a small protective dune dotted with seagrass found Canada through a friend of a friend in 2014.

He was in the middle of his three-season stint at N.C. State, where he served as offensive coordinator under Dave Doeren. The house was a quick getaway, less than two and a half hours down I-40 from Raleigh.

After Canada was fired by Doeren and moved on to one-year stints at Pitt, LSU and Maryland, the North Topsail house became less convenient geographically, and it transitioned from being a beach escape to the family's home. The beachside community also served as the backdrop when he married Erin in May 2017.

"That's been home in all our moves, all of the things that have happened, that's always been home base," Canada said. "Both of our kids graduated high school in North Carolina. My daughter attended South Carolina and graduated from there. My son is a senior at East Carolina. That's home for us."

The house was a constant for the Canada family as their patriarch worked four jobs in five seasons following the home's purchase.

Canada's profile skyrocketed after his 2011 Northern Illinois squad averaged 38.3 points per game, and his unconventional offense heavy on pre-snap motion and misdirection took center stage in wacky MAC classics -- like the Tuesday night shootout when Canada's club beat Toledo 63-60.

"I don't think he gets enough credit for what he brought to the game in that capacity," said Eddie Faulkner, now the Steelers' running back coach, who first worked with Canada at NIU. "People weren't doing those kind of things in 2012, 2011 when we were doing it.

"Then it gets on center stage and teams start doing it in the NFL, and all of a sudden it starts to become a thing. I'd say he's probably one of the founding fathers, if not the founding father of the way people run that scheme."

From Northern Illinois, Canada rode the wave of momentum to Power 5 programs. He was a finalist for the Broyles Award -- honoring the best assistant coach in college football -- at Pitt and earned a seven-figure salary at LSU.

But for every career crest, there was a trough. Canada was fired at N.C. State in 2016 a year after signing a three-year extension. He mutually parted ways with LSU after a 2017 season when the Tigers started 3-2 and coach Ed Orgeron stepped in to simplify Canada's signature pre-snap motions. After Canada left, Orgeron said it was a bad fit and a "mistake" to ever hire him.

At Maryland, Canada went from offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach to interim head coach in the span of a few months. Then, less than a year after he was hired, he was gone when Maryland hired Mike Locksley as head coach.

"He's been hardened by the process," Faulkner said. "From when we were at NIU to where we are now, Matt's the same guy, but different. A lot of experience he's had, both negative and positive, they lead us all down that road."

It's a road that led him to a 2019 season without a job. Rather than jumping to another sideline, Canada went home to North Topsail.

AMONG THE MANY perks of beachfront living is the easy access to the sand and kind of clarity only an ocean breeze can bring.

Like an NFL Kenny Chesney, Canada would throw on one of his many signature Aussie-style straw cowboy hats and make the quick walk to the shore, accessing it by way of a long, wooden walkway that carried him over the dune.

Many of his daily walks happened during lunchtime, wandering the seashell-dotted surf and thinking about the decisions he made that led him here, to a 2019 season without a job.

"There are moments, you're walking on the beach and you're wondering what's going to happen because you make a choice to sit out, you make a choice to turn some things down because you don't think they're right," Canada said. "You do that, and all you've ever done for all these years is ... that first Saturday in the fall when I wasn't coaching when those games started, that was an odd day. I feel like it is for everybody that's out. It was a choice."

He thought about his mentor, Bill Mallory, Indiana's all-time winningest coach who died in 2018.

Once during that year away, Canada was on the phone with Mallory's widow Ellie when she reminded him of an oft-overlooked stop in her husband's path. Like Canada, he also took a year away from coaching in 1979 between being fired by Colorado and taking the head coach job at Northern Illinois. Three years later, Mallory was hired at Indiana and back in charge of a program in a major conference.

"If you were talking to Coach," she told him, "he would remind you that he did this, and he looked at this as kind of a halftime. His career was here, he took a break, and it was going to be the second half.

"He would remind you to enjoy the time, to spend it with the family, but also to [rejuvenate] yourself."

Those words resonated with Canada. And that's exactly what he did.

He traveled to visit his parents for their 50th wedding anniversary, to Italy, to see his kids' college campuses for each of their parents' weekends and to college football headquarters and NFL training facilities to consult and to learn.

Back at the beach house, he spent hours studying and reevaluating everything he did.

Every morning, he fired up the walking treadmill Erin bought him and turned on the video.

"I enjoy watching film, it's what I like to do," he said. "I love the game, I love the scheme. If you're going to sit and watch film, you might as well walk and watch film. It's kind of her philosophy."

For the first time since he started his career at Indiana in 1994, Canada got to sit back and evaluate offenses from a bird's-eye view. He looked at things college and NFL teams were doing and thought about incorporating them into his own scheme without worrying about how specific players would adapt.

"In the offseason you do that and study film, but due to my situations at times, I moved, you're installing, really grinding, making sure your stuff is right," Canada said. "Every year, my ability to study, I hadn't had that in a long time. It was really beneficial for me."

He spent each weekend flipping between games on Hulu Live, thumbing through matchups featuring his friends and other contests between some of the hottest teams in college and NFL.

"It was fun because you root for your friends, but you're not quite as invested, so it's a little more enjoyable," he said. "I kind of learned what it's like to be a fan vs. when it's you doing it."

He'd latch on to a team, following its development throughout the season, catching pieces of its game Saturday before doing a deep dive during the week.

Not wanting to give away scheme secrets ahead of the Steelers' season-opener against Buffalo (1 p.m. ET Sunday, CBS), Canada was vague on providing specific examples of his offense's evolution. But he came to Pittsburgh brimming with ideas -- ones he couldn't fully implement until the Steelers elevated him from quarterbacks coach to offensive coordinator in the wake of Randy Fichtner's firing earlier this year.

"It's always based on your players and your situation, but looking at ways to enhance what we think is good and then always being prepared in case I did get a job with somebody that wanted to do that," Canada said. "It's having a library of plays, and obviously whatever your head coach wants you to do, you work from there and what your talent dictates."

LIKE THE HOUSE at North Topsail, Rick Bumgardner came into Matt Canada's life while he was the offensive coordinator at N.C. State.

Canada was sitting at Rick's, Bumgardner's restaurant and sports bar just over the bridge from Topsail Island in Sneads Ferry, when friends of Bumgardner's recognized Canada and went over to introduce themselves.

It began a friendship between Bumgardner's family and Canada's and unexpectedly foreshadowed Canada's eventual path.

Because Rick's isn't just any sports bar. It's a Steelers sports bar, complete with a giant logo painted next to the parking lot and yinzer accoutrements like IC Light signs, black-and-yellow foam fingers and Terrible Towels displayed next to the horseshoe-shaped bar.

Most of it is donated by guests who live in the Rust Belt and bring their paraphernalia each summer on vacation. There's even a Roethlisberger-signed football in a protective case sitting on its own shelf, acquired by Canada during his stint as Pitt's offensive coordinator and given to Bumgardner in exchange for a couple beers.

Canada and Erin went to Rick's about once a week while they lived on North Topsail Beach full time. More than once, Bumgardner and his daughter Rebekah, Rick's bar manager, suggested a job to Canada.

"During that whole period, I kept telling him, 'Man, why don't you just go to Pittsburgh and go to work up there with the Steelers,'" Bumgardner said. "I tried to encourage him to go to Pittsburgh, because I felt like he would be a real addition to our team."

"That first Saturday in the fall when I wasn't coaching, when those games started, that was an odd day. I feel like it is for everybody that's out. It was a choice." Matt Canada

In January 2020, Rebekah was scrolling through her Instagram feed when she saw a familiar face.

"I saw a post and it said Steelers sign Matt Canada," Rebekah said. "And I was like, wait a minute, I know that guy!"

She looked up and right across from her was Canada, wearing a Steelers t-shirt and sitting with his wife.

"I jumped up and I ran over there," she said. "I got them another drink. I said, 'Dude, what? You signed with the Steelers?' And they were so excited. They were just [grinning] and so happy."

The Canadas started their migration to Pittsburgh shortly after, packing up some of the things that made that beach house a home.

Of course, the treadmill desk wound up in Pittsburgh, but it's stored in a spare bedroom gathering dust because he has a job and an office at the Steelers' South Side facility where he studies video with his fellow coaches.

The North Topsail house is still there though, waiting for Canada and his family. He already has a tentative date set for their return.

"Hopefully after the Super Bowl," he said with a grin. "That'd be the goal."